110 Years Ago at Victor: Introducing the
Fisk University Jubilee Quartet With Photographs from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s When Malindy Sings
Victor announces the first Fisk Jubilee Singers releases (catalog courtesy of John Bolig)
On February 19, 1910, the Victor Talking Machine Company released the first recordings by a quartet from the Fisk Jubilee Singers — a widely celebrated group that nevertheless had been ignored thus far by the recording companies. They were not the first black vocal group to record, by any means (see Tim Brooks’Lost Soundsfor more on that), but those groups had failed to gain traction in the record market, and their names were mostly dim memories by the time Victor released its first Fisk records.
Blues-and-gospel purists often dismiss these records as pandering to white audiences with “sanitized” or “Europeanized” treatment of traditional spirituals. But that was precisely the strategy — to present black music and performers in a concert setting, in a bid to attract white audiences who might otherwise have never considered attending a performance or purchasing a record by a black artist — and it succeeded wonderfully. Victor’s initial Fisk offerings were outstanding sellers and are still among the most commonly encountered records of the period. The Fisk singers, with periodic personnel changes, went on to make dozens of recordings for Victor, Edison, and Columbia from 1910 to early 1926.
FISK UNIVERSITY JUBILEE QUARTET: I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray
Camden NJ: December 8, 1909
Victor 16448 (mx. B 8422 – 2)
Released February 10, 1909; Deleted 1923.
For their other February 1910 Fisk release, Victor slipped into more typical “good-old-plantation-days” mode, having the group record Stephen Foster’s “Old Black Joe,” and backing it with J. A. Myers’ recitation of the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem, “When Malindy Sings.” Although Dunbar was African-American, and his work can be deeply moving at times, he employed stereotypical minstrel-show dialect that is almost unreadable, and difficult to stomach, today. Myers’ recitation is an anomaly among the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ recorded output.
From Paul Laurence Dunbar’s When Malindy Sings (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1903). The book is notable for its photographs by members of the Hampton Institute Camera Club, headed by Leigh Richard Miner; names of the individual photographers unfortunately were not given. (Mainspring Press collection):
University Press of Mississippi
Legendary musicologist, historian, and producer Dick Spottswood turns his attention to Bill and Earl Bollick, two brothers from Hickory, North Carolina, who as the Blue Sky Boys captivated record buyers and radio audiences in the 1930s.
The Bolicks bucked the latest trends in country music during the years leading up to World War II, preferring close-harmony renditions of southern folk tunes, old-time songs, hymns, and new compositions in a similar mold. Self-accompanied on guitar and mandolin, they developed a low-key, distinctive and readily recognizable sound that was sometimes imitated but never quite duplicated.
Their story is told in part by Bill Bolick himself, whose recollections are skillfully interwoven with Dick Spottswood’s perceptive commentary. Even if the Blue Sky Boys are not your cup of tea, you’ll find much of interest here, such as the role that radio played in disseminating country music, and how sponsors and station owners of the period treated or mistreated their artists. There are numerous illustrations (many of them rarely seen or previously unpublished), a detailed discography, and other useful backmatter.
Dick Spottswood is the author of numerous important works, the most monumental being his five-volume Ethnic Music on Records. He now lives in Naples, Florida, where he produces and hosts Bluegrass Country’s online version of “The Dick Spottswood Show” (aka “The Obsolete Music Hour”). The Blue Sky Boys has won a well-deserved 2019 Award for Excellence from the Association for Recorded Sound Collections.
Leslie Gerber, Tim Brooks, and Steve Smolian, producers
Parnassus PACD-96067 (CD)
This ground-breaking CD focuses on black classical and operatic performers of the early twentieth century, a group largely overlooked by modern writers (a notable exception being co-producer Tim Brooks, whose Lost Sounds explored many of them in depth for the first time).
The recordings fall into three basic groups: Roland Hayes’ privately made Columbias; the 1919 Broome Specials (Broome having been the first black-owned record label); and the Black Swan operatic series of 1921–1922. As experienced collectors know, these records range from scarce to extraordinarily rare, and assembling them all is a notable achievement. Twenty of the twenty-five selections are reissued here for the first time.
