In Poland, on the slopes of the Carpathian mountains near what is now the Slovakia border, is the historical homeland of the Lemkos, also called Rus’, or Rusyns. For centuries, they have lived a rural, economically humble, agrarian lifestyle, centered around small villages. With the exception of a brief few years after World War I, they have never had their own representative government, and have been an ethnic minority under the rule of a larger entity, sometimes by force. During World War II, for instance, a hundred thousand Lemkos were driven from their homes and resettled throughout the Ukraine. Today, Lemkos remain in the Ukraine and Poland, in the Balkan states, Slovakia, and the United States, where Lemko immigrants began arriving in the late 19th century, in order to escape economic hardships.

In New York City, from 1928 to 1930, dozens of recordings were made of authentic Lemko folk music by immigrants, some of whom had only recently arrived in the country. There were some Lemko recordings made previous to 1928, but these were mainly ethnographic field recordings on cylinders. And, conversely, there were Lemko recordings made after 1930, but they had a more polished sheen. The recordings from 1928 to 1930 are truly the zeitgeist of early Lemko folk music. How did this happen, when Lemkos represented a very small immigrant population, especially compared to Ukrainians and Polish immigrants? How did this music ever get recorded in such a short window?

According to Walter Maksimovich and Bogdan Horbal’s fine history Lemko Folk Music on Wax Cylinders (1901-1913) and American Records (1928-1930), it’s all because of one man – a streetcar motorman from Brooklyn named Stephen Shkimba. Shkimba arrived in the U.S. in 1912, and essentially stewed for 16 years, waiting and waiting for someone – anyone – to begin to release recordings from his Lemko homeland. Finally, in 1928 he marched straight into Okeh records and demanded they record some! Okeh were skeptical, assuming that the music would be too close to Polish and Ukrainian music to make a difference – but they consented, and even charged Shkimba for the session. Shkimba was a bass player, and gathered musicians quickly. Their first Lemko record was considered a success, and Okeh signed Shkimba to a contract. Meanwhile, Okeh was bought by the American Columbia label, and Columbia also began recording Lemko music. Lemko wedding songs, folk dances, skits, religious music, and folk ballads began to hit the streets.

You’ll notice that this record doesn’t just say “Lemko” on it – it says “Lemko-Ukrainian.” How these records were marketed and sold to a small immigrant population is really interesting. Not only did Columbia and Okeh use the “Lemko-Ukrainian” qualifier, they also sold some as “Lemko-Russian.” Ukrainian and Russian records were often hot sellers for Columbia, so they must have wanted to capitalize on any potential cross-over and musical/cultural similarity. Further, Lemko musicians often recorded Polish songs during their sessions, and those were then issued on the Polish series, sometimes under altered names or pseudonyms. Likewise, some Lemko musicians recorded Ukrainian records, issued on the Ukrainian series – and the same with Russian, and Slovak. Lemko instrumental dance tunes, in particular, were cross marketed to all manner of cultures, including Hungarian and Lithuanian. My point is that the music of Lemko performers was in many immigrant households, whether they were aware of it or not, although they may not have been Lemko songs.

Maksimovich and Horbal also discuss where the records were sold. Some of the records were naturally sold out of local gramophone shops in immigrant neighborhoods, but a significant amount were sold by the musicians themselves, out of their homes. Some were sold in small businesses that catered to Lemkos – an ice cream store in Clifton, New Jersey, for instance. They were also advertised in small newspapers, such as the Lemko Association of the USA newspaper.

This recording, an instrumental taneć (dance) with wonderful strings, was recorded in March of 1929. Samuel Pilip immigrated to New York in September of 1923, and was originally from Zyndranowa, in the heart of Lemko country in Poland (and the current site of a Lemko historic museum). Pilip made about 5 records. Ivan (John) Karliak played with both Pilip, as well as his own band, with his brother, and issued several records, only one of them Lemko.

Samuel Pilip, John Karliak, i ich Lemkiewska Orchestra – Lemkiwsky Sztayer, Taneć

Technical Notes

Label: Columbia
Issue Number: 27177-F
Matrix Number: 110461

To buy Maksimovich and Horbal’s book, where I gleaned most of this information and which comes with a DVD featuring hundreds of mp3s of Lemko recordings, please go here.

To hear more Samuel Pilip on CD, check Arhoolie’s Ukrainian Village Music CD, which also features tracks by the Lemko group, the Orchestra Bratia “Holutiaky-Kuziany.” Dust-to-Digital’s Black Mirror also contains a track by Stefan Shkimba.

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