Guest blog post by Jim Leary
Old discs serve as singing tombstones. Spinning grooves and printed labels yield voices and virtuosity, names and places, commemoratively situating dead souls. Discs are all we have sometimes, but happily they’re often where we start.
Swede Home Chicago started with a search to identify the otherwise anonymous impresario whose surname was emblazoned on “Wallin’s Svenska Records” (WSR). Who was Wallin? Record labels commonly list cities of origin, and WSR acknowledged Chicago.
Talking Machine World, the era’s leading trade journal, offered a candidate: Chicagoan Frank Wallin, bandleader of the Harmony Kings, who operated a music shop in the west-side Austin neighborhood at 5749 W. Chicago Avenue. We might have chased this wild Wallin were it not for the unusual inclusion of a business address on every WSR disc: 3247 N. Clark, in Lake View on Chicago’s north side.
That business address correlated with Gustaf Waldemar Wallin, a Swedish immigrant music store owner listed in the 1920 census. We were underway.
Genealogical and newspaper search engines, publications focused on Swedish Chicago, and an interview with Wallin’s daughter Signe Anderson—digitized by the Vasa Archives in Bishop Hill, Illinois—yielded much more, including descendants. Signe’s daughter/Gustaf’s granddaughter Carol Dixon generously provided us with family photographs and newspaper clippings.
But what of the performers?
A few were relatively famous, with Wikipedia pages and extensive discographies: Hjalmar Peterson, a Minnesota-based immigrant who performed under the peasant comedian stage name Olle i Skratthult (Olle from Laughtersville); Gustaf Fonandern, a dapper architect and cabaret singer who made extensive American tours; Knut Ohrström and Folke Andersson, both celebrated Swedish operatic tenors who starred on New York City and Chicago stages.
Most Wallin’s artists, however, were little known and long forgotten Swedish immigrants or their children. Some traveled to far-flung Swedish singing society events, or as classical and vaudeville troupers, like Harry T. Carlson, Ebba Frederickson, and Harry Swanson. More were working class Chicagoans moonlighting in the city’s Swedish venues: Harold E. Anderson, machinist; John Chellman, carpenter; Elsa Frick, clerk; Ebba Kempe-Kjellgren, maid and dressmaker; Gunnar Sund, milkman.
Thanks to freely available newspaper digitization projects, especially the Minnesota Historical Society’s invaluable Swedish American Newspapers/Svensk-Amerikanska Tidningar site, we were often able to flesh out skeletal details—evident through census records, city directories, and public documents—with vivid accounts and images.
Performers’ stories ran the gamut from comic, to tragic, to somewhere in-between. The mysterious Bröderna Berg (Berg Brothers) toured Minnesota in spring 1924, playing for dances in the aftermath of exhibitions by Swedish strongman Ricardo Nelson, whose feats included bending steel rods around his body. Ebba Fredericskon, acclaimed violinist on nationwide Chautauqua tours, died unexpectedly at 29 in the aftermath of appendicitis. And then there was Henry Corsell.
An immigrant, Corsell toiled successively in a foundry, an auto parts plant, a piano factory, and a typewriter repair shop. Beloved in Swedish circles for moving songs of exile, especially Barndommshemmet (Childhood Home), Corsell had crossover dreams. Leaving Chicago with his wife and son for New York City in the late 1920s, he sang in Broadway musicals. But by 1940, widowed, his census entry shows him to be an inmate in Riker’s Island prison (we are awaiting confirmation whether this is really the same fellow). Upon release, as war raged, the exile returned to his second home, Chicago. Alone, unemployed, and required by WWII draft registration to list a person who would always know his whereabouts, Corsell wrote: “Gustave Wallin . . . Friends 30 years.”
However significant the sounds on old discs might be, they mean much more when paired with performers’ stories.