Understand that this is not an “easy listening” compilation, from either a musical or a technological standpoint. Steve Smolian has been diligent in his sound-restoration work, but clean copies do not always exist of records this rare (some of which were poorly recorded to begin with), and the sound quality varies accordingly. Musically, there are some gems here, as well as some failures that nevertheless are worth hearing, for historical perspective if nothing else.
Black Swan’s Harry Pace misjudged his audience, stubbornly clinging to the belief that they would flock to what he called “numbers of a higher standard,” even as meager sales proved him wrong. Although it might be true that some of these artists failed to gain wider recognition because of their color, voices and technique that fell short of the demands of their material certainly are also to blame. The Harlem Renaissance, like any cultural movement, had its share of the mediocre and the pretentious, some of whom are on display here.
As expected, Roland Hayes emerges as the most promising performer of the lot. The fact that he had to pay Columbia to record him — only to move to England, where he was welcomed by the Vocalion label and went on to achieve international acclaim — speaks volumes about the times. Perhaps the most musically interesting items are the two piano solos by R. Nathaniel Dett, playing his own compositions. Co-producer Leslie Gerber has provided excellent program notes, including biographical sketches based in part on Lost Sounds.
While not for the casual listener, Black Swans can be a rewarding experience if approached with an open mind and some knowledge and appreciation of black history.
North Carolina native Samantha Bumgarner inspired Pete Seeger to take up the banjo, performed for British royalty, and (with Eva Davis) was the first female country music performer to make records.
The team of Bumgarner and Davis cut five titles in Columbia’s New York studio on April 22, 1924, three of which were released. Bumgarner returned to the studio the following day, without Davis, to record seven more titles, five of which were released.
Bumgarner’s records appear to have sold reasonably well throughout the Appalachian region; we’ve found copies as far north as the South Mountain area in Pennsylvania, and as far west as the Alleghenies in West Virginia. But Bumgarner failed to attract a national following, and Columbia did not invite her or Davis back.
However, Bumgarner would remain active in the Asheville, North Carolina, area for several decades. Beginning in 1928 she was a star attraction at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, an annual Asheville event founded and managed by folklorist/performer Bascom Lamar Lunsford. Pete Seeger, who heard Bumgarner perform there in the mid-1930s, claimed her as his inspiration for taking up the five-string string banjo.
In June 1939, Lunsford took Bumgarner to perform for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at a White House concert staged by the WPA, which featured such diverse talent as Marian Anderson, Kate Smith, Josh White, the Golden Gate Quartet, and the Coon Creek Girls. Bumgarner continued to perform into the late 1950s.
Asheville, North Carolina (July 1924). The caption is reversed; Bumgarner is on the right.
.Bumgarner (with Bill McCanlass, top) performing at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville (August 1942)
At the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival (Asheville,
Asheville (March 1960)
December 25, 1960
April 23, 1924, was a busy date at the Columbia studio, with Bumgarner recording in the morning, followed that afternoon by Bessie and Clara Smith. Here are two historic sides from that day:
SAMANTHA BUMGARNER: Fly Around, My Pretty Little Miss
New York: April 23, 1924
Columbia 146-D (mx. 81716 – 1)
SAMANTHA BUMGARNER: Georgia Blues
New York: April 23, 1924
Columbia 166-D (mx. 81719 – 1)
Sam Moore was noted for playing unconventional musical instruments, but this one surely tops them all. It’s his “Guitar Accordion Pipe Organ,” from the collection of the Music Maker Relief Foundation. Unfortunately, he don’t know of any recordings he made with it.
Our thanks to Music Maker Relief Foundation program manager Aaron Greenhood for supplying the photographs. The MMRF website and blog are well worth a visit if you’re a fan of American roots music. Based in Hillsborough, North Carolina, the organization was founded “to preserve the musical traditions of the South by directly supporting the musicians who make it, ensuring their voices will not be silenced by poverty and time. Music Maker will give future generations access to their heritage through documentation and performance programs that build knowledge and appreciation of America’s musical traditions.”
