Documentary Discs: Stranded in the USA, Early Songs of Emigration

Friends Newsletter Fall 2005 vol. 3 no. 2

| Director's Column | Documentary Discs | Wisconsin Folksong Digital Collection | NHPRC Regional Survey |
| Oneida Narratives | Ja, de elsker |

Documentary Discs: Stranded in the USA, Early Songs of Emigration

America’s immigrant peoples have composed and sung countless songs that imagine, chronicle, celebrate, lament, and otherwise express their new world experiences. During the early decades of the 20th century, America’s commercial recording companies issued thousands of 78 rpm discs in various “foreign” series targeting, for example, the nation’s Germanic, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Nordic, and Slavic peoples. While many such discs have been worn out, destroyed, and abandoned, a handful have been preserved, and even had their sound restored, by avid collectors and such visionary institutions as the University of Wisconsin’s own Mills Music Library.

Stranded in the USA, issued by Munich’s Trikont label (US-0326), draws on several 78s from the Mills collection, along with many more corralled by Christoph Wagner. A native of Germany now living in the north of England, Wagner has frequently ventured to the Upper Midwest to produce radio programs on alt-country bands, deliver lectures on Swiss yodelers, conduct research for his pioneering squeezebox history Das Akkordeon (2001), and ferret out old recordings. His dedication and erudition are evident in the superb selection of 26 songs by nearly as many stellar performers on Stranded.

Many of the featured musicians are from this part of the country. Among them are a pair of Finns: Hiski Salomaa, once a tailor in South Range, Michigan, and Arthur Kylander, a singing organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World on Minnesota’s Iron Range. From the Chicago area: the Kapudji Brothers, a Croatian tamburitza quartet, and Polish accordionist Wladyslaw Polak. The Howie Bowe Band, a brass and reed “Dutchman” polka group from Chilton in Wisconsin’s German Catholic “Holy Land” is heard from too, as is the Norwegian band, Little Oscar’s Gang, who barnstormed through Minnesota, the Dakotas, and eastern Montana in the 1940s and 1950s. Their songs range from militant worker’s anthems, to comic treatments of an immigrant’s misadventures; from a young man’s fantasy that every American girl desires him, to the pleasures of plum brandy and beer. The language runs a similar gamut from old country parlance, to mixed language, to exaggerated “broken English.”

Arthur Kylander,1892-1968

The CD’s abundant sonic delights are considerably enhanced by not one, but two booklet inserts, that include essays on immigration and on its relation to the recording industry. Plus, biographies of performers, full song lyrics, as well as numerous rare photographs. It is difficult to conceive of a better introduction to the musical lives and experiences of our region’s immigrants.

Jim Leary, a folklore and Scandinavian studies professor at UW–Madison, is co-director of the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures.

 

 




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