How Henry Ford, Who Published Racist Diatribes Against Jazz, Helped Popularize the Sound of Jazz and R&B

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber

Henry Ford playing fiddle with his old-time dance orchestra on his 70th birthday in 1933. (From the collections of The Henry Ford)

Henry Ford was unquestionably a great man, but he was not a very good man. As an entrepreneur and industrialist, he may have changed the world — for the better, I personally think — but as a human being he had serious failings. According to Richard Bak’s Henry and Edsel, the elder Ford would humiliate his son, Edsel, in public because Henry, a farm boy, worried that his only child would become the soft son of a rich man. That practice continued into Edsel’s adulthood.

Clara (Mrs. Ford) had to make her peace with Henry’s long-term relationship with Evangeline Cote Dahlinger, whom the industrialist met when he was 50 and she was 23 — his associate C. Harold Wills’ secretary at the Highland Park plant. Her son John Dahlinger asserted that he was the son of Henry Ford, whom he strongly resembled.

Ford’s public life was no less unsavory. His bigotries are well known. In his mind he divided the Jewish community between “good Jews” — those he personally knew, like architect Albert Kahn — and “bad Jews,” the boogeymen “bankers” of his fevered imaginations. Less well-known is the fact that many of the most hateful things attributed to Ford were not his own words.

Henry Ford was no writer. After foolishly suing the publisher of the Chicago Tribune for defamation, ignoring the old saying about not suing folks who buy ink by the trainload, Ford was shown, in a humiliating fashion on the witness stand, to not be a proficient reader. In guiding the development of the Model T, we know that Ford preferred wooden models of parts to blueprints. He may have been dyslexic. He certainly didn’t have the skills to write for publication.

Ford’s autobiography, My Life and Work, was ghostwritten by Samuel Crowther.

The task of expressing Ford’s distrust of world Jewry fell to Ernest G. Liebold, Henry Ford’s personal secretary and general manager of The Dearborn Independent, the newspaper Ford used as his public megaphone. Liebold first came to Ford’s attention when, in 1912, Henry took over the small Dearborn bank where Liebold worked as a teller. The son of Prussian immigrants, he was precise, rigid, unemotional, and willing to do things that Ford wouldn’t ask his other associates to do (well, other than Harry Bennett). Over time his services to Ford included being his personal business representative, signing the automaker’s personal checks, responding to Ford’s mail, acting as Ford’s personal spokesman to the media, and, perhaps most importantly, controlling Ford’s schedule and who had access to him.

Liebold, like Ford, was also a man with Jews on the brain. He believed in Jewish conspiracies and, with Ford’s backing, set up an agency in New York City to investigate prominent Jews and those Gentiles he considered to be doing the bidding of Jewish masters. He surrounded himself with like-minded Jew-haters, an interesting mix of former government officials, ex-Secret Service men, czarist Russian emigres, fanatics, and ex-cons.

At the Dearborn Independent, Liebold began running a series under the heading of The International Jew, alleging all sorts of nefarious activities to those of the Mosaic persuasion. Jews supposedly had a “dictatorship” in the United States, where they maintained secret control of newspaper editors, bootlegged whiskey, Tammany Hall, and even major league baseball.

Liebold’s (and Ford’s) bigotries were not restricted to Jews. They saw blacks as inferior and criminal, though that, too, was blamed on Hebrews. The Independent blamed lynchings of blacks on “Negro outbursts” provoked by “n***** gin” allegedly produced by Jews.

One of African-Americans’ great cultural contributions to America and the world, jazz music, was also seen by Ford and Liebold as a Jewish plot*. Jewish Jazz – Moron Music – Becomes Our National Music, was published in the August 6, 1921 issue of the Dearborn Independent. Recorded music had been around since Edison’s 1877 wax-cylinder phonograph, and the “modern” Victrola that played Emile Berliner’s flat recordings was introduced in 1906. However, though the phonograph was a great success, in the 1920s much of what was considered popular music was still being sold as sheet music, and much of that originated from music publishing firms in New York City’s “Tin Pan Alley,” where many of the composers, lyricists, and publishers were from Jewish backgrounds.

From The International Jew:

“Many people have wondered whence come the waves upon waves of musical slush that invade decent parlors and set the young people of this generation imitating the drivel of morons… Popular Music is a Jewish monopoly. Jazz is a Jewish creation. The mush, the slush, the sly suggestion, the abandoned sensuousness of sliding notes, are of Jewish origin.

