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.
J. W. Myers
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)
Archeophone’s 4 Banjo Songs, 1891-1897 by African American recording pioneer, Charles A. Asbury, is nominated for Best Album Notes, written by myself (Richard Martin) and Ted Olson. We’re very appreciative for this recognition, but there is a misapprehension floating around out Asbury’s background that needs addressing.
Some reviewers have summed up the notes by saying that there is uncertainty about Asbury’s race, and that I take the position he was black. Let me be perfectly clear: there is no uncertainty. Asbury was a light-skinned African American of Spanish origin. From the records we have found, he lived his entire life as a black man, in the company of other 19th-century blacks, and there is no evidence whatsoever that he ever tried to pass for white.
(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
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.
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.”
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?