Lawrence Gellert (1898-1979) was born in New York City to Hungarian immigrants. When he was in his early 20s, he moved to Tryon, North Carolina for health reasons. He edited a newspaper there and began making friendships among the African Americans who lived in the area. Motivated by leftist political ideologies and inspired by the music-making of his neighbors, he began making recordings to pre-grooved zinc discs on a device of his own construction. The recordings he made were dangerous–both to himself and those who performed for him.
In the deeply segregated south, making any kind of recordings among African Americans created risks for everyone involved and these recordings went beyond the kinds of songs that whites would have been aware of. Gellert was able to record songs that were more explicit in their complaint against the conditions of segregation than any other scholar before the 1960s. For this reason, in the 20 years he made these recordings he was careful not to document who made the recordings. The result was a body of songs so unprecedented that when Gellert published Negro Songs of Protest in 1936, some accused him of making up this collection of song texts himself.
At a time when segregation was embedded in the law and the culture and prevailing notions saw African Americans as satisfied with these conditions, Gellert documented hundreds of songs that countered those ideas. The songs he recorded demonstrated that rather than accepting their condition passively, African Americans chafed against the way they were treated. Gellert worked outside of academic circles and even outside of the folksong movement, antagonizing several key figures such as John Lomax and Josh White.
His work and the songs he documented did not receive the attention they deserved at the time and it wasn’t until after his death that more of the recordings were commercially released. The performers on these recordings come primarily from North and South Carolina, but Gellert also made recordings in Georgia and Mississippi. His collection contains more than 600 songs and half of them can be called songs of protest.