Monkey talk, jungle squeals, grunts and squeaks and gasps suggestive of cave love are camouflaged by a few feverish notes and admitted to homes where the thing itself, unaided by the piano, would be stamped out in horror. Girls and boys a little while ago were inquiring who paid Mrs. Rip Van Winkle’s rent while Mr. Rip Van Winkle was away. In decent parlors the fluttering music sheets disclosed expressions taken directly from the cesspools of modern capitals, to be made the daily slang, the thoughtlessly hummed remarks of high school boys and girls.”

And you thought jazz was about improvising on a musical theme.

In addition to the less savory aspects of Henry Ford’s musical tastes, he had a genuine affection for the kinds of traditional music that many Americans played at home and at community events. Among Ford’s personal artifacts at the Henry Ford Museum are his Stradivarius and Guarneri violins that he used to play fiddle music.

Ford started subsidizing old-timey music. Richard A. Peterson, the author of Creating Country Music, said that Ford, “put more money into promoting country music in the 1920s than anyone else. Ford was frightened by what he saw as the urban decadence of couples jazz dancing. In response he organized fiddling contests and promoted square dances across the country to encourage what he saw as older, more wholesome forms of entertainment.”

By the way, before you read “urban” as a euphemism for “black,” as it is sometimes used today, Ford genuinely didn’t like big cities and regretted how the success of the Model T created wrenching changes for the rural America of his youth.

Among those wholesome forms of entertainment, found in many homes, were reed organs, also known as pump organs. Once quite popular, you can find pump organs free for the carting these days on Craigslist. A reed organ is like an accordion with a steroid problem that you sit at to play. Foot pedals pump a bellows that sounds the reeds. Ford liked organs – there are at least a couple in the Henry Ford Museum’s collection, and he and Clara had an elaborate and costly pipe organ installed at their Fairlane estate by the Estey organ company, with the keyboard placed in a spot of honor in the mansion’s living room

Henry Ford was a tinkerer at heart, completely self-taught. He learned enough to become the chief operating engineer of Detroit’s Edison Illuminating Co., but he was far from a university-trained engineer. Laurens Hammond, on the other hand, was a graduate of Cornell’s engineering school.

Laurens Hammond (Hammond publicity photo)

Coincidentally, Hammond’s first job after graduating from college and serving in the military in World War One was for the automobile industry in Detroit, for the Gray Motor Company, which made marine engines. While at Gray, he invented a silent spring-driven clock that was successful enough that he was able to leave Gray and set up a small office in New York City. It was there he then developed an early version of shutter-glasses for viewing 3D films. That wasn’t a commercial success, though, and Hammond moved to Chicago to continue work on a synchronous electric motor he had invented.

Because it was linked to the frequency of the alternating current electric supply, it was very, very accurate. It had very little torque, though, so little that the motor had to be hand-cranked to start, but Hammond found a market for a low powered, but very accurate electric motor. Going back to his earlier invention, a clock, he replaced the spring drive with his synchronous motor, which could be started up by spinning the clock’s hands.

Though the clock company was an initial success, the Great Depression took its toll on Hammond Clock. Laurens Hammond pursued a couple of other inventions, like a self-dealing card table for playing bridge, but he ultimately found success in a market segment known better for bingo than for bridge.

America has always been a secular country with a fairly religious populace. Thousands and thousands of churches dotted America’s landscape in the 1930s. Many of them needed an organ, but something from the Aeolian or Skinner pipe organ companies was beyond the means of many less affluent churches.

Inspired by Thadeous Cahill’s Telharmonium, a massive, 200-ton machine patented in 1897 that was the progenitor for every electronic music synthesizer in use since, Hammond developed the “tonewheel generator.” To create music electronically, you first need something that can create a pure tone — a sin wave. Those pure tones, when combined with harmonics (integer multiples of the base tone’s frequency) and partials (fractional multiples), along with attack, sustain, and decay characteristics, are what make a violin sound like a violin and a flute sound like a flute.

For centuries, pipe organ makers have used that method to imitate other instruments, though to this writer’s ears, no matter what the “stop” on the pipe organ is labeled, it’s going to still sound like a pipe organ, perhaps an organ trying to sound like a flute, but still an organ.

