I’m very happy that Pekka Gronow has offered us another guest post, after his fascinating article on Ukrainian music in June of 2015. Pekka, as I mentioned in his previous post, is a pillar in the world of discography, audio archives, and ethnomusicology. He’s an adjunct professor of musicology at the University of Helsinki, although readers may know him from his published works in conjunction with Dick Spottswood, his book An International History of the Recording Industry (written with Ilpo Saunio), and any number of appearances and articles on these and related subjects.
This one is a bit different – as Pekka explains, there was little to nothing recorded in Latvia in the way of “folk” music… – JW
The Train from Riga to Valka
Today we know a great deal about the history of recorded sound. Many artists, labels, and genres have been documented in detail, and some countries even have comprehensive national discographies – online or in print. There is not much about the history of recorded jazz or opera that has not already been researched.
Yet there are still many blank spots on the discographical map. I am not just thinking of exotic countries such as Burma or Bolivia. Even the recording history of many smaller European countries is poorly documented, unless they happen to have internationally known musical genres such as rebetika or fado. What do we know about the recording history of Chile or Slovakia? Are we missing something?
You can imagine my surprise when recently I came across a history of Latvian recordings from 1903 to 1944. How many such recordings can there be? The book soon dispelled any doubts I might have had on the subject. Latviešu skaņuplašu vesture, by Atis Gunivaldis Bērtiņš, is a beautifully illustrated book with numerical listings of several thousand Latvian 78s, beginning with the first recordings on the Gramophone label made in Riga in 1903, a detailed history of Latvian record labels, and biographies of major artists.[i]
From 1945 to 1990, Latvia was an involuntary member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; it was not politically correct to study the cultural productions of the former independent Republic of Latvia. Although some Latvian institutions had small collections of 78s, the largest collection can be found in the author’s private museum on a farmhouse near Kuldiga. (The museum is open to visitors by appointment, and last summer I found the owner a most congenial host, but it is a bit off the main roads).[ii]
A few years ago the National Library of Latvia embarked on a project to build a comprehensive collection of historical Latvian recordings. This resulted in a cooperative project which I believe to be unique: a virtual, digital, national collection of historical recordings which is to a large extent based on records in private collections. On the library’s website, we can listen to more than two thousand historical recordings. Most of us are unlikely to ever see copies of the records listed in Latviešu skaņuplašu vesture, but now it is easy to listen to a cross-section of pre-1945 Latvian recordings.[iii]
After reading the book, it becomes clear that during the first half of the 20th century, Riga was actually one of the centres of the European recording industry. (Even if you do not read Latvian, you will get a great deal of new information here.) Riga was known as “the Paris of the North,” a rapidly growing art nouveau city, and in 1903 Gramophone Company opened its second continental factory here to serve the rapidly growing Eastern European market. Soon Pathé, Lyrophon, and other European labels also had Latvian catalogues.
The story becomes really interesting in 1931 when the businessman Helmars Rudzitis started the Bellaccord label. It got its start by pressing imported masters from Artiphon, Kalliope and occasionally even American ARC, but soon built an impressive catalogue with local artists. The main categories are classical music, comic songs, operettas, and dance music. There was also some Russian repertoire, and a few Jewish titles. During the war, when Latvia was first occupied by the Russians and then by the Germans, Bellaccord recorded “A song for Stalin” and then “The song of the Latvian legionnaires.” The company also had special Estonian, Finnish, Lithuanian, and Swedish series’ for export.
What is there to hear? If you like Verdi, it is refreshing to hear Il Provenza sul mar sung in Latvian. If you are looking for authentic folk music on 78s, you will be disappointed. Like in most Northern and Central European countries, little folk music appeared on 78 rpm records. However, you can get a feel of Latvian folk melodies by listening to recordings made by classically trained artists. The category tautas dziesmas / folk songs on the website includes 218 titles, which give us a chance to hear a broad selection of folk songs, mainly performed by opera singers.[iv] Try, for instance, Apsegloju melnu kuili by Ernests Elks-Elksnītis, with amazingly good sound from 1908.[v]
To me, the most interesting are the recordings of Latvian pop songs of from the 1920s and 1930s. All over Europe and America, record companies were turning out fox trots, tangos and waltzes on an industrial scale, and at first hearing they may all sound the same, but they are not. Every country had its local tunesmiths and regional variants of international trends. It is fascinating to follow the flow of popular music across national borders. Today, English-language popular music prevails, but in Latvia in the 1920s, there was little evidence of Anglo-American domination. Instead of Tin Pan Alley, we find Latvian adaptations of German dance hits and film tunes. Only towards the end of the 1930s, there is an occasional American swing melody, like “Jeepers creepers” or “Bei mir bistu shein.”
