Columbia Repertoire History: Foreign Language Recordings

Columbia Master Book, Volume I, Tim Brooks, ed.

Columbia88 had offered a limited number of foreign language recordings in its cylinder catalogs as early as the 1890s, a practice that continued during the early years of disc production. The very first Columbia disc catalog, in 1902, included a page and a half of vocal solos in French, German, Hebrew, Italian and Spanish. Artists (unnamed) included Emil Muench, Frank Seiden and the multilingual Emilio de Gogorza (as Edward Franklin). By 1906 the foreign language section in the general catalog had grown to ten pages and twelve languages.

Much of Columbia’s production in this area never appeared in the domestic listings, however. The company’s first major venture in Asia occurred in early 1903, when ninety numbers (1260-1350) were set aside for an expedition to Shanghai. Shortly thereafter the entire block from 2000-2999 was reserved for recordings made in Japan in April and July 1903 under the supervision of Kingoro Ezawa, with the assistance of Shuzo Yano of the San Francisco office. Ezawa was the scion of a wealthy Japanese trading family which introduced the Graphophone to Japan through its stores there.89 These Far Eastern recordings were sold primarily in that region, although a few have been found in the U.S. Listings of the Japanese recordings are reported to exist in that country.90

It quickly became apparent that a single domestic matrix series was not sufficient to keep track of recordings being made around the world, so new series were set up for different regions: 10,000s for Italy, 25,000s for England (begun ca. 1902), 35,000s for Russia and Poland, 40,000s for Germany, and 50,000s for France. Many others would follow, as outlined elsewhere in this volume. A Spanish series (5000s) was begun about 1903. Many of these foreign masters turned up on regular singled-faced U.S. issues.

With the advent of double-discs in 1908 Columbia began to vigorously pursue the domestic “ethnic trade.” The Columbia Record exhorted dealers to think ethnic: “Getting the foreign trade is not a mysterious art or science… You don't have to ‘walk Spanish’ to sell Spanish selections; juggle spaghetti when Antonio asks for some of Daddi’s Neapolitan street songs; nor get the palms of your hand sunburned to convince Abe Rosinsky he wants Cantor Karniol’s records.”91 Records in the ethnic E-series and Spanish C-series were widely marketed in the U.S. About 1909 Columbia published a 100-page catalog listing E-series discs and corresponding cylinders. Among the artists most frequently represented were Emil Muench (German), Romeo Berti, Francesco Daddi and Gina Ciaparelli (Italian), Joseph Saucier (French-Canadian) and Jan Stern (Polish). A separate catalog listed Spanish double-discs (“Discos Dobles”) in the “C” and “H” series. In 1912 this totalled 160 pages, and in 1914, 226 pages. Leading artists included the Police Band of Mexico, Curti’s Band and the Banda Española directed by either Emilio Murillo or “Señor Carlos A. Prince.” Another 45-page catalog in May 1913 listed “Dischi Doppi” for Italians.

By the early 1910s the “foreign department” had come under the energetic management of Anton Heindl, who produced some recordings in New York using ethnic American talent, but imported most of his repertoire from the company’s European laboratories. The outbreak of World War I in August 1914 effectively cut off the latter source of supply; 2,000 masters which Heindl had arranged for on a trip to the continent earlier that year were not forthcoming. As a result the company turned to ethnic American performers, opening a temporary studio in Chicago in 1915 where records in dozens of dialects were made.92 Two of Heindl’s principal Chicago discoveries were Frantisek Przybylski and his Polish “village orchestra” and Anton Brousek and his Bohemian military band ensemble.93 Both would record widely in years to come.

The size of Columbia’s foreign-language business can be inferred from the exceptionally large number of recordings made. Researcher Pekka Gronow estimates that between 1908 and 1923 the company issued about 5,000 records in the domestic popular “A” series, and 6,000 in the foreign language “E” series.94 Colorful catalogs and supplements were published for each nationality, often depicting idealized scenes of the homeland and prominently displaying the national colors, for those who could not read English.

Of course sales of individual ethnic titles were much smaller than for general popular releases, perhaps less than 1,000 copies in most cases. However production costs were low and catalog life long, so money could be made with a steady stream of this product. Occasionally there would be an unexpected breakout hit. One may have been a 1917 recording called “Nikolina” by Swedish comic Hjalmar Peterson (“Olle from Laughtersville”), on E3494, which according to anecdotal reports sold 100,000 copies over the years.95 Another legendary ethnic hit was 1926’s “Ukrainske Wesilie (Ukrainian Wedding),” a reenactment of a traditional Ukrainian wedding by fiddler Pawlo Humeniuk, on two sides of 12” 70002-F. “No Ukrainian woman could resist it,” reports Gronow, “it sold 125,000 copies in a year, not only to Ukrainians but also to Slovaks, Poles and Jews from Galicia.”96 While anecdotal sales figures such as this are suspect (no data survives in the Columbia files), they do indicate the general scale of ethnic sales. Crossovers into the general popular market were rare. One example may have been the frequently found “Three O'Clock in the Morning” by the Columbia Spanish Orchestra (E4772), released in late 1920 as a “Novelty Record” and perhaps the first U.S. recording of that soon-to-be famous song.

Ethnic religious recordings also enjoyed large sales. Cantor Joseph Rosenblatt recorded numerous sides for Columbia from 1914-1919, before switching to Victor in the 1920s, and Swedish evangelist Rev. J. A. Hultman of Worcester, Mass., built up a thriving maxi order business with personal recordings he made at Columbia during the mid and late teens.97

With the introduction of the “flag” label in December 1923 most ethnic releases sold in the U.S. were assigned to the new “F” (for “foreign”) series, which was subdivided into blocks (1F to 324F for Bohemian, 1000F to 1267F for Croatian, etc.). An “X” suffix denoted export titles for South America, the Far East and some other territories, although these discs were also sold in some sections of the U.S. Columbia continued to actively pursue the foreign-language business until the early 1930s, when the general collapse of record sales made it no longer feasible.

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The Columbia Master Book Discography, 4 Volumes, Complied by Brian Rust and Tim Brooks. Reprinted by permission.