More Than Just Polkas: collecting ethnic music on 78
by Rick McGinnis
Sometime in November of 1922, a Russian
immigrant named Vladimir Slavin entered Columbia Records’ New
York studios to record four songs.
These were the only four sides the singer ever
recorded, but were obviously successful
enough to be reissued by the company several
years later in the green label ethnic series
with the new company logo.
One of these discs, "Soldatskaya Piesnia, Raz, Dva, Tri,
Tchetyre"/"Diadka Loshad Zapriaeget",
ended up in my hands seventy-five years after
I do not know who Vladimir Slavin was or where he came from.
I do not know whether he was a professional
musician, why he came either to Columbia’s
studios or, before that, America, or whether
he lived in New York or had travelled from as
far away as New Jersey, Boston, Philadelphia
or even Chicago. I do not know what became
of him. I do know that his record bears witness
to a robust tenor/baritone voice, clearly
"untrained", and exuberant. I’m sure that he
was paid very little for the privilege of
recording for Columbia. Beyond this - silence.
In the first fifty years of this century, Columbia’s
main competitor, RCA Victor,
alone issued over 15,000 "foreign" or ethnic
recordings. This was not done for any particular
political or altruistic reason. The last
years of the nineteenth and the first decades
of the twentieth centuries saw an explosion of
immigration into North America. In 1906, a
Columbia record catalogue "offered discs and
cylinders in German, Italian, French, Czech,
Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Polish,
Hungarian, Hebrew and Russian." A note on
the last page indicates that there was an entirely
separate catalogue for records in Spanish.
(Richard K. Spottswood. Ethnic Recordings
in America.) My record hunting indicates that
many of these records were little more than
novelty recordings - instrumental versions of
national anthems and marching songs or
generic folk tunes by studio orchestras.
In the aftermath of the First World War, however,
record companies began issuing increasing
numbers of relatively authentic folk music by
and for the rapidly growing immigrant subcultures
flourishing all over the United States and
The reason for this mini-renaissance of ethnic
recording was simple. From the beginning of
their history, talking machine companies like
Victor and Columbia were in the business of
selling not just records but the talking
machines with which to play them. While
popular and classical recordings would ensure
a certain stable base of sales, the companies
were aware that there was a whole untapped
market that might not be persuaded to buy an
oak-finished Victor III or a Grafonola
"Favorite" if all they could play on them were
records by Henry Burr, John McCormack or
Paul Whiteman. The Columbia Record, a
magazine for dealers, described the situation
With from five to eight thousand miles between them and
the land of their birth, in a country with strange
speech and customs, the 35,000,000
foreigners making their home
here are keenly on the alert for
anything and everything that
will keep alive the memories
of their fatherland - build them
a mental bridge back to their
native land. They are literally
starving for amusements.
With no theatres, except in one
or two of the larger cities, few
books in their native tongue, it
is easy to see why the talking
machine appeals to them so
irresistibly. Their own home
music, played or sung by
artists whose names are house-
hold words in their homeland -
these they must have.
...If you are not getting your
share of it, you are overlooking
a large and profitable
business which, moreover, is
right at your door."
I'm a very recent addition to the ranks of 78
collectors. While I've been amassing a collection
of music on LP and CD for many
years, I was initially ignorant of what was
available for the fledgling 78 collector. While
I have little interest in Classical or Operatic
recordings, I quickly discovered that one of
my main passions, jazz and blues, was particularly
well-picked over, and that if I wanted
to build a collection of recordings, I'd be up
against steep competition and steeper prices.
At the same time, I'd been collecting record-
ings of traditional ethnic music for as long as
I’ve been interested in blues and jazz, and my
inquiries about the scarcity of ethnic 78s were
met with comments like, "Oh, I've been
throwing out those green label Columbias for
years!" Here, it seemed to me, was a field in
which I could hope to find at least a steady
trickle of discs, and perhaps do a service to a
neglected realm of recorded music.
Thankfully, much of the groundwork for collecting
ethnic discs had already been done.
Richard Spottswood, a Washington D.C.-based
ethnomusicologist, had organized a conference
at the Library of Congress in 1977, which led
five years later to a book, Ethnic Recordings in
America, named after the conference. During
this time, Spottswood began work on a discography
that would serve ethnic music collectors
much the same way Brian Rust’s work has
served collectors of jazz. Published in 1990,
Ethnic Music on Records is a seven-volume
research tool that collates the output of almost
every label recording ethnic music in the
United States from 1893 to the Petrillo ban of
1942. What little I know about Vladimir
Slavin is due to Dick Spottswood’s herculean
The oldest ethnic 78 I own is a twelve-inch
Canadian Victor, "Kol Nidre"/"El
Mole Rachmin (fur Titanik)", recorded in New York
at two sessions in July of 1913, over a year
after the Titanic disaster (commemorated on
the second tune). It was found in a beat-up
record album in the basement of a Montreal
antique shop, along with a handful of other
Yiddish or Hebrew recordings.
These are, so far, the only Jewish recordings I’ve been able
to obtain. The singer, cantor Joseph
Rosenblatt, was an incredibly popular and prolific
recording artist, with nine pages of entries
in Spottswood’s discography, including sides
recorded for the soundtrack of The Jazz Singer.
That I should find ethnic 78s in Montreal is no
surprise, as Montreal was, for the first half of
this century, the home of the largest Jewish
community in Canada. Similarly, I've found a
profusion of Ukrainian records here in Toronto.
