From The Vault: Five Selections From My Record Collection

As a follow-up on my post regarding record collecting as a hobby, here are five 78 RPM records from my extensive Record Collection These recordings represent a wide-array of musical genres and are considered to be some of the definitive classics of American popular music.

1. “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” by Blind Willie Johnson (Columbia Records #14303, 1927)

Blind Willie Johnson ((January 25, 1897 – September 18, 1945) was an American gospel blues singer and guitarist and evangelist. His Blues recordings made on Columbia Records from 1927 and 1930 display a combination of powerful singing, guitar skills, and originality that has influenced generations of musicians. Born to a poor sharecropping family in Southeastern Texas, Johnson began playing guitar at the age of five. Despite being blinded at some point in his life (either due to his mother throwing lye into his eyes during an argument or due to having viewed a partial solar eclipse visible over Texas in 1905), Johnson’s great talent and passionate singing style developed over the ensuing years and eventually reached the attention of recording executives at Columbia Records looking for talent for their series of “Race” records. In total, Johnson made about 30 recordings for Columbia Records between 1927 and 1930 and soon became one of the most popular Blues artists of the era. The start of the Great Depression and the subsequent decline in record sales wiped out much of Johnson’s audience.Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Johnson continued to perform throughout Texas and retained a small following of fans. In 1944, his home in Beaumont, Texas burned down. With nowhere else to go, Johnson continued to live in the ruins of his home. Due to the toxic environment surrounding him, Johnson contracted Malarial Feaver but was unable to receive proper medical care due to his race. Over the next year, Johnson’s conditioned all but worsened and he died on September 18, 1945 at the age of 48.

Recorded at his first session in Dallas, Texas on December 3, 1927, “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground” is rightfully considered to be one of the greatest recordings of the 20th Century. The recording consists of over three minutes of Johnson’s unique and passionate guitar playing. His melancholy, gravel-throated humming of the guitar part creates the impression of “unison moaning”, a melodic style common in Baptist churches where, instead of harmonizing, a choir hums or sings the same vocal part, albeit with slight variations among its members. Although Johnson’s vocals are indiscernible, it seems that subject of the song is the crucifixion of Jesus and the pain that he supposedly faced. These factors make Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground” one of the most influential Blues recordings of all time and have mad the recording earn a legendary status despite being recorded nearly 90 years ago. For example, Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground” was one of the few non-classical recordings placed on the Voyager Golden Record, an LP recording placed on the Voyager spacecraft in 1977. Additionally, contemporary blues artists continue to look towards Blind Willie Johnson as an inspiration for their own recordings.

2. “Little Star” by the Elegants (APT #25005, 1958)

The Elegants were a white Doo-Wop that formed in New York City in 1956. Its leading members were Vito Picone, Arthur Venosa, Frank Tardogno, Carman Romano and James Mochella. They adopted the name “The Elegants” after a member saw a billboard ad for Schenley’s Whiskey, which claimed it was the “liquor of elegance.” After several live auditions and negotiations with several record labels. The Elegants were signed to APT Records, a subsidiary of the ABC-Paramount label.  After several recording sessions in 1958-59, the Elegants went on tour throughout the US, Canada, and Mexico and remained a popular group until the early 1960s.

“Little Star” is one of the products of the Elegant’s first session with APT Records and is universally considered to be one of the greatest Doo-Wop recordings and as one of the classic recordings of the entire decade of the 1950s.  It has fantastic vocal harmonies and is an embodiment of the overall spirit of American popular music of the late 1950s. “Little Star” sold 80,000 copies in New York within the first few days of its release and became #1 almost immediately. Ultimately, “Little Star” sold some 2.5 million copies and remained at the top of the charts for 4 weeks in the late Summer of 1958 in addition to being covered by a multitude of artists during the late 1950s and early 1960s.

3. “Last Kind Words Blues” by Geeshie Wiley (Paramount #12951, 1930)

Like many Blues artists who recorded prior to the 1950s, very little is known about Geeshie Wiley despite the fact that many critics feel that she is arguably the greatest female blues singer and musician to have ever recorded. Based on the little information that we known, Geeshie Wiley was born in Oxford, Mississippi in 1906 and died in Checotah, Oklahoma sometime in the late 1950s. In early 1930, Wiley traveled with the Blues singer and guitarist Elvie Thomas (1891-1979) to Wisconsin to make recordings for the legendary Paramount Records label. In March of 1931, Wiley and Thomas returned to the Paramount studios in Wisconsin and recorded “Pick Poor Robin Clean” and “Eagles on a Half.” Due to the fact that these recordings were made at the depth of the Great Depression and represented a then-obscure musical genre not widely accepted by the mainstream white audience, they sold very poorly and were not widely advertised. After her two recording sessions, Wiley fell back into obscurity and likely never recorded again. 

