Edison’s “Foreign” Discs: Tentative Attempts and Vague Nods

It’s been stated by Michael Sherman and others in this series: despite his genius, Thomas Edison had conservative taste in music and was gradually going deaf. These two traits, along with his unyielding belief in his own discernment, already provide anecdotal evidence that at its onset, Edison’s disc-selling business would face significant competition based on content alone. While Edison’s discs were, at first, superbly manufactured and noiseless in comparison to Victor and Columbia’s products, he was late to the flat disc market and his discs were not playable on his competitors’ gramophones, thus his artists and repertoire department would have had to play catch-up to attract artists and provide saleable material. This last point is perhaps most evident when considering Edison’s “foreign” or “ethnic” output.[1]

From 1912 to 1929, Edison issued a mere 320 discs[2] of performances for non-English speakers and ethnic minorities in the United States. In comparison, Victor issued approximately 6,000 discs of global music between 1908 and 1920 alone. Columbia produced an even larger number from 1908 to 1923, with their B-, C-, and mammoth E- series’ that covered global music of all stripes. This is, of course, not counting both Victor and Columbia’s earlier efforts to offer a diverse array of discs in various languages, with overseas sessions as far as China and Japan, both of which alone yielded hundreds of discs. Furthermore, not only were their repertoires diverse, but both Victor and Columbia had active sister companies (and in some instances, partnerships with unrelated companies) in Europe which would loan masters recorded overseas to be re-branded with the logos of their American counterparts, increasing the amount of content they could place in stores that catered to immigrant and other non-English speaking communities.

This is not to suggest that Edison had been oblivious of the market. In fact, prior to the introduction of their discs, Edison had consistently been recording global music up to 1912 – it’s just that the recordings appeared on cylinders and those efforts are only partially documented, with many of the cylinders themselves now impossibly rare. Edison had, for example, issued up to 46 cylinders in Chinese as early as 1903, and another 249 by 1909; Japanese music was also available on Edison cylinders by 1903; they issued early danzons by Cuban bandleader Pablo Valenzuela ca. 1907, at least two years before his swath of important recordings for Columbia; they jumped on the Hawaiian bandwagon and issued cylinder recordings by early mainstays such as Toots Paka, in 1909; they produced hundreds of cylinders available for Mexican consumers, recorded over several field trips to Mexico City beginning in 1904; and of course there was a varied assortment of cylinders for speakers of European languages. It appears Edison continued to occasionally produce cylinders for the “foreign” market after 1912, while at the same time producing their flat discs.  

For reasons unknown, it seems that whatever momentum or focus that existed at Edison for recording global music on cylinders was not carried over during the introduction and production of their flat disc records. However, while paltry in number and largely unsurprising in content, some interesting observations can be made. For one, Edison gamely moved toward recording well-established, operatic vocalists, many of whom had already been engaged by their competitors, and were probably considered reliable sellers. For European language speakers, this included, among others, German tenor Paul Reimers who recorded many sides for Victor from 1914-1917, several with Alma Gluck; Swiss tenor Fritz Zimmermann, who recorded for both Columbia and Victor; French soprano Odette le Fontenay, who had recorded for Columbia; Norwegian-American tenor Carsten Woll, also a Victor and Columbia artist; and Armenian Torcom Bézazian, a European-trained baritone who had also recorded for Columbia and who, at least for his sessions for Edison, sang in French. For Swedish language speakers, Edison engaged fifteen sides by Joel Mossberg, another who had recorded dozens of sides prior for both Victor and Columbia. Ditto Ukrainian singer Michael Zazulak, who had a similar recording history.

In short, the overwhelming majority of the material in Edison’s “foreign” series was sophisticated popular or classical music, predominantly accompanied by small orchestras or piano, perfectly in keeping with the trends of the day. Notable exceptions included the small collection of Jewish material, which featured an early disc by klezmer bandleader Israel J. Hochman and his “Yiddisher Orchester.” Edison recorded Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian singers, but also an accordion player named Hugo Johnson who played eight “Scandinavian” waltzes and one Swedish hambo folkdance. Another anomaly in the series were the only Balkan selections, performed by a string band named the Jugo-slav Tamburitza Orchestra. The Spanish-language selections included material by massive stars such as Juan Pulido and Mexican tenor José Mojica, but also included five discs by Cuban singers Juan de la Cruz and Bienvenido Léon, accompanied by guitar – perhaps the series’ rootsiest players. More folkloric acts with crossover appeal were included, such as Alexander Kiriloff’s extremely popular balalaika orchestra, and the touring Spanish string sextet known as “Rondalla Usandizaga.” However, it’s also true that most of these artists, too, had already recorded for other companies, even Cruz and Léon.

In conclusion, Edison’s global music selection is indicative of a company with sophisticated tastes, but little room to expand their horizons. They may not have felt the need to. In Fresno, California, the phonograph store run by Armenian K.H. Nishkian was written up multiple times in the Edison Phonograph Monthly as a sterling example of hard-fought, successful salesmanship of Edison products…all without having one Armenian disc or cylinder in the catalog.

As of this writing, 262 recordings in this series have been digitized by UC Santa Barbara. Comparisons can now be made between Edison and his competitors in terms of musical content, and how that content may have served different populations.

-Jonathan Ward, Excavated Shellac (Jonathan runs the Excavated Shellac website and produces reissues of historic recordings with the Dust-to-Digital label. He works for the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, and is the current Vice-Chair of ICOM's International Committee for Documentation (CIDOC)).

Edison's "Foreign" Disc Series

Additional Sources

Ethnic Recordings in America: A Neglected Heritage. Washington: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, 1982. (https://catalog.hathitrust.org/api/volumes/oclc/6357839.html)

Spottswood, Dick. Columbia Record C Series, 1908-1923. PDF file. June 11, 2020. https://78records.files.wordpress.com/2017/01/columbia-c_spottswood.pdf

Spottswood, Dick. Columbia Record E Series, 1908-1923. PDF file. June 11, 2020. https://78records.files.wordpress.com/2020/05/msp-spottswood_col-e-series.pdf

Spottswood, Richard K. Ethnic Music on Records: A Discography of Ethnic Recordings Produced in the United States, 1893-1942. 7 vols. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.(http://worldcatlibraries.org/wcpa/oclc/20670450)

Du, Jun Min. “The Development of Chinese Records to 1911.” Antique Phonograph News. January-February 2008. https://www.capsnews.org/apn2008-1.htm 

Special thanks to Harout Arakelian.

[1] ”Foreign” and “ethnic” were terms used by American record companies to classify, for dealers, their mostly non-classical recorded music in languages other than English. “Foreign” was at least in part a misnomer, since many of the artists who performed and recorded discs in non-English languages were, of course, also American-born. And “ethnic,” apart from the word’s racially-tinged history of solely being used as a term to indicate anything non-Anglo, was also a misnomer, since many discs lumped into the “ethnic” category were not musically traditional or representing the specific roots of any one culture, and in fact contained music that was purely popular, such as genteel parlor music based on generic European song and dance forms. For the purposes of this article and beyond, I consider all of these recordings, traditional or otherwise, to be part of, broadly, “global music.”

[2] The number of releases known, so far, per DAHR. An additional group of 11 discs were intended for release on Edison's needle-type discs, but they were never issued.