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More Than Just Polkas: collecting ethnic music on 78

Sometime in November of 1922, a Russian immigrant named Vladimir Slavin entered Columbia Records’ New York studios to record four songs. These were the only four sides the singer ever recorded, but were obviously successful enough to be reissued by the company several years later in the green label ethnic series with the new company logo. One of these discs, "Soldatskaya Piesnia, Raz, Dva, Tri, Tchetyre"/"Diadka Loshad Zapriaeget", ended up in my hands seventy-five years after Slavin’s session. I do not know who Vladimir Slavin was or where he came from. I do not know whether he was a professional musician, why he came either to Columbia’s studios or, before that, America, or whether he lived in New York or had travelled from as far away as New Jersey, Boston, Philadelphia or even Chicago. I do not know what became of him. I do know that his record bears witness to a robust tenor/baritone voice, clearly "untrained", and exuberant. I’m sure that he was paid very little for the privilege of recording for Columbia. Beyond this - silence.

In the first fifty years of this century, Columbia’s main competitor, RCA Victor, alone issued over 15,000 "foreign" or ethnic recordings. This was not done for any particular political or altruistic reason. The last years of the nineteenth and the first decades of the twentieth centuries saw an explosion of immigration into North America. In 1906, a Columbia record catalogue "offered discs and cylinders in German, Italian, French, Czech, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Polish, Hungarian, Hebrew and Russian." A note on the last page indicates that there was an entirely separate catalogue for records in Spanish. (Richard K. Spottswood. Ethnic Recordings in America.) My record hunting indicates that many of these records were little more than novelty recordings - instrumental versions of national anthems and marching songs or generic folk tunes by studio orchestras. In the aftermath of the First World War, however, record companies began issuing increasing numbers of relatively authentic folk music by and for the rapidly growing immigrant subcultures flourishing all over the United States and Canada.

The reason for this mini-renaissance of ethnic recording was simple. From the beginning of their history, talking machine companies like Victor and Columbia were in the business of selling not just records but the talking machines with which to play them. While popular and classical recordings would ensure a certain stable base of sales, the companies were aware that there was a whole untapped market that might not be persuaded to buy an oak-finished Victor III or a Grafonola "Favorite" if all they could play on them were records by Henry Burr, John McCormack or Paul Whiteman. The Columbia Record, a magazine for dealers, described the situation in 1914:

With from five to eight thousand miles between them and the land of their birth, in a country with strange speech and customs, the 35,000,000 foreigners making their home here are keenly on the alert for anything and everything that will keep alive the memories of their fatherland - build them a mental bridge back to their native land. They are literally starving for amusements. With no theatres, except in one or two of the larger cities, few books in their native tongue, it is easy to see why the talking machine appeals to them so irresistibly. Their own home music, played or sung by artists whose names are house- hold words in their homeland - these they must have.

...If you are not getting your share of it, you are overlooking a large and profitable business which, moreover, is right at your door."

I'm a very recent addition to the ranks of 78 collectors. While I've been amassing a collection of music on LP and CD for many years, I was initially ignorant of what was available for the fledgling 78 collector. While I have little interest in Classical or Operatic recordings, I quickly discovered that one of my main passions, jazz and blues, was particularly well-picked over, and that if I wanted to build a collection of recordings, I'd be up against steep competition and steeper prices. At the same time, I'd been collecting record- ings of traditional ethnic music for as long as I’ve been interested in blues and jazz, and my inquiries about the scarcity of ethnic 78s were met with comments like, "Oh, I've been throwing out those green label Columbias for years!" Here, it seemed to me, was a field in which I could hope to find at least a steady trickle of discs, and perhaps do a service to a neglected realm of recorded music.

Thankfully, much of the groundwork for collecting ethnic discs had already been done. Richard Spottswood, a Washington D.C.-based ethnomusicologist, had organized a conference at the Library of Congress in 1977, which led five years later to a book, Ethnic Recordings in America, named after the conference. During this time, Spottswood began work on a discography that would serve ethnic music collectors much the same way Brian Rust’s work has served collectors of jazz. Published in 1990, Ethnic Music on Records is a seven-volume research tool that collates the output of almost every label recording ethnic music in the United States from 1893 to the Petrillo ban of 1942. What little I know about Vladimir Slavin is due to Dick Spottswood’s herculean efforts.

The oldest ethnic 78 I own is a twelve-inch Canadian Victor, "Kol Nidre"/"El Mole Rachmin (fur Titanik)", recorded in New York at two sessions in July of 1913, over a year after the Titanic disaster (commemorated on the second tune). It was found in a beat-up record album in the basement of a Montreal antique shop, along with a handful of other Yiddish or Hebrew recordings. These are, so far, the only Jewish recordings I’ve been able to obtain. The singer, cantor Joseph Rosenblatt, was an incredibly popular and prolific recording artist, with nine pages of entries in Spottswood’s discography, including sides recorded for the soundtrack of The Jazz Singer.