By the 1930s there were vacuum tube-based oscillators that could create pure tones, but the sheer number of tubes necessary to create the many needed tones made tube-based organs cumbersome, hot, and not very reliable. Instead, Hammond pursued an electromechanical method of creating tones called a tonewheel.

A period article from Popular Science magazine called Hammond’s invention an “Electric Piano” and managed to get both how the organ worked (it used tonewheels, not vacuum tubes to generate tones) and where Hammond’s company was located (Chicago, not New York) wrong.

Hammond didn’t invent the tonewheel but he perfected it. Imagine something like a bicycle sprocket spinning past an electromagnetic pickup set radially near the teeth. As the profile of the sprocket’s teeth passes the pickup, it induces an alternating current whose frequency and amplitude are related to the number of teeth, their shape, and the sprocket’s speed. Using his quiet, accurate motors to power the tonewheels resulted in tones that didn’t waver. Hammond organs with tonewheel generators never really need tuning (though a lack of lubrication will affect pitch). Since the tonewheel motor was still low on torque, the original prototype had a hand crank, replaced in later production units with higher torque starter motor, to get the tonewheels up to speed before switching to the synchronous drive.

At first, Hammond thought he would sell a novelty called the Electric Flute that would sell for $30 or $40 dollars.

The Ethics of the Fathers responds to the question, “who is wise?”, with the answer, “he who recognizes the birth of something,” someone who sees the possible consequences of something from its start. It is a rare inventor who sees the full potential of even his or her own invention. Laurens Hammond himself thought Don Leslie’s rotating speakers made his organs sound worse, but Hammond Organ eventually bought Leslie’s ideas and his company, and today the swirling sound of a “Leslie” is closely associated with Hammond organs.

Hammond did, however, realize that his tonewheels had more potential than just being a plaything and started to develop a fully voiced organ.

That presented a problem because, ironically, Laurens Hammond couldn’t play keyboards. You can find publicity photos of Hammond sitting at one of his organs, but you will search in vain for a film or recordings of him actually playing the things.

Not being able to play an instrument is not necessarily an impediment to inventing or improving a musical instrument. Nobody today cares how good a violinist Antonio Stradivari was. Leo Fender couldn’t play guitar or bass, and he pretty much perfected the electric guitar and with George Fullerton, who also couldn’t play, Fender invented the electric bass. Hammond, though, was also tone-deaf, so profoundly so that he has been described as “amusical.” Nearly everyone that he hired after he started the organ project, whether they were secretaries, bookkeepers, or engineers, they were also musicians because he needed their ears.

Work on the prototype and patent sample started in 1933. Sources say that patent approval was sped up because the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office saw the invention as commercially viable and thought it would create jobs during the worldwide economic depression. The patent was granted in April, 1934 and production of the Hammond Model A organ began in 1935. While Hammond was waiting to hear from the patent office, like any inventor he must have had concerns if his invention was going to be commercially successful or not.

By the time production started, though, Hammond knew he had at least one customer, a very important customer.

In February 1934, after the prototype organ was returned to Hammond’s Chicago office from the USPTO, two engineers from Dearborn, Michigan visited Hammond’s facility at the personal request of Henry Ford. Somehow Ford had found out about Hammond’s new organ, perhaps from a source in the patent office, and he wanted an expert opinion. The engineers must have approved because they placed a tentative order for the first six Hammond Model A organs.

Thus, Henry Ford was the first customer for the Hammond organ, even if he didn’t end up owning the first one.

This is a good time to clear up some confusion. For a long time, there was a Hammond Model A on display in a place associated with another Model A, the Henry Ford Museum, one of those six. It was thought by some that that was the first production Hammond organ, a notion Henry did nothing to rebut. Additionally, the Hammond company promoted the idea that famed composer George Gershwin got the first Hammond organ. Considering how Henry felt about “Jewish jazz,” and considering that Gershwin was born Yakov Gershowitz and wrote some of the most famous jazz and blues compositions ever, it isn’t surprising that Henry might have rather people thought of him as owning the first Hammond organ, not Gershwin.