Riley Puckett, Gid Tanner, and The Skillet Lickers: Newspaper Highlights (1915 – 1951)
Among the first superstars of real country music (as opposed to the synthetic stuff cranked out by the likes of Vernon Dalhart), Riley Puckett and Gid Tanner worked their way up from humble beginnings in Georgia — Puckett performing for spare change on the streets of Atlanta, and Tanner competing at the “old-time fiddlers’ conventions” that were so popular at the time. Here’s a glimpse of their stories, from newspaper clippings of the period:
Riley Puckett appeals for aid (Atlanta Constitution,
October 22, 1915)
One of the earliest mentions of Gid Tanner, getting ready to perform at the spring convention of the Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Association
(January 17, 1915)
Another early mention of Tanner (Atlanta, April 1916)
Hillbilly hubris (February 1919)
Gainesville, Georgia (July 1924). The Skillet Lickers had yet to be formed at this point, leaving the makeup of Tanner’s Famous Orchestra an intriguing mystery.
Columbia’s first full-page ad for Tanner and Puckett (May 1924), pre-dating formation of the Skillet Lickers
Montgomery, Alabama, with Puckett misidentified as a fiddler
Greenville, South Carolina (May 1928)
Centreville, Alabama (July 1928)
Election night before the advent of television. Note the mention of Puckett also playing piano. (Alexander City, Alabama,
November 1, 1928)
Ashville, Alabama (November 21, 1929). Note the absence of fiddler Clayton McMichen and the substitution of Claude Davis for Riley Puckett.
At the movies: The Skillet Lickers share a bill with “Working Girls”
(Chillicothe, Ohio, December 1931)
Puckett, Tanner, and friends on Bluebird records
One of the last ads for the Skillet Lickers, with only Tanner remaining from the original group (Jasper, Alabama, April 1951)
And a few favorites from their vast output:
GID TANNER & HIS SKILLET LICKERS
(Riley Puckett, lead vocal): Dixie
Atlanta: March 29, 1927
Columbia 15158-D (mx. W 143795 – 2)
San Antonio (Texas Hotel): March 29, 1934
Bluebird B-5435 (mx. BVE 82677 – 1)
CLAYTON McMICHEN, RILEY PUCKETT, GID TANNER, LOWE STOKES, FATE NORRIS, BOB NICHOLS & BILL BROWN: A Corn Licker Still in Georgia — Part 4
Atlanta: April 12, 1928
Columbia 15258-D (mx. W 140322 – 2) Bill Brown (playing the hapless visitor on this side) was a manager in Columbia’s Atlanta office. This was not a pseudonym for Harry C. Browne, as columnist Jim Walsh once claimed.
GID TANNER (vocal with own banjo): You’ve Got to Stop Drinking Shine
Atlanta: December 6, 1930
Columbia 15716-D (mx. W 151062 – 1)
Press coverage of Ralph Peer’s summer 1929 visit to El Paso, Texas, gives a taste of the excitement that was generated when Victor and other large East Coast record companies came to far-flung locations seeking talent. Three local El Paso artists had already been chosen to record by the end of June, in advance of the Victor team’s arrival, and auditions continued through the second week of July:
El Paso Herald (June 28, 1929)
Among those whose recordings were issued were M. S. Dillehay, the Rodeo Trio (D. A. Champaigne, Kenneth Deshazo, and Phil Smith), and the Maxwell family string band from New Mexico, which someone at Victor named the “White Mountain Orchestra.” But the artist who got the most attention from the local press was another member of the Maxwell family, Billie Maxwell Warner, whose records were released under her maiden name:
El Paso Herald (July 2, 1929)
The local reporters poked a little fun at a couple of unnamed cowboys who came to audition: .
