All-American Ethnic Music: Reels, Polkas, Klezmer, Cajun, and More

April 18, 2011

Several years ago, I was standing in line to pay for some books at a used book sale. A man ahead of me had one of those two-wheeled folding shopping carts full of LPs. He was explaining to another person in the line that he was a musicologist and most of the records in the cart were for his colleagues. He then said that his own specialty was Jewish music of South America. It was a revelation to me that there was such a musical niche, although I don’t know why I was so surprised. After all, I’m ethnic myself – Scottish on my father’s side and Polish on my mother’s – and all of my grandparents were born overseas. I never heard much Scottish music growing up, except bagpipes, but my hometown and surrounding areas of northern New Jersey had enough Polish-American communities to support at least some Polish-language programming, including plenty of polka music, and not just “Who Stole the Kishka?”

Maybe my own ethnic roots explain my interest in Ethnic Recordings in America: A Neglected Heritage, a Library of Congress American Folklife Center gem from the Government Book Talk out-of- print horde. This pioneering effort in the field includes an introduction to recorded ethnic music beginning in the 1920s, both major labels (Victor,Columbia, and Edison) and independents (including Gaelic [Irish], Italianstyle [Italian], Panhellion [Greek], La Patrie [French-Canadian], and Macksoud [Arabic], and many more). It also traces ethnic recording history in the U.S. After the big bust of the Great Depression, ethnic records boomed again in the later 1930s through the mid-1940s before becoming marginalized by assimilation, changing tastes, and the hard economics of the recording business. Yet pockets of traditional music, whether Tex-Mex, Cajun, or Finnish, still persist, and musicians now produce CDs or mp3s instead of vinyl records. Ethnic music even attracts non-ethnic musicians, who ring new changes on Balkan, Hawaiian, and Latino melodies – maybe even more so now than was the case in 1982, when this book was published.

Ethnic Recordings in America also features essays on Irish records, the great Mexican-American singer Lydia Mendoza, and yes, “The Sajewski Story: Eighty Years of Polish Music in Chicago.” Each essay is illustrated by rare photos of record labels, sheet music, and musicians of many ethnicities. Checklists and discographies also provide reference resources for those interested in probing deeper into the music and record collections of the Library of Congress and other archives. I didn’t have any luck finding the text via the Internet, but you can find copies through various used book sites, or in a library. As for me, it’s time to get in touch with my roots – but which roots? – Alex Beaton or Frankie Yankovic? Only in America!

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