While there’s no record if Henry Ford and Laurens Hammond ever met in person, Ford did get a chance to personally check out an early Hammond Model A. One of the first production units was loaded onto Hammond’s beat up Ford Model A panel truck, driven by Emory Penny, sales manager for the Hammond Clock Co., and John Hanert, Hammond’s chief engineer. They were headed for the instrument’s first public demonstration at the 1935 Industrial Arts Exposition in the RCA Building (now 30 Rockefeller Plaza) in New York’s Radio City. Before they got to NYC, however, Penny and Hanert detoured to Detroit to show it to a very important customer before the general public got to hear it.

The roads between Chicago and Detroit in 1935 weren’t exactly up to modern Interstate highway standards and proved to be a test of the organ’s durability. When they got to Dearborn, Ford had them directed to drive the now muddy truck right into the Ford Engineering Laboratory building and onto its shiny oak floors. The industrialist brought along a “hillbilly” band to accompany him as he tested out the organ. His reaction was overwhelmingly positive.

“In twenty years, there should be one in every home in America,” Ford told Penny, adding, “You should sell organs at $300 . . . and don’t fall into the hands of those Eastern Bankers.”

Despite apparently thinking they could be sold for a fraction of the $1,250 introductory price, Ford gave his personal approval to the purchase of those half dozen Model A Hammond organs.

While en route to New York, Penny wrote to Hammond, “I feel he [Ford] would lend us half a million dollars.”

One of those six instruments was the organ that was on display for over 25 years at the Henry Ford Museum. Unfortunately, that piece of musical history was destroyed in a 1970 fire at the museum along with many other artifacts.

Incidentally, the actual first Hammond Model A didn’t belong to either Henry Ford or George Gershwin, though the fact that they endorsed the instrument with their purchases was undoubtedly a factor in Hammond soon being deluged with 1,400 backorders. Hammond Model A #1 ended up at a Kansas City dealer, who used it as a traveling demonstration unit for years until it was sold to a local church. It is now at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

Bob Pierce, a salesman for that dealer, described the early days on the road with it in his book, the Pierce Piano Atlas.

“Three of us, an organist, a maintenance man and I traveled in safari-like fashion with a van and an automobile for the next three years. We drove through Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Iowa, Arkansas, and Texas, hitting every little burg with a population over 100. We demonstrated the Model A on university campuses and radio stations, for women’s clubs, in music stores and churches, and even mortuaries. The only places we avoided were the gin mills.” That last bit proved to be ironic.

Hammond #1 ended up in a church and Bob Pierce’s sales team made sales stops at churches part of their regular routine. That wasn’t coincidental. Pipe organs were expensive and the Hammond Model A was a reasonable facsimile at a much lower price. The Hammond Model A was so competitive that pipe organ makers even lobbied the Federal Trade Commission to prosecute Hammond for calling his instrument a true organ instead of their preferred term, an “electrotone.” That backfired, as tests conducted at the University of Chicago’s chapel showed that experts were unable to distinguish between a Hammond and a $75,000 Skinner pipe organ. Hammond got slapped for unsupported claims in his advertising, but he won the right to call it a “Hammond organ.”

Whether Hammond salesmen deliberately marketed the Model A to black churches because they had less money to spend on organs, or whether it was because there were African American churches in the general vicinity of the Hammond factory on Chicago’s West Side, Hammond organs undoubtedly quickly became popular in black houses of worship. The Hammond B3 model was introduced in 1954 and added a percussive attack to the instrument’s tone and a “scanner” vibrato that fit well with the strains of the gospel music performed in those churches. The B3’s funky sound also fit new forms of popular music better than the tone of Wurlitzer’s competing organs, which were more in tune with rollerskating rinks.

The sound of the Hammond organ in church inspired musicians like Fats Waller, “Wild” Bill Davis, and the great Jimmy Smith to take up the instrument in a jazz setting. Smith’s protege Jimmy McGriff did likewise with the blues. Soon nightclubs purchased Hammond organs for visiting players to use just as they would have pianos. Moving from jazz and blues clubs to rhythm and blues bands like Booker T and the MGs was just a hop, skip and jump, making the Hammond B3 organ one of the elemental sounds of soul music.

Henry Ford died in 1947. By the time the Hammond organ started becoming popular in African-American music in the 1940s, though, Ford was already beginning to show signs of dementia, so he likely was not aware of what was happening in the world of music. If he had been aware of the kind of success the Hammond organ had, and with whom it had that success, he might have had some reservations about sending those engineers to Chicago.