El Paso Herald (July 11, 1929)
In the end, four of Billie Maxwell’ songs were released in the Victor V-40000 country-music series. True to form, Peer had her listed as the “arranger” of these numbers, enabling him to file for copyright on what were actually public-domain folk tunes. Here’s her “Haunted Hunter,” which was also issued in Canada on the Aurora label. Both editions are rare:
BILLIE MAXWELL, “THE COWGIRL SINGER” (vocal and guitar): Haunted Hunter
El Paso, TX: July 11, 1929 — Released May 16, 1930
Victor V-40241 (mx. BVE 55234 – 1) From a tape dubbing, courtesy of the late Gilbert Louey
John O. Prescott ranks high on the list of undeservedly forgotten recording pioneers. Although eclipsed by his brother Frederick (founder of the International Zonophone Company and the Berlin-based International Talking Machine Company, the producers of Odeon records), John O’s accomplishments — which ranged from co-founding what would become the Nipponophone Company in 1910 to serving as Gennett’s chief technician in the 1920s — were equally impressive.
John Prescott’s role in the American Record Company (which was backed by brother Fred’s Odeon operation) and its marketing arm, Hawthorne, Sheble & Prescott, is covered in detail in American Record Company, Hawthorne & Sheble, International Record Company: Histories and Discographies (Bryant & Sutton, Mainspring Press, 2015) and need not be repeated here. What we’ll be examining in this article is Prescott’s career after American Record’s demise. .
The American Record Company discs — nicknamed “Blue Indian records” by the trade, for their distinctive blue pressings and American Indian trademark — were quite successful until Columbia succeeded in shutting the company down for patent infringement in January 1907.  The partnership split, with Ellsworth A. Hawthorne and Horace Sheble regrouping as the Hawthorne & Sheble Manufacturing Company, and John Prescott going his own way. Little more was heard of Prescott until November 1907, when The Talking Machine World reported, “He left last week for a fortnight’s hunting on Long Island, and on returning he may have something of interest to announce to the trade relative to his work in a fresh field.” 
The “something of interest” probably was the Twoforone Champion Record (presumably a double-sided disc), for which Prescott filed a trademark application on February 24, 1908.  Prescott had been quietly preparing to resume record production ever since the collapse of the American Record Company. In January 1907 he had applied for a U.S. patent on a new pressing process that included a provision for double-sided discs.  Two months later, TMW reported that he had taken over the former American Record Company studio, which he was managing in the guise of “The Laboratory Association.”  But with the means of production all in place (but not the necessary patents, assuming it was to have been a lateral-cut disc), Champion apparently failed to launched.
Prescott’s trademark filing for Champion Records (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office).
Instead, Prescott retired to his home in Summit, New Jersey, where his new neighbor was brother Fred (who, having sold his interest in International Talking Machine and returned home a wealthy man, was now happily engaged in his new hobby of raising chickens). But Prescott could not remain idle for long, and in May 1909 he sailed on the Lusitania for what was to have been a brief visit to London. Instead, he ended up on an extended tour that took him from England and France (where he was highly impressed by Emil Pathé’s demonstration of the vertical-cut disc) to Russia, then on to China and Korea—and, finally, to Japan, where his career would soon take an unexpected turn. Prescott was no fan of the country, as he made clear upon his return in August 1909. “Excuse me from permanently living in Japan,” he declared. “The beautiful pictures we see there of entrancing landscapes … are on postal cards only … Nobody has any money excepting the very rich, and they are comparatively few in the teeming millions of ordinary Japs.” 
Back in the U.S., Prescott leased the Laboratory Association studio to the Sonora Phonograph Company in September 1909. The company was planning to produce its own discs in both vertical- and lateral-cut formats (Sonora’s April 1910 TMW ad depicted a vertical-cut Sonora disc and a lateral-cut Crown disc, although the latter is not known to have been produced). However, Prescott does not appear to have had any involvement with the company, other than as landlord. The studio initially was managed for Sonora by former Zonophone engineer George Cheney, who departed for Phono-Cut before production got fully under way. 
In the meantime, Prescott had returned to Japan, despite his professed dislike of the place. In January 1910, The Talking Machine World reported that he was managing a recording studio in Tokyo.  The owner of that studio (whose name was not given by TMW) was the Japan-American Phonograph Manufacturing Company, Ltd., the only record manufacturer operating in Japan at that time.  Financed, owned, and managed by American businessmen, including Prescott, the company initially produced the Symphony Record label.