There was also a flow of tunes between the smaller European countries. My special favourite is Vilciens no Rīgas uz Valku (The train from Riga to Valka), recorded by Osvalds Uršteins with a “jazz band” in 1938. In spite of the reference to jazz, the song is a comic waltz recounting a train ride from Riga to Valka, a small town on the Estonian border.
No Rīgas iet vilciens uz Valku.
Uz platformas stāvu es viens.
Te redzu es meiteni smalku,
Tai vaidziņš kā medus un piens.
There is a train from Riga to Valka
I stand on the platform alone
Then I see a pretty maiden
Her cheeks are like honey and milk
They meet on the train, and as it turns out that both will be leaving the train in Cesis, they decide to meet the same evening in the castle park (a popular tourist attraction even today). But the girl was just playing, and in the evening the man waits in vain:
Zem bērziem es vakarā staigāju viens,
Nakts ir jau pagalam, bet nenāk neviens.
Cik skumja ir vasara, acīs mirdz asaras,
Tevi es aizmirst vairs nespēju.
Under the birches, in the evening I walk alone
The night has gone, but no one comes
How sad is the summer, tears glitter in my eyes
I can never forget you
The song has become a “golden oldie” in Latvia, although it has not been on the market since 1945. The people seem to believe that it is a local song; you can find the full lyrics on a Latvian website where the author is listed as Alfreds Vinters, a productive composer of the era who fled to Sweden after the war.[vi] But the label clearly shows that the song is of Finnish origin. The composer is listed as “E. Salama”, and the original recording by Matti Jurva and the Ramblers orchestra was a big hit in Finland in the same year. The Finnish original, Savonmuan Hilima, is also the story of a train journey and a disappointed lover, although in this case the train is going from Kouvola to Kuopio. Even a birch tree occurs in both versions.[vii]
Very few Finnish pop songs have ever been translated into foreign languages. How did this song become known in Latvia? As it happens, Matti Jurva also recorded in Riga for Bellaccord’s Finnish series (but not this title), and was obviously successful in promoting his songs as well. But there were not many people then (or today) able to translate songs from Finnish into Latvian; the name of the translator remains a mystery.
After 1945, Rudzītis migrated to the United States, where he published his memoirs in 1984. He died at the ripe age of 97 in 2001.[viii] There is a train from Riga to Valka even today; it is the longest rail connection in Latvia. Vilciens no Rīgas uz Valku is also the name of a popular Latvian TV series that is accessible on YouTube. In the series, a host dressed as a conductor interviews guests in a saloon car. My favourite episode features Sestā Jūdze (“The sixth mile”), a Latvian country and western group.[ix] It reminds us that there are many examples of fascinating local popular music in Europe which are ingenious mixes of many traditions. Latvian “Kantri mūzika” groups wear orthodox cowboy attire, guitars and pedal steel dominate the sound, but the repertoire consists almost exclusively of original songs in Latvian.[x] I only hope there is an archive somewhere which preserves all these fascinating YouTube clips for future generations.
Thanks to Jukka Rislakki for helping with the song translation.
Osvalds Uršteins – Vilciens no Rīgas uz Valku
Issue Number: 3756
Matrix Number: M 4656
[i] Atis Gunivaldis Bērtiņš: Latviešu skaņuplašu vēsture. Laika Grāmata, Riga 2015. 367 pp., illustrated, discographies.
[vii] Matti Jurva, Ramblers orkesteri: Savonmuan Hilima (E. Salama). Columbia DY 171, 1938
[viii] Helmars Rudzītis: Manas dzīves dēkas. Grāmatu Draugs, Brooklyn, N.Y. 1984