While transcribing the many songs from Swede Home Chicago: Wallin’s Svenska Records, 1923–1927, I reached out to friends and family for help. After listening to the same song for hours on end, you reach a sort of impasse. You slow things down. You turn things up. You adjust your headphones. You use different speakers. You listen again and again and again just trying to catch another word or two. And each word brings you just a bit closer and each word is a small celebration. But the entire process comes with frustration, as well.
When the frustration threatens to boil over, I turn to my dad. I turn to him for a lot of things, whether it’s what to do when you come home to a flooded basement or how to translate agricultural vocabulary that appears in 19th century Swedish legends. Over the years he seems to have grown used to my weird emails linking to obscure songs or poems. With a little help, we were able to piece together a few more lines from Folke Andersson’s “I Herrens helgedom.”
But even he has limits and when the frustration began to get to him and he started laughing at the seriousness of some of the hymns that appear on Swede Home Chicago: Wallin’s Svenska Records, 1923–1927, I shared with him one of my favorite songs from the collection: Gustaf Fonandern’s “Jazz-Gossen.” And my dad started humming along. Which is not a normal thing for him to do.
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).