The now-rare Symphony label was soon supplanted by the Nipponophone brand. Nipponophone got its start as the sales agent for the Japan-American Phonograph Manufacturing Company. (Author’s collection)
Japan-American’s sales agent was the Nipponophone Company, which soon substituted its own Nipponophone label for Symphony. By the autumn of 1910, the Japan-American / Nipponophone combine was producing and marketing records on a fairly large scale under Prescott’s management.
Prescott (seated at left) in Japan, 1910
In addition to his expertise, Prescott brought along a ready-made catalog of Western recordings — the American Record Company masters. Nipponophone’s “Foreign Records” catalog of c. 1910–1911 included a substantial number of old American recordings that were renumbered and offered in new couplings, sans artist credits, with the occasional amusing mistranslation (“A Gay Gossoon” became “A Gay Cartoon,” “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend” became “Dream of the Rabbit King”).  The records were intended for foreign residents and tourists, but demand for them must have been meager, and they are extraordinarily rare today. A badly damaged specimen, showing the original American numbers in the wax, was found on the West Coast many decades ago. A second specimen was later reported, but as so often happens, the supposed owner did not respond to a request for a confirming photograph or other proof of its existence.
A page from Nipponophone’s “Foreign Record” catalog listing anonymous reissues from American Record Company masters. The uncredited artists included Arthur Collins, Byron G. Harlan, Frank C. Stanley, Len Spencer, and Steve Porter. (Bryant Papers, Mainspring Press)
By the end of 1910, Prescott had enough of Japan. He resigned from the Japan-American Phonograph Company, and his place was taken by Thomas Kraemer,  who had been associated with the Hawthorne & Sheble Manufacturing Company. Prescott’s stay had done nothing to improve his opinion of that country, its climate, or its workforce. Upon his return to the States in early 1911, he complained,
“The air is so humid that you soon fall into a condition of lassitude difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. To be sure, if you can adapt yourself to Oriental ways; that is, take things as they come in an indifferent, easy-going way, perhaps one could manage. An active American, coming from home full of life, snap, and ginger, and wanting to take hold and accomplish something the way we do it here, is forced to give up or become Orientalized. Excuse me, I am not built that way.” 
In June 1911, Prescott departed once again for Europe, where he “expected to look the trade over a little” before attending the coronation of George V in London.  Perhaps not coincidentally, his trip occurred at about the time that the London-based Disc Record Company, Ltd., acquired some American Record Company masters, which were parceled out to Britannic, Defiant, Pelican, The Leader, and other minor labels for the British and export markets. Whether the masters came from Prescott, from the Lindstrom organization (which had taken over the International Talking Machine Company’s assets), or from some other source, has not been established.
Little more was heard of John Prescott until August 1912, when The Talking Machine World reported that he had been in Constantinople for “a year or more,” managing an unnamed record company.  For the next eight years, Prescott’s name would be largely absent from the American trade papers.
Prescott eventually resurfaced in the 1920s. In 1920, brother Fred had placed some rather boastful ads in The Talking Machine World soliciting work as a consultant, but it was John who landed a steady job, at the Starr Piano Company’s Gennett Records division in Richmond, Indiana.
Brother Frederick in search of work, 1920 (Talking Machine World)
In August 1921, Gennett resumed recording in Richmond, after a hiatus there of nearly five years.  John Prescott was hired as chief technician of the Richmond facility, with duties that included wax formulation and oversight of the pressing plant. He also seems to have had some say in regard to master approval, and notes referring to “J. O” are sprinkled throughout the Richmond recording ledgers of the mid-1920s. It’s tempting to speculate that he was responsible for naming the company’s budget-priced Champion label, hearkening back to his aborted 1908 venture, but documentary evidence of that is lacking.
