Wisconsin Music Archives home to nearly 10,000 ethnic recordings

If you utter the word “Paramount” in the presence of a knowledgeable collector of historic recordings, images of blues singers from the 1920s, like Ma Rainey, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Charley Patton, will instantly fill his head. What the same collector may not know is that Paramount and its companion record labels issued by the Wisconsin-based New York Recording Laboratories also released “ethnic” or “foreign” recordings aimed at first and second generation European immigrants. Moreover, marketing records to specific ethnic groups was not a strategy unique to Paramount but rather part of a widespread national practice among U.S. companies during the first thirty years of the twentieth century. Major record producers, including Victor, Columbia, Okeh, and Odeon, distributed thousands of titles, some imported from Europe but many others recorded in the United States, to a foreign-speaking market eager to hear their traditional music.

In contrast to the major labels which typically issued a broad range of musical styles, specialized record companies emerged in the 1920s aimed solely at specific ethnic groups. Such companies were often small, local operations that marketed their recordings through ethnic newspapers. Wisconsin spawned several of these enterprises, and sometimes local musicians became the featured performers. Rice Lake violinist Otto Rindlisbacher, accompanied by Karl Hoppe, recorded music that appeared on the Swiss- oriented Helvetia label of Monroe, while accordionist Jozef Sosnowski and fellow musicians from Milwaukee performed Polish music on the local Mermaid label. After World War II, the Pfau Record Company of Milwaukee and Polkaland Records of Sheboygan continued the tradition of the small, regional label by recording dozens of midwestern ethnic musicians. Other local ethnic performers, such as Romy Gosz and Lawrence Duchow, recorded for major labels beginning in the 1930s and developed a national following.

Although blues, jazz, country, and popular music recordings have captured the attention of countless collectors and many institutions, regrettably, the vast quantity of ethnic recordings issued commercially in the first half of the twentieth century remains a poor stepchild in their eyes. Yet, these recordings offer a seldom-tapped resource for observing, understanding, and interpreting the burgeoning immigrant culture, and of course they present a wealth of wonderful and engaging music!

The Mills Music Library of the University of Wisconsin-Madison is one of just a handful of American libraries that holds significant collections of historic ethnic records, those manufactured during the 78 rpm era, roughly 1900 to the mid-1950s. With holdings approaching 10,000 ethnic recordings, the Mills collection is focused primarily on the groups that settled the upper Midwest: Scandinavians, central Europeans, and eastern Europeans, but includes a smattering of Hispanic and Asian materials as well. The library is committed to the documentation of regional ethnic music and welcomes researchers and enthusiasts to explore these rich collections.

Steve Sundell is curator of the Wisconsin Music Archives at UW-Madison’s Mills Music Library.

Published 2003 by the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures. Do not reprint without permission.