In any case, that is how Henry Ford, a notorious bigot and hater of jazz and African American music, ended up inadvertently helping the Hammond organ become one of the foundational sounds of black worship, jazz music, and rhythm & blues.

*Little did Ford know that the Kosofsky family of New Orleans helped jazz pioneer Louis Armstrong buy his first horn.

Ronnie Schreiber
Ronnie Schreiber

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, the original 3D car site.

More by Ronnie Schreiber

Join the conversation
3 of 46 comments
  • Conundrum Conundrum on Feb 03, 2020

    Pretty fine article, although that's a sine wave, not a sin wave. Tesla invented the Synchronous motor in basic form back in the late 1890s. Useful synchronous motors for electric clocks were basically invented by Henry E Warren who started the Telechron company. He invented a self-starting synchronous motor in 1915, so what Hammond was doing "inventing" a retrograde non-self-starting motor in 1930 or so is a bit of a mystery to me, as in -- did he not read the literature? Electric meter manufacturing companies also had self-starting synchronous motors for their demand attachments at about the same 1930 timeframe. Telechron must have wondered why it took them all so long. They were the elephant in the electric clock market for 40 years. Disclaimer: I used to work for Sangamo Electric Company's Canadian branch, manufacturers of electricity meters, so have some idea of the history of such motors. I left them 39 years ago. Sangamo had evolved from a high class pocketwatch company, because of their gear-cutting ability -- and the later descendants of all the Bunns who were involved at Sangamo's inception led to the Bunn-O-Matic commercial coffee drip maker. The development of that device was carried out in secret at Sangamo Canada instead of the US to avoid industrial espionage. The old-timers remembered it all well back in the mid 1970s. Meters and free coffee, what more do you want? There are many interesting stories of industrial invention all but forgotten these days. I enjoyed this story a lot, Ronnie. Thanks. PS I wonder if Henry liked German polka, or was that too raw for him as well, like jazz? My exposure to crazy polka was at the Munich Oktoberfest in 1971 as I backpacked down to Greece from London. It was pandemonium in the beer halls as highly drunk players and dancers performed on raised stages throughout any given hall. Beer served in litre mugs, no wimpy glass pints or smaller. It was organized chaos, well chaos anyway, and everyone seemed incredibly determined to have more than a good time -- it was DEMANDED! I cannot imagine staid old Henry approving of this mass drunk in any way shape or form. He was a staid old prude yet with a bit on the side, and having "fun" doesn't seem to have been in his modus operandi.

    • Ronnie Schreiber Ronnie Schreiber on Feb 04, 2020

      Since the article touches on music and you mentioned Bunn coffee makers, here's a little bit of trivia. As far as I know, Bunn is still owned by Bloomfield Industries, which services the restaurant trade. Bloomfield Industries was founded by the father of Michael Bloomfield, the great guitar player who came to prominence in the Butterfield Blues Band. Bloomfield senior invented that glass sugar dispenser with the metal cap and flap and made a fortune.

  • JimZ JimZ on Feb 10, 2020

    An aside, the tone wheel eventually made its way into cars as part of the engine cam/crank position sensor system as well as the wheel sensors for anti-lock brakes.

  • Bd2 Probably Toyota, Hyundai is killing them these days.
  • Bd2 Japan is evil, stop buying their vehicles. I hope TTAC has a holiday for PEARL HARBOR.
  • Wolfwagen If Isuzu could update this truck and keep the cost between $25K - $30K they would sell like ice pops on dollar day in a heat wave.
  • 3SpeedAutomatic I'm at that the inflection point of do I continue to putting money in a 12 yr old SUV entering a heavy maintenance cycle or start shopping.I have noticed comparable new SUVs with $2.5k knocked off the sticker price, but still with the shenanigans of $300 for nitrogen in the tires. However, I have noticed the same 2 yr old SUV which are only $4.5K less than the original sticker price. Usually the used cars price should be 35% to 40% less. This tells me there's a stronger market for used as opposed to new. Part of this is to handle the monthly note. Considering installments of 72 months, you'll never pay the beast off. Just wait till the end of the model year which is just two months away, and I think the comparable new SUV will come with larger markdowns. May not be the color you want, but there are deals to be made. 🚗🚗🚗
  • Bd2 Man, Anal sure has been busy...