There would probably be a trove of Ukrainian
discs in Prairie towns like
Winnipeg, and large numbers of Serbian or
Croatian records in a town like Chicago.
Ethnic 78s were the treasured possessions of
a particular generation of immigrants, many
of whom arrived in North America because
of the political turmoil in Europe and Asia
Minor at the beginning of this century. They
prospered enough to be able to buy records
and gramophones in the boom time of the
twenties, and later in the recovery years of
the late thirties and the Second World War.
Their children became absorbed into North
American culture, and their 78s were made
obsolete by the LP and the tape player. Eventually
they began to die, and their
records found their way out of attics and
basements - if they survived their owners at
all - and into junk shops, flea markets,
garage sales and bazaars. For the most part,
they are the salient remnants of a thriving
immigrant culture before the Second World
War, before the Iron Curtain, before electric
instruments and the phenomenon of
"crossovers" and the fashionable fusion of
"exotic" musical elements into pop music.
The largest single part of my little collection
of ethnic discs consists of Ukrainian records,
and the best represented artist in that collection
is a violinist named Pawlo Humeniuk.
Humeniuk was "discovered" in 1925 by a
representative of the Okeh company paying
a visit on Myron Surmach’s New York City
record store, looking for good local musicians to make recordings.
This was normal practice for the record companies.
Since sales reps had the best understanding of
what the public wanted, thanks to regular
sales trips to stores in their territories, they
were often deputized as front-line A&R men.
One session with Okeh on December
3rd, 1925 resulted in four discs, but by the
new year Humeniuk was on Columbia, who
were more aggressive in their pursuit of
artists for their ethnic stable.
Humeniuk rewarded them in April of that
year with "Ukrainske Wesilie" - Ukrainian
Wedding - a collection of skits, songs and
dances that spread over two sides of a twelve-
inch record, which sold in excess of 100,000
records - an enormous hit at the time.
Humeniuk’s recording career sprawls over
twelve pages in Spottswood’s discography,
ending in 1940. "Ukrainske Wesilie" remained
in print for over 25 years.
Humeniuk, an ethnic Ukrainian, was born in
Galicia, now part of Poland, and also released
records in Columbia’s Polish series as Pawel
Humeniak. Later releases anglicized his
name to Paul Humeniuk. In the first fifty
years of the ethnic recording industry, per-
haps the only rival to Humeniuk’s success
would be "The King of the Polka", accor-
dionist Frankie Yankovic.
Unfortunately, my taste draws me both to
more "authentic", folk-style recordings, and
to music from ethnic communities under-rep-
resented in the major label's catalogues.
I have only been able to obtain, at auction and
at a high price, one disc of Spanish "cante
jondo (deep song)" flamenco. I have only
one record of Turkish music, on Turkish His
Master’s Voice ("Sahibinin Sesi"), and no
records of Greek rebetica music. I have yet
to come across any Arabic or other Middle
Eastern music, or much in the way of music
from the Balkans. The scarcity of these
recordings has to do with the size of the communities that would have bought them, and where the communities gathered.
The big companies hardly dominated the
field of ethnic recording. Small labels sprung
up in big cities: Chicago’s Yugoslav community
produced labels like Balkan and Srpske
Gusle, New York's Armenian music scene
was the home of labels like Parsekian and
Pharos, and Giglio’s Italian Records, also
based in New York, produced a series of
releases on the Nofrio label, devoted to the
dialect comedy of a beloved buffoon from
southern Italian culture. These records
would probably never have been released by
the big labels, as many of them were comedy
records of an often obscene nature.
Needless to say, these records are rare, as
would be any record devoted to the music of
smaller immigrant communities in North America.
Often, major labels like Victor
and Columbia would rely on their overseas
offices to provide them with masters of discs
recorded in countries of origin. Okeh could
rely on its "sister" label in Europe, Odeon,
for pressings. One RCA Victor recording
I’ve heard gives no clue on its label as to its
origin - it’s not listed in Spottswood, so it
wasn’t recorded in the United States. "Hijaz
Taksim" is an oud solo, played by a musician
listed as Oudi Hrant Bey. This was in
all likelihood Udi Hrant Kenkulian, as "bey"
was a generic term of respect, meaning
"master". Kenkulian was an ethnic
Armenian who was enormously popular in
Turkey and, later, in the Turkish and
Armenian diaspora in the States.
"Hijaz Taksim" opens with a short thematic
figure played on the oud (a stringed instrument
related to the lute), and in the moment
of silence before Kenkulian starts on the taksim, or improvisation,
you can hear the sound of a muezzin’s call to prayer.
In that moment, you know the record was recorded
in Istanbul. You can surmise that Turkish
HMV sent a copy of the master to HMV’s
offices in Middlesex (apparently the EMI
vaults in Hayes contain priceless troves of
masters and duplicates), and from there a
copy was sent to America. But more than
that, you suddenly find yourself drawn back
to the moment,at least fifty years ago, when
a blind oud player recorded a song that eventually
ended up on a 78 pressed in Camden,
New Jersey, bought by a homesick Turkish or
Armenian immigrant, and passed down
through the years, brittle shellac that somehow
survived for you to hear it. The record
followed the path of the immigrant, and outlived him.
This is, for me, the magic of old records.
I would like to thank John Rutherford for the
loan of records used in my presentation, and
to John Black, Bill Marshall and Alan Zweig
for providing discs for my collection.
I would also like to thank Richard K. Spottswood, Pat
Conte, Harold G. Hagopian, and Chris
Strachwitz for valuable information.