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)

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Helvetia Records: Unrealized Ambitious Dreams

(Courtesy Jim Leary)

With the recent acquisition of Helvetia 1002, our upcoming set, Alpine Dreaming, will now have every known release put out by the small Helvetia label in the early 1920s. Thanks to Eric Gallinger for contributing that record to the effort. Eric found the disc at an estate sale in Oregon and, inspired by his wife’s Swiss ancestry, picked it up as an extraordinary type of record. We found him and his kids on their YouTube channel, JEC&T 78’s, and the result is as complete a telling of the Helvetia story as is possible at this point.

Ferdinand Ingold, a Swiss immigrant to Monroe, Wisconsin (the Swiss cheese capital of America) operated a novelty and import company, specializing in post cards such as the lovely and unusual embossed lace postcard shown here. By the mid-1910s he saw a need to supply his like-minded customers of the immigrant community with recordings from their homeland and was able to procure many titles from Switzerland for resale in the U.S. Then Ingold got the idea to start his own record company to make and sell records by the community for the community. Continue reading

Mystery Banjo Players Identified?

Last week we wondered whether record titles, such as those listed in a ca. 1891 catalog of the New Jersey Phonograph Company, might not all have been actually recorded. Then we traced the offerings of Charles Asbury in New Jersey/U.S. Phono. Co. and Columbia catalogs from 1892 through 1897 to see which of his records were “hits”—cylinders likely to have been made again and again over that six-year period. Let’s revisit that 1891 New Jersey pamphlet.

New Jersey Catalog ca. 1891. (Composite; Library of Congress)

As we noted, the names of artists were not provided. This fact surprises many of us today, as we can’t imagine buying a record just to buy a record. It’s the talent that we’re interested in. But in 1891, the recording business was brand new, and the identities of the performers would have meant nothing to consumers. That would change quickly, as experienced exhibitors and arcade owners came to recognize and seek out cylinders by the best performers for their operations.

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Charles Asbury’s Top “Hits”

April 1894 New Jersey catalog (Library of Congress)

We said on Monday that maybe by comparing the early catalogs of cylinder companies we can figure out which titles were recorded for certain because they continued getting listed month after month and year after year. A title that appears in a catalog once and then disappears—perhaps that title never actually got made because no clients showed interest in it.

In the case of Charles A. Asbury, whose work we release today on 4 Banjo Songs, 1891-1897: Foundational Recordings of America’s Iconic Instrument, there were 16 selections by him in the October 1892 catalog of the New Jersey Phonograph Company. That number decreases to nine in early 1894, but all nine were titles included among the 16 from earlier. So these are the “winners.”

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Records Never Made

New-Jersey-Catalog-1891-1

A ca. 1891 catalog for the New Jersey Phonograph Company (Library of Congress)

Back in March we attended the Society for American Music conference in Kansas City and got to catch up with Tim Brooks, author of Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry (both the book and the CD notes). Tim posed the following head-exploding question: Did we believe that all of the titles listed in the early phonograph company catalogs were actually recorded? That is, did a title on a list indicate that the artist had actually made said cylinder, which was then waiting for a hungry buyer, or did it mean that the artist would make the record if demand required it? What about the ones nobody ever requested?

Have we been hunting down records that never existed?

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Introducing Waxing the Gospel, CD 3

ARCH_1009So, as we said last week, Waxing the Gospel was originally a CD dedicated to the recordings of evangelist Ira D. Sankey. But then we decided to include the discs of his partner, Dwight L. Moody. And then the Sankey Quartette cylinders got added. Then we decided that the full commercial context was necessary. Now we had two discs.

The genesis for CD 3 came one day when our friend (now co-producer) Michael Devecka called. When we told him what we were working on, he said, “I’ve got a bunch of religious home recordings, if you’re interested in those.” He confessed he didn’t know anything about them but that several looked pretty fascinating. Indeed, they were. Spurred on by only the faintest of clues still included in the case that held the brown wax cylinders just as Mike had bought them, we undertook a significant research journey through old newspapers, genealogy websites, and archives to figure out what his records were.

