The Hunt for the Banjo Orchestra Records

Guest blog by Colin Hancock

            The six sides recorded by Gus Haenschen’s Banjo Orchestra in 1916 are rare—very rare. In fact, before The Missing 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.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch June 27, 1916

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One Night in June . . . Looking for the First Jazz Records in Scott Joplin’s Stomping Ground

It’s only been a little more than a year since Colin Hancock first wrote us up with a rough idea about reissuing the six personal records made by Gus Haenschen and his banjo orchestra in 1916. We’d already released one of them, “Sunset Medley,” on our 2003 issue, Stomp and Swerve—and we’re big fans. So, had Colin located the other five discs?

Well, not exactly.

He had a line on four of the six, thanks to David Sager and Mike Kieffer, with a strong likelihood of the fifth. When that fifth came through, from Rob Chalfen in Boston, we were all getting pretty excited. So close! There was one more, elusive, with rumors of it being in the collections of two mutual friends: “Maple Leaf Rag,” the legendary piece by Joplin, performed by one of his students while the master was still alive. Sager knew where to find it. He told us to go to Joplin’s one-time home, St. Louis, and there we would find it in the collection of the late St. Louis Ragtimer, the great Trebor Tichenor.

Trebor’s daughter Virginia and son-in-law Marty Eggers took David’s advice, went searching among his thousands of 78s and found it! Marty and Virginia, who are spending time between Oakland and St. Louis, graciously worked out a time for us all to meet, Colin drove up from Texas, and we were joined by the fantastic musician T. J. Müller to do a transfer session.

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Jazz as Folk Music

If you’ve done any looking at period articles that discuss the rise of jazz in the late 1910s, then you’re readily familiar with how serious musicians and musicologists condemned it as cacophonous noise. It’s refreshing to find contrary views from that time. One such piece comes from The Musical Monitor from June 1921, citing the opinion of Baltimore-born Elizabeth Gutman, a noted folksong expert. She makes the claim that jazz is America’s folk music.

Musical Monitor

A concert soprano, Gutman’s specialization was Russian and Yiddish folk songs. Her pioneering work in the field started when she met a political refugee from Russia who possessed a number of volumes unavailable on this side of the Atlantic. As a descendant of Jewish cantors, she received permission to copy the books and worked their contents into her repertoire (New York Times 13 Jan. 1918, Sec. 4, p. 8). She made seven recordings for Victor (including four unreleased trials and one rejected matrix) from 1916 through 1920. The two released numbers were made on May 29, 1918: “Main Harz Zugeiht in Mir” and “Zehn Brider,” issued as Victor 72169.

Here’s the piece from The Musical Monitor transcribed in full. Notice in the first couple of paragraphs a bit of resistance to Gutman’s idea from the presenting editor. Also witness Gutman’s complete ease with the entire world of musical expression, where there exists no moral imperatives. Finally, don’t miss the part where she says she’s seen the critics of jazz listen secretly to their jazz records in their homes.

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