The “Blue Indian” man finally came face-to-face with actual Indians in May 1926, as part of a Gennett team that traveled to Arizona’s Grand Canyon to record traditional Hopi songs. The expedition was undertaken in association with the Smithsonian Institution, under the supervision of Dr. J. Walter Fewkes, head of the Smithsonian’s Department of Ethnology. Music Trade Review reported that the Santa Fe Railroad was assisting in moving the recording apparatus from Richmond and had obtained government permission to transport the Indians and their ponies the one-hundred miles from their reservation to the Grand Canyon.
Along with Gennett recording engineer Ezra C. A. (Wick) Wickemeyer, Prescott oversaw the cutting of fourteen masters (# 12526 – 12537, with a single take each for first ten sides, and two takes each for last two) in a makeshift studio at the El Tovar Hotel. The company, having experienced mixed results in its initial attempts at electrical recording, dispatched its more trustworthy acoustic equipment. Twelve masters were received in Richmond on June 2, followed by the two alternate takes on June 15. The masters were processed for commercial release under standard Gennett catalog numbers, after which they were deposited with the Smithsonian. 
KAKAPTI: Ma’Qutu (Rabbit Hunt) (as “Makwatu”) El Tovar Hotel. Grand Canyon, Arizona: Late May 1926 Gennett 5759 (mx. 12530)
Exactly when Prescott left Gennett has not been discovered, but he apparently continued to work in the sound-recording field at least into the early 1930s. On January 27, 1929, he and Frederick A. Kolster filed a patent on a photo-electric sound-recording system that they assigned to the Federal Telegraph Company of Newark, New Jersey.  After that, Prescott’s trail grows cold. He died in Pasadena, California, on July 14, 1946.
American Graphophone Co. v. American Record Co., 151 F. 595.
 Untitled notice. Talking Machine World (November 15, 1907), p. 79.
 Prescott, John O. “Twoforone Champion Record.” U.S. Trademark application #32,975 (filed February 24, 1908). Prescott was well acquainted with double-sided pressing methods. American Record had pressed double-sided discs as special-order items, under Ademor N. Petit’s patent #749,092, which was controlled by Frederick Prescott. Assuming the Twoforone was double-sided and had been launched in a timely manner, it likely would have beaten Columbia’s Double Disc to market.
 Prescott, John O. “Mechanism for Making Sound Records.” U.S. Patent #847,820 (filed January 15, 1907).
 Untitled notice. Talking Machine World (March 15, 1907), p. 39.
 “’Talker’ Conditions in Foreign Countries.” Talking Machine World (September 15, 1909), p. 41.
 “Geo. K. Cheney to Boston.” Talking Machine World (May 15, 1910), p. 14.
 “J. O. Prescott in Japan.” Talking Machine World (Jan 15, 1910), p. 3.
 “The Talking Machine Trade in Japan.” Talking Machine World (January 15, 1911), p. 4.
 The Nipponophone Company, Ltd. “Foreign Records” (Tokyo, c. 1910–1911). A listing of the Nipponophone issues can be found in American Record Company, Hawthorne & Sheble, International Record Company: Histories and Discographies (Bryant & Sutton, Mainspring Press, 2015), available from Mainspring Press.
 Untitled notice. Talking Machine World (April 15, 1911), p. 30.
 “Returns from Japan.” Talking Machine World (February 15, 1911), p. 35.
 “J. O. Prescott in Europe.” Talking Machine World (July 15, 1911), p. 54.
 “A Visitor from Turkey.” Talking Machine World (August 15, 1912), p. 25.
 “Starr Recording in New York.” Talking Machine World (February 15, 1917), p. 100. Gennett recorded in Richmond during 1915–1916, using often-obscure Midwestern artists. Recording activities were moved to New York in late 1916 or early 1917, to take advantage of better-known East Coast talent and accommodate those who “found it rather inconvenient to travel out to Richmond.” Regular recording sessions resumed in Richmond on August 20, 1921, according to the Gennett ledgers.
 “To Record Hopi Indian Songs on Gennett Records.” Music Trade Review (May 29, 1926), p. 81.
 Prescott, John O., and Frederick A. Kolster. “Sound-Reproducing System.” U.S. Patent # 1,776,046 (filed January 7, 1929).