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
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.
December 15, 2008
Pawlo Humeniuk was born ca. 1884 in Pidvolochys’k, in the Ukraine, immigrated to the United States around 1902, and began recording for Okeh records in late 1925. Legend has it that Humeniuk was in the store of Myron Surmach, a sheet music and record retailer, when an Okeh records representative came in to query Surmach on whether he knew of anyone who could play “village music,” whereupon Surmach immediately introduced Humeniuk. After several sides for Okeh, Humeniuk and his group of musicians (most of whom are anonymous, still) moved to Columbia Records for a stint that lasted about 10 years, until 1936. He made a few more records in 1940 and his career on records was over. Humeniuk died in 1965, leaving an amazing legacy of early Ukrainian folk music.
Today’s track is a combination of a kozachok (or kozak) and a trepak. The kozachok is derived from the word “Cossack” – and both dances are classically in 2/4 time. In other words, they can be raucous, uptempo numbers for social dancing! Besides Humeniuk’s outstanding fiddling, what makes this track particularly interesting is the addition of the cymbalom, a hammered dulcimer (played by one Ivan Lysechko, the only other known player besides Humeniuk on these sessions).
For more Humeniuk, check out Arhoolie’s King of the Ukrainian Fiddlers.
And a special thanks to Ian Nagoski, for his nice write-up on Excavated Shellac included in his article Pearl Diving, in the latest Arthur Magazine. Sadly, it looks like Arthur is hurting financially like so many others – which is not a good thing, as it has consistently been an entertaining and informative magazine. You can download a .pdf of the issue (and donate to the cause) on their website.
Issue Number: 27104-F
Matrix Number: 108160 (2-A-5)
January 21, 2008
To the person who spoke another language the phonograph assumed a more important role. In a country with strange customs and values, where other people spoke an unfamiliar language, a phonograph could and did provide a means of emotional retreat to one’s homeland. Records of familiar songs reinforced traditional values and an immigrant’s sense of self-worth…It meant that at least one American business was soliciting his patronage by recognizing, respectfully, who he was. — Richard K. Spottswood, “Commercial Ethnic Recordings in the United States,” in Ethnic Recordings in America. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1982.
Earlier in the blog I posted some Polish-American village music, so today I’m offering up a nice example of Ukrainian-American village music, complete with strong fiddle playing by Michal Thomas, recorded in New York City in March of 1931. Thomas, on the lead fiddle, is accompanied by a second fiddle, piano, tuba (I believe) and percussion in the form of bells.
The Kolomyjka (or kolomyika) is a well-known, traditional folk dance from the western Ukraine, getting its name from the Carpathian city of Kolomyia. Like many folk dances, it can be danced in a circle, and is usually performed on special occasions, such as weddings.
Columbia ruled the Ukrainian-American market in the late 1920s and early 1930s, recording approximately 430 Ukrainian records beginning in 1925. Interestingly, very few recordings were made by the major labels’ counterparts in Europe during the 1920s, making Columbia’s series especially important, musically and historically.
For more Michal Thomas, you can find a track on Arhoolie’s Ukrainian Village Music CD, and a track on the out-of-print LP on New World, Song of the Shepherd: Songs of the Slavic Americans.
Issue Number: 27296-F
Matrix Number: 112873 (1A-1)