Columbia Repertoire History: Political Recordings

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

In the years before radio politicians could reach the electorate only through the columns of newspapers, or by travelling endlessly around the country making personal appearances. During the 1908 Presidential campaign a Lincoln, Nebraska Edison dealer had the bright idea to ask native son William Jennings Bryan to make recordings of his views on the issues, which could then be played for voters in rallies far and wide.98 During the summer Bryan recorded for Edison and Victor in Lincoln, and for Columbia at its New York studio. To capture Republican candidate William Howard Taft all three companies had to truck portable equipment to his hometown of Hot Springs, Virginia, in August. Columbia’s recordings were in a special matrix series numbered in the 14,000s. In addition, Columbia released talks by the Prohibition candidates.

Victor and Edison also made political recordings during the 1912 Presidential Election, but Columbia did not. Political recording did not resume at Columbia until January 1918, when a civic-minded lawyer named Guy Golterman approached the company about manufacturing and distributing records by a wide range of public figures, under the name “Nation’s Forum.” With the backing of the U.S. State Department, Golterman was able to persuade many important leaders to commit their thoughts to wax over the next two years. Probably the best known Nation’s Forum release was “From the Battlefields of France,” a short message to Americans by General John J. Pershing, recorded in France in March 1918. During 1919 and 1920 the project recorded many political candidates, but after the 1920 Presidential election it seemed to peter out. Sadly, the masters of these historic recordings—which were supposed to preserve the voices of the leaders of the day for all time—are now lost. Columbia did not retain them, as they were the property of the Nation’s Forum organization, and their disposition is unknown.99

Columbia attempted to record the inaugural address of Calvin Coolidge in 1925, apparently off a radio feed, but unfortunately there were “cutter problems” and the engineers wound up with 24 minutes of the 40 minute speech.100 A recording of the Franklin D. Roosevelt inaugural in 1933 was more successful and was issued as “Set Number 500,” which hardly anybody bought.101

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