Geeshie Wiley’s 1930 recording of Last Kind Words Blues is one of the holy grails for 78 RPM record collectors and a masterpiece of pre-war Blues recordings. The lyrics of the recording concern a man setting his affairs in order before heading off to World War One and either his wife or daughter’s journey to find him. The vocal melody is a traditional blues lament, but Wiley’s cadence is unique, coming to rest at odd moments before hollering out her conclusions. Her only accompaniment is a minor-key guitar arrangement. The main strengths of the recordings are its deep symbolism and passionate singing on the part of Wiley. The recording evokes images of deep melancholy and feelings of regret and unfinished business. Additionally, the deep symbolism and mentioning of nature created the impression that everything on Earth is inter-connected and that all people have a shared level of consciousness. These factors, in addition to the very small original pressing run, has made “Last Kind Words Blues” the rarest and most desirable of all pre-war Blues recordings (less than 10 copies are known to exist and several collectors feel that even an unplayable copy of the recording is worth in the six-figure range).

4. “Smokey Mokes” by Vess Ossman (Berliner #0611, 1899)

Vess Ossman (August 21, 1868-December 7, 1923), was the third banjoist to record commercially (Will Lyle in 1889 and W.S. Grinstead in 1891 were the first). Born in upstate New York, Ossman began playing banjo sometime in the 1880s and was named “Banjo Champion of America” in January of 1890. This fame made Ossman an attraction to the early record labels, who desperately needed talent for the growing recorded sound industry. Ossman made his first commercial recordings for Edison Records in 1893 and soon became one of the nations most popular recording artists, having several “Number One” hits during the 1890s. Ossman recorded for diverse record labels such as Edison, Columbia, Berliner, Victor, Zonophone, and many others during his 24-year career. By the late 1910s, Ossman began recording less an less, partially due to the growing popularity of Fred Van Eps, a rival banjo recording artist who viewed Ossman as his main source for musical inspiration (Van Eps recorded from 1897 up until his death at the age of 81 in 1960). Ossman made his last recordings for Victor Records in 1917 and died of a heart attack in 1923 at the age of 55.

Recorded during his October 18, 1899 Berliner session, “Smokey Mokes” is an energetic ragtime tune originally written by Abe Holzmann in 1898 and recorded by numerous artists on all labels between 1898 and 1902. The tune itself is very upbeat and fast-paced, perhaps foreshadowing the emergence of Jazz as a popular music genre some 15 years later. Vess Ossman’s advanced banjo skills are ever-present in this recording and come through quite well despite the primitive recording techniques of the time. Overall, “Smokey Mokes” is a fantastic recording that is a great representative of both the changing musical trends and the optimistic mood of the American people at the dawn of the 20th Century.

5. “Mirjana Jan” by Unknown Artist (Torero Records #10009-1, c.1955)

Here is an Iranian 78 RPM record that I first purchased it at a record show a few months back that became one of my favorites. Not much is known about the label Torero Records, other than the fact that it was an Iranian-based label formed in 1955 that specialized in recordings for the Iranian Jewish community in both Iran and Israel. The label likely ceased making 78 RPM recordings around 1958, which is when the last 78 RPM records were pressed in Iran.

Sung by an uncredited female artist accompanied by a small orchestra consisting of a violinist, bass guitarist, and drum player, “Mirjana Jan” is an uptempo recording with a structure unlike current Iranian and Middle Eastern music. The instrumental structure is reminiscent of traditional Iranian music (from both the pre-Islamic and Islamic eras). Additionally, the vocalist on the recording gives a passionate delivery of the lyrics that create a lasting impression in the mind of the listener. “Mirjana Jan,” is one of the signature recordings of a style of music that is unfortunately ignored by both recorded sound archivists and current Iranian recording artists (who tend to focus on modern music genres such as Hip-Hop and Alternative Rock).

the author

Matt is a graduate of Monmouth University. Matt has been studying and analyzing politics at all levels since the 2004 Presidential Election. He writes about political trends and demographics, the role of the media in politics, comparative politics, political theory, and the domestic and international political economy. Matt is also interested in history, philosophy, comparative religion, and record collecting.

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