The whole detective story is told in detail in the 408 pages of Waxing the Gospel, but in short: Mike’s cylinders were made by an amateur phonograph recordist named Henry A. Heath, a Manhattan optician, during the 1897 annual camp meeting at Ocean Grove, New Jersey. Heath captured many major stars and shining lights of Victorian-era Christian evangelism during the week-long schedule of events at the camp. He took them home to Jersey City and played them at his YMCA’s rescue mission and at other church events around Hudson County in a program he called “Echoes of Ocean Grove.” Clearly, Mr. Heath saw the phonograph as a tool for bringing comfort to the needy and spreading the Word in a novel way.

This find is nothing short of historic, and we know you’ll agree when you read the complete story and listen to the tracks in full. These tracks take about half of the third CD, while the second half is given over to vernacular recordings of sacred material from the 1890s: some by other church organizations and ministers in quasi-public settings, and others by ordinary people who show us 120 years later the way in which they waxed their faith privately, surrounded by family and friends.

Maybe you didn’t realize that the early phonographs had the ability both to play pre-recorded wax cylinders and to record on blank cylinders? Early adopters were enterprising sorts, eager to dive into the new technology. Just like with Recordio discs, reel-to-reel machines, and cassette decks in generations past, our ancestors in the 1890s experimented with recording and left to us a treasure chest of weird and wonderful sounds. Sometimes there are technical problems like wow and flutter or over-modulation or someone getting cut off, but they all have their charm and tell us things about the past that are not reducible to printed accounts. Don’t worry if you can’t catch all of the words–we’ve included full transcriptions of all selections in the book.

You can hear samples on our website. Let’s see what’s in store:

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Introducing Waxing the Gospel, CD 2

Moody-Sankey-Farewell-to-England

Moody & Sankey returning to the US after their phenomenally successful campaign in Britain, 1873-75. Both gentlemen made records in the 1890s. (Library of Congress)

The middle CD of Waxing the Gospel is actually where the project began more than a decade ago. Our friend, “Cylinder Doctor” Michael Khanchalian, an avid collector of the extremely rare cylinders of evangelist Ira D. Sankey, asked us if we would be interested in issuing a collection of Sankeys. Little did we know when we set out on what seemed a simple and straightforward project that it would grow into such a thoroughly documented and expansive audio overview of sacred phonograms from the dawn of recording. CD 2 is a collection of celebrity sacred recordings.

But what is a “celebrity recording”? It’s a phonogram (i.e., disc, cylinder, or other type of recording) that is marketed and sold more for who made it than for the contents on it. Then as now, people have wanted to hear the voices of famous individuals. But there were almost always problems: either records of this sort were inferior specimens made by startup companies, or the celebrities themselves—neophytes to the recording process—gave poor performances, or they were distributed in tiny quantities, making them especially rare. The 32 selections here demonstrate these challenges.

For instance, how rare can it get? When Prof. John R. Sweney (music director at Ocean Grove and elsewhere, composer of “Beulah Land”) was in Washington in April 1892, Columbia made souvenir records of the famous choral leader. Probably no more than a handful were made, and the company would have used them as a way to attract more customers into their parlor. The Sweney cylinders were never issued commercially. We had the good fortune of meeting noted folklorist Joe Hickerson, the great-grandson of Sweney, and it was only through him that we were able to procure transfers of the Sweney records that had passed down in the family.

There are six different artists here: Sweney, the United States Marine Band, Dwight L. Moody, Ira D. Sankey, the Sankey Quartette, and the chimes of Trinity Church (Manhattan). All of these are prize-worthy trophies that collectors of early records dream about. Below is the tracklist and some commentary. Over on our website you can hear the sound samples.

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