August 14, 2009
I’m very happy to present another guest post on Excavated Shellac. This time, from renowned jazz and blues collector Russ Shor. Russ, for many years, has been the US editor of VJM (Vintage Jazz Mart), now in its 56th year. VJM is famous not only for its rare jazz and blues auctions, often filled with top rarities, but also its grading chart, which is used (or should be) by all the professionals in this esoteric world of old records. For those who keep track of the hardcore jazz and blues 78s out there, Russ is all over the infamous journal 78 Quarterly, as a regular contributor to their “Rarest 78s” column, called by 78 Quarterly-proprietor Pete Whelan as “a spiritual journey into the realm of greed.” A fellow California resident, Russ and I caught up recently and he graciously offered to tell his story about this very peculiar recording – one that I think that listeners will definitely appreciate, as it covers much ground. – JW
This disc on the Young India label is something of a mystery. Recorded in Bombay in the late 1930s, by (apparently) a Goanese duo, it illustrates what an international crossroads that city was during the Raj era – especially when it came to recording.
The side by Lewis Borges borrows (amazingly) the tune of “Little Log Cabin in the Lane,” a song published in the US in 1871, which, by the 1920s, had become a staple of country music recorded by Fiddling John Carson, Riley Puckett, and others. In fact, Puckett’s 1926 wide-selling recording of that song seemed to have been the model for this recording because the guitarist attempts his accompaniment style. Unfortunately, I don’t know the language so I cannot tell whether the original lyrics had been translated or whether the performers simply adapted the melody to entirely new lyrics. In fact, I don’t even recognize the language in which they are singing.
Bombay, until recently, was a 78 RPM wonderland. The first time I went there for business was in 1984. Sneaking a side trip to the Chor Bazaar, I stumbled on an entire block of shops with huge stacks of records – uncountable thousands – piled every which way, inside and out. I made for a stand actually built from 78s stacks and began flipping through discs on his counter. Actually, the discs WERE the counter. The proprietor (I wish I could find the photo I took of him and his wares) quickly informed me that all non-Indian discs were “English records,” even if they were Congolese choirs. At least that helped narrow my search somewhat.
The multitudes of Indian 78s was no longer a surprise after I learned of the history of the country’s recording industry. Recording began in India around 1902 and developed quickly and prolifically immediately after. With some 50 princely states with their own languages, the opportunities for European companies were limitless and they took full advantage. Before long, however, the British Raj authorities gathered in all of the recording (and importing of records) to British companies, dominated of course by HMV and (later) Columbia. Young India, named after Gandhi’s independence organization, was one of the very few pre-war locally-run operations and, because it was closed out of most of the burgeoning Bollywood business, tended to record classical pieces and oddities like this example.
Indeed, in the 25-plus years of traveling to Bombay (now Mumbai) I’ve encountered a number of such cross-cultural mysteries – a singer who billed himself as the “Jimmy Rodgers Blue Yodeler of Ceylon” and a 1930s disc by (I assume) an African group called the Rhino Boys (accordion, banjo, maybe 2 guitars) doing “Down in Honolulu Looking Them Over,” a 1916 Irving Berlin tune recorded by Al Jolson.
By the 1920s, India was a major record manufacturing center, pressing discs for British rights holders throughout the Southern hemisphere. This explains why a fair number of African records turn up there. Plus, they pressed a huge amount of American material for sale in the region, which spawned the cross-cultural oddity I mentioned above.
Indeed, while jazz writers have, for many years, written about the spread of jazz around the world from 1919 onwards, Hawaiian music and American country music also enjoyed wide dissemination. Judging by the number of Jimmie Rodgers 78s I’ve found in India and Africa (at least in the former English-speaking colonies), his discs were certainly quite popular – at least sufficient to spawn an imitator in Ceylon. I’ve also found seen a number of sides by the Carter Family, Puckett, the inevitable Bud Billings-Carson Robison and various string bands (Columbia gave them the blanket pseudonym The Alabama Barnstormers during the ‘20s). In the Hawaiian field, recordings by Frank Ferera & Anthony Franchini sold all over the world – again I have seen them in Indian bazaars, African markets, Turkish, Chinese and Japanese junk shops, and European record fairs. Given their popularity (and the popularity of the Hawaiian troupes that worked the tropical hotel circuits around the globe), it was inevitable that local ensembles would pick up the sound record their own material. There was also a fair amount of Caribbean music to be had in India (Lecuona Cuban Boys and Rico’s Creole Band were big sellers), particularly during the rhumba craze of the mid-to-late ‘30s.
The end of the 1930s saw the end of these types of ensembles. By then, Bollywood was producing 300 or more films each year – the sheer numbers of songs from these productions pretty much overwhelmed most other material, especially these local groups who borrowed songs from everywhere and made them their own.
As a post-script, the 1994 riots in Bombay were centered in the bazaars, which brought the destruction of many of the shops offering 78s. Several survived and now offer their goods on Ebay, but there’s an occasional nugget left in the stacks for an in-person visitor.
– Russ Shor
Label: Young India
Issue Number: DA 5121
Matrix Number: NG 322