Soundies and the Changing Image of Black Americans on Screen: One Dime At A Time

 

In the 1940s, folks at bars, restaurants, and train stations would gather around a Panoram movie machine to watch three-minute films called Soundies—early forerunners of today’s music videos. This short-lived media phenomenon was all but forgotten until the digital age brought Soundies to phones and computer screens—including a YouTube hit with more than 30 million views to date, starring a 102-year-old Harlem dancer watching her younger self perform in Soundies.

Soundies and the Changing Image of Black Americans on Screen

 

Give Me Some Skin, 1946

Delson_fig01_2a Good-Nite dancer-Crop

In Soundies and the Changing Image of Black Americans on Screen: One Dime at a Time, Susan Delson takes a deeper look at these films by focusing on the role of Black performers in this little-known genre. She highlights the women performers—from Dorothy Dandridge to gospel and blues star Sister Rosetta Tharpe—who were crucial to Soundies’ success, while offering an intimate look at icons of the age like Duke Ellington and Nat “King” Cole. For less well-known musicians, like the L.A. women’s jazz combo the Vs, Soundies may be the only surviving record of their performances.

 

 

In bringing this overlooked chapter of Black entertainment history to light, another far-reaching story also unfolds: the racial dynamics of the World War II years and just after. What emerges is a telling snapshot of race relations in a turbulent era, vividly revealed in the pop culture of the day.

 

Give Me Some Skin caption
Give Me Some Skin, 1946
Ray Nance and Rex Stewart, members of Duke Ellington's orchestra, in the Soundie “Jam Session” (1942). Courtesy Mark Cantor Archive
Jam Session, 1942

The book draws on newly discovered sources—including a New York State Supreme Court transcript—to create a vibrant portrait of Black-cast Soundies, the performers and filmmakers who created them, and the ambitious, overreaching corporation that sent them out across the country.

Soundies and the Changing Image of Black Americans on Screen: One Dime at a Time features some 70 images largely taken from the films themselves. A video jukebox  on this website presents almost all of the Soundies discussed in the book. Soundies and the Changing Image of Black Americans on Screen: One Dime at a Time is for anyone interested in film, Black entertainment history, and American history. 

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