Questions about the Yiddish Lambert Cylinders on the National Recording Registry

Earlier this year, the Library of Congress released its 2018 inductees onto the National Recording Registry. The oldest items preserved onto the Registry for their “cultural, historical, and aesthetic” significance are titled thusly: Yiddish Cylinders from the Standard Phonograph Company of New York and Thomas Lambert Company. Here’s the Library’s description:

These cylinders originally produced by the Standard Phonograph Company of New York are believed to be the earliest recordings of Yiddish songs. Eventually released by the Thomas Lambert Company of Chicago, these releases (some manufactured in unusually vibrant colors) also represent the first releases by an ethnically-owned and ethnically-focused record company, a risky venture at a time when a US-based audience for foreign-language music had yet to be established. These surviving 20 cylinders of 48 once produced, provide an insight not only into the Yiddish-speaking community of the era but also into the difficult assimilation of Jewish immigrants arriving to America at the turn of the century. In 2016, the Archeophone label lovingly restored and packed the cylinder into a CD-set.

The shout-out in the last line is appreciated, yet there are several things to unpack here.

The only research and writing on the subject of these cylinders is what comes with the above-referenced release: Attractive Hebrews: The Lambert Yiddish Cylinders, 1901-1905 (ARCH 8001). Prior to the unearthing of these rare records by Archeophone’s network partners, no one who had ever written of the existence (in catalogs) of the records had actually heard any of them. Imagine our surprise, then, when the announcements at the beginnings of the cylinders do not refer to the “Lambert Company of Chicago” as on other Lambert records but instead identify themselves as “Standard Record”s. Deep dives into newspapers, city directories, and legal notices turned up very little about this company—only that it existed for about three years in New York City’s theatre district before going bankrupt in 1903. It seems to have been run by a man named George Lando, an optician who promoted his twin product lines—eyeglasses and phonograph records—under the advertisement “To Hear and to See” in the Jewish Daily Forverts in 1901.

September 1903 Lambert catalog (composite) (Courtesy David Giovannoni)

Nothing else about this Standard Phonograph Company (there were other companies with the same name that have no relation to this one) has been found. All we have are Standard releases on Lambert cylinders. Did Lando license the Lambert indestructible technology? Was it a joint venture? Or did Lambert invest in or purchase the Standard line and import them into its catalog? Were the selections born as molded records, or were they brown wax records that were dubbed by Lambert? These are questions to which we have no answer, but to say that the records were “produced by Standard” and “eventually released by Lambert” is somewhat misleading. All we know for certain is that  in the September 1903 Lambert catalog, just around the time of the Standard insolvency, the 48 known Yiddish titles appeared for the first time.

Another misapprehension from the Library’s description is a minor problem—and yet it’s a big deal because of the confusion and twisted explanations that some are already developing to explain it. The description says that 20 of the 48 cylinders survive, and they are on our CD, Attractive Hebrews. But this is not true. There are 19 of the Yiddish Lamberts on the CD, with one extra selection by Joseph Natus (also on Lambert, by the way) used for illustrative purposes. The selection, “Tsu Gefellen Mener” (“Getting Men to Like You”) by Solomon Smulewitz, is a Yiddish parody of “The Honeysuckle and the Bee,” so we included the Natus recording of the latter for audiences to get a full appreciation of Dikhter (“poet”) Smulewitz. Unfortunately, this has led some writers to decide that the “Honeysuckle” record is one of the Yiddish selections. It is not. (One blogger expressed confusion over the record and then assumed that Natus must have had cantorial training. Not so. He could have asked us.)

Now, having said that, we have, in fact, recently discovered a 20th title in the Yiddish Lambert series, also by Smulewitz, and we will be unveiling it in due course. So, the number 20 is now accurate, just be sure not to include Joseph Natus or “The Honeysuckle and the Bee” in your tally of the extant records! By the way, the album notes for Attractive Hebrews won a Certificate of Merit, Best Historical Research in Record Labels, from the Association for Recorded Sound Collections in 2017. So go directly to the source if you want to know more!

 

 

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