That I should find ethnic 78s in Montreal is no surprise, as Montreal was, for the first half of this century, the home of the largest Jewish community in Canada. Similarly, I've found a profusion of Ukrainian records here in Toronto. There would probably be a trove of Ukrainian discs in Prairie towns like Winnipeg, and large numbers of Serbian or Croatian records in a town like Chicago. Ethnic 78s were the treasured possessions of a particular generation of immigrants, many of whom arrived in North America because of the political turmoil in Europe and Asia Minor at the beginning of this century. They prospered enough to be able to buy records and gramophones in the boom time of the twenties, and later in the recovery years of the late thirties and the Second World War. Their children became absorbed into North American culture, and their 78s were made obsolete by the LP and the tape player. Eventually they began to die, and their records found their way out of attics and basements - if they survived their owners at all - and into junk shops, flea markets, garage sales and bazaars. For the most part, they are the salient remnants of a thriving immigrant culture before the Second World War, before the Iron Curtain, before electric instruments and the phenomenon of "crossovers" and the fashionable fusion of "exotic" musical elements into pop music.

The largest single part of my little collection of ethnic discs consists of Ukrainian records, and the best represented artist in that collection is a violinist named Pawlo Humeniuk. Humeniuk was "discovered" in 1925 by a representative of the Okeh company paying a visit on Myron Surmach’s New York City record store, looking for good local musicians to make recordings. This was normal practice for the record companies. Since sales reps had the best understanding of what the public wanted, thanks to regular sales trips to stores in their territories, they were often deputized as front-line A&R men. One session with Okeh on December 3rd, 1925 resulted in four discs, but by the new year Humeniuk was on Columbia, who were more aggressive in their pursuit of artists for their ethnic stable.

Humeniuk rewarded them in April of that year with "Ukrainske Wesilie" - Ukrainian Wedding - a collection of skits, songs and dances that spread over two sides of a twelve- inch record, which sold in excess of 100,000 records - an enormous hit at the time. Humeniuk’s recording career sprawls over twelve pages in Spottswood’s discography, ending in 1940. "Ukrainske Wesilie" remained in print for over 25 years. Humeniuk, an ethnic Ukrainian, was born in Galicia, now part of Poland, and also released records in Columbia’s Polish series as Pawel Humeniak. Later releases anglicized his name to Paul Humeniuk. In the first fifty years of the ethnic recording industry, per- haps the only rival to Humeniuk’s success would be "The King of the Polka", accor- dionist Frankie Yankovic.

Unfortunately, my taste draws me both to more "authentic", folk-style recordings, and to music from ethnic communities under-rep- resented in the major label's catalogues. I have only been able to obtain, at auction and at a high price, one disc of Spanish "cante jondo (deep song)" flamenco. I have only one record of Turkish music, on Turkish His Master’s Voice ("Sahibinin Sesi"), and no records of Greek rebetica music. I have yet to come across any Arabic or other Middle Eastern music, or much in the way of music from the Balkans. The scarcity of these recordings has to do with the size of the communities that would have bought them, and where the communities gathered.

The big companies hardly dominated the field of ethnic recording. Small labels sprung up in big cities: Chicago’s Yugoslav community produced labels like Balkan and Srpske Gusle, New York's Armenian music scene was the home of labels like Parsekian and Pharos, and Giglio’s Italian Records, also based in New York, produced a series of releases on the Nofrio label, devoted to the dialect comedy of a beloved buffoon from southern Italian culture. These records would probably never have been released by the big labels, as many of them were comedy records of an often obscene nature.

Needless to say, these records are rare, as would be any record devoted to the music of smaller immigrant communities in North America. Often, major labels like Victor and Columbia would rely on their overseas offices to provide them with masters of discs recorded in countries of origin. Okeh could rely on its "sister" label in Europe, Odeon, for pressings. One RCA Victor recording I’ve heard gives no clue on its label as to its origin - it’s not listed in Spottswood, so it wasn’t recorded in the United States. "Hijaz Taksim" is an oud solo, played by a musician listed as Oudi Hrant Bey. This was in all likelihood Udi Hrant Kenkulian, as "bey" was a generic term of respect, meaning "master". Kenkulian was an ethnic Armenian who was enormously popular in Turkey and, later, in the Turkish and Armenian diaspora in the States.

"Hijaz Taksim" opens with a short thematic figure played on the oud (a stringed instrument related to the lute), and in the moment of silence before Kenkulian starts on the taksim, or improvisation, you can hear the sound of a muezzin’s call to prayer. In that moment, you know the record was recorded in Istanbul. You can surmise that Turkish HMV sent a copy of the master to HMV’s offices in Middlesex (apparently the EMI vaults in Hayes contain priceless troves of masters and duplicates), and from there a copy was sent to America. But more than that, you suddenly find yourself drawn back to the moment,at least fifty years ago, when a blind oud player recorded a song that eventually ended up on a 78 pressed in Camden, New Jersey, bought by a homesick Turkish or Armenian immigrant, and passed down through the years, brittle shellac that somehow survived for you to hear it. The record followed the path of the immigrant, and outlived him. This is, for me, the magic of old records.

I would like to thank John Rutherford for the loan of records used in my presentation, and to John Black, Bill Marshall and Alan Zweig for providing discs for my collection. I would also like to thank Richard K. Spottswood, Pat Conte, Harold G. Hagopian, and Chris Strachwitz for valuable information.