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 thiswild 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.
In the fall of 2018, Jim Leary sent me an email with plans to track down and reissue all of the songs from Wallin’s Svenska Records. It was just an idea at that point and Archeophone hadn’t even signed on to the project, but Jim had already started identifying discs needed for the set. Having grown up in a bilingual Swedish-English-speaking household and having spent years researching a Swedish American poet, Jim asked if I could help with transcription and translation. Like a fool, I said yes.
Transcribing and translating lyrics is hard. There’s really no way around it. It takes time and patience and more stubbornness than I care to admit. Thankfully, not every song from Swede Home Chicago: Wallin’s Svenska Records, 1923–1927needed to be fully transcribed. Some of the Wallin’s sleeves included lyrics, and others could be found in hymnals or songbooks like Dalkullan Sångbok, which was published just down the street from Wallin’s music store. Even still, the musicians often sang different versions, adding lines here, dropping entire stanzas there, thus requiring careful listening to ensure accuracy. Of course, most challenging were the songs that had no lyrics to be found, which meant that before any translations could happen, transcription had to happen. And for transcription to happen, the records had to be tracked down so that the team at Archeophone could begin to transfer and restore the songs. Luckily, Jim Leary is a dogged researcher and with the help of many people along the way was able to track down all but one disc.
Reissues of historic sound recordings don’t happen without discs in hand. Networking with committed discographers, visionary institutions, and ardent collectors ease the process, yet hunts for limited century-old releases by obscure immigrant labels are challenging. I’d sworn off protracted sonic archeology after an ultimately successful 2016-2018 search with Archeophone to find every Swiss American side issued on Helvetia by Ferdinand Ingold of Monroe, Wisconsin (Alpine Dreaming, Archeophone 8002).
But serendipity sparked a three-year quest for Wallin’s Svenska Records (WSR).
Count us among those who couldn’t believe we had never heard of it.
The second release in our “Phonographic Yearbook” Series came out in the fall of 2000 and was called 1921: “Make Believe and Smile”—the subtitle taken from the sunshine-after-the-rain optimism of the Nora Bayes song, “Make Believe.” The approach we had established for the series was to set the big hits of a given year against the historical backdrop of a major contemporary cultural or social event. But under new President Warren G. Harding’s push for a “return to normalcy” after World War I, the year 1921 seemed like one where nothing happened.
We have a much better idea than ever before of who was in the various iterations of the Unique Quartette, as well as some pretty good guesses as to which of the members participated in the group’s recordings. Good as his work was in Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press), Tim Brooks faced significant limitations back in 2004. After all, there was no newspapers.com or genealogybank.com all those years ago. It is exciting to update the record. But it will be difficult to beat down all the misinformation out there on the Web by people who have uncritically repeated the guesswork.
Tim identified ten men who participated in the quartet over a ten-year period: Joseph M. Moore, William H. Tucker, Samuel G. Baker, J. E. Carson [sic], James Settles [sic], Walter A. Dixon, Ben Hunn, Burt Lozier, Thomas Craig, and Frank DeLyons. As happens in news accounts, names often get mangled, so Carson should really be “Cayson” and Settles should be “Settle.” It turns out that these two misapprehended gentlemen, in addition to the founder and leader Joe Moore, are essential to the story of the quartet. Our research indicates that Moore (second tenor), Settle (first tenor), and Cayson (baritone) had the longest tenures of anyone in the Unique Quartette. That means, for one thing, they would have been very comfortable singing together.
The bass singer changed several times, but the biggest revelation is that Frank DeLyons, whom Brooks found to be a minor player who served a short time in 1898, actually had first sung with the group in 1893. The lineup of Settle, Moore, Cayson, and DeLyons was verifiably intact from late 1893 through 1895, and probably into 1896 as well. That means their union stretched from the end of the North American period (think: “Mamma’s Black Baby Boy” from Lost Sounds) through the period when they recorded for U.S. Phonograph and Walcutt and Leeds, which is covered by our Celebrated vinyl release. So it is highly probable these four made at least some of the records we have restored and issued.
At the time Tim Brooks published Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press) in 2004, he was aware of three extant cylinders made by the Unique Quartette. First was “Mamma’s Black Baby Boy,” made ca. 1893 for the North American Phonograph Company. Two others were made ca. 1895-96 for an unknown company: “Who Broke the Lock” and “Down on the Old Camp Ground.”
Since the 2005 appearance of Lost Sounds two collaborators have unearthed several additional cylinders by the Unique Quartette that date to this 1895-96 period, again made by unknown companies, but very likely by Walcutt and Leeds or the United States Phonograph Company. Five one-of-a-kind recordings by the Unique are heard on Celebrated by the public for the first time.
The six sides recorded by Gus Haenschen’s Banjo Orchestra in 1916 are rare—very rare. In fact, before TheMissing Link project was compiled, chances are no one had heard all six of them since they were first released. Gus himself stated that he never personally owned copies of the discs, and the Haenschen family currently doesn’t own any copies either. Only around 200 of each title were pressed in the first place, and it took locating them to realize just how rare they really are.
Some of you like to research the old acoustic-era artists, searching for authoritative answers to their dates of birth and death or greater details on their lives than has been known heretofore. Maybe you have had the experience of digging in on an artist in newspapers, genealogy records, and other online archival databases, only to come up completely empty after hours and hours of fruitless, exasperating effort. Then, after a few weeks, a few months (years even), you decide—silly you—to try again, against your best inclinations.
A couple of weeks ago, we dug in again for the umpteenth time on J. W. Myers, about whom the only general wisdom seems to be “born ca. 1864, Wales; died ca. 1919.” Well, this time, we got a bit lucky.