Here is another of this blog’s infrequent forays into the world of early music reocordings. While visiting Sioux Falls this past weekend, I made a detour into a new (to me) thrift store calls Y’s Buys (it’s run by the YMCA). The place was huge. A bit overpriced, but ten times better than the measly Saver’s that’s further down 41st.
They had a small selection of 78rpm records, which at $1.99 apiece were ridiculously overpriced. I managed to find two interesting ones that weren’t broken (I mourn the death-by-neglect of “The Hipster’s Boogie”). I would never have paid their price if they hadn’t been a pair of labels that I’ve never seen before, and will unlikely come across again soon.
Herschel Gold Seal immediately intrigued me with its obviously Jewish moniker and local Northwestern Phonograph Supply Co name. Usually, these indicate a very small record company with a limited catalog and primarily long-forgotten regional artists. The hard part about researching such labels is that today there is almost no surviving information about them. To my surprise, my initial research lasted only five minutes before I hit pay dirt.
A few years ago, science journalist and musical history buff Kurt Gegenhuber began a quest to discover the musicians who played “The Moonshiner’s Dance, Part 1″, featured in the legendary Anthology of American Folk Music. That record was also a Herschel Gold Seal release, and it led Gegenhuber on a sprawling historical journey through the Twin Cities’ early 20th-Century Jewish culture, a journey he recounts in his terrific article Music, Moonshine, and Mahjong. It turns out that Herschel Gold Seal was a house label maintained by Gennett Records for Harry Bernstein’s chain of Minneapolis/St Paul record stores in the late ’20s and early ’30s. The relationship probably originated with the fact that Harry Bernstein’s was a former Starr Piano distributor, and Starr Piano was Gennett’s parent company (the recording division changed its name from Starr to Gennett in 1917).
Gennett Records is a sprawling story in itself. They seemed to specialize in leasing their vast library of recordings to many smaller record labels. Adding to the confusion, they changed their name to Champion in 1930 but continued releasing some of the same recordings previously released on Gennett. I have found side A of this record, “Meadow-Lark” by the Royal Troubadors, on three different labels under as many band names, all apparently the same recording. This particular record, BTW, is a relabel of Gennett 3388, issued around 1927.
Side A: Meadow-Lark, by the Royal Troubadors. Recorded 10/04/1926. This side has heavy surface damage. I did the best I could to minimize the noise. It’s listenable, but not great.
Side B: Sunday, by Harry Pollack and His Club Maurice Diamonds. Recorded 10/01/1926. Again, listenable, but the quality was pretty bad to begin with, and you can do only so much with a disk that’s had its dynamic range ground down to nothing by multiple passes with a steel needle.
As a rule, I hate polka, but I was delighted to find this disk. WNAX is well-known to anyone who grew up in South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, or western Minnesota or Iowa. An unusually powerful station for a relatively small community–in the ’40s it claimed to have the country’s tallest transmitting tower–WNAX was one of the most popular stations in the predominantly rural upper midwest. The rest of the country better recognizes its most famous musical prodigy, Lawrence Welk, whose decade-long stint as leader of the WNAX house band took him from struggling road musician to household name.
After the Welk era, WNAX housed many acts, mostly specializing in the polka-style music the heaviliy-Germanic upper-plains population enjoyed. One of the longest-lived of these groups was the WNAX Bohemian Band. The Bohemian Band could be heard every weeknight at 6:15, and played under the sponsorship of Minneapolis-based Grain Belt Beer. (The “Grainbelt Polka” song featured on this record is surely a thinly-veiled advertisement for their sponsor.)
The WNAX Bohemian Band. L-R: Billy Dean, Homer Schmidt (a veteran of Lawrence Welk’s ensemble), Bill Tonyan (still alive and performing!), Keith Eide, Rex Hays, Lynn Edwards, Eddie Texel, and Fred Burgi.
I left the noise level higher in these two recordings, because the dynamic range was so unusually well-preserved in these little-played sides that I didn’t want to sacrifice it. They’re still pretty good quality. The A side and B side are a guess, as the record has no catalog number. I went by the sequence of their recording matrix numbers.
Side A: Marenka Polka
Side B: Grainbelt Polka