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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Yiddish Lamberts: An Announcement and a Call for Help

Remember those funny pink celluloid cylinders made by a man named Thomas Lambert during the first few years of the 20th century in Chicago? Our CD, The Pink Lambert, was only the second release by Archeophone, back in 1999. Well, we’re seeing pink again.

A large block of Yiddish selections were among Lambert’s first releases, around 1901—titles including show tunes from Yiddish theater, operatic arias, and sacred numbers. A collection of many of these very early Lamberts was recently acquired by the Mayrent Institute for Yiddish Culture at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and they have reached out to us to put them out on a new CD. In turn, we have asked Mayrent Director Henry Sapoznik to shepherd the project, providing translations and context for material that is foreign even to people knowledgeable about Yiddish culture.

10 Lambert Cylinders featuring the earliest Yiddish material (photo  courtesy of the Mayrent Institute)

Lamberts come in a variety of colors: pink, wine, and black (Courtesy of the Mayrent Institute)

That’s because apparently these are the earliest known recordings of Yiddish music. It’s not clear why Lambert chose to market this material, but presumably he had an “in” with Chicago’s large Jewish community. One other mystery we’re trying to solve is why all the cylinders are announced “Standard Record,” instead of something like “Record made for the Lambert Company of Chicago,” which is the usual formula we hear. Has anybody out there got a clue?

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