A Quick Cantor

The Early Days of Recording Jewish Music uncovered by Paul Vernon

Chief among the alien throngs which the tide of immigration brings annually to our shores is the European Hebrew, who has found in America, "The Land of Promise", opportunity and freedom. It is a well-known fact that he is one of the chief patrons and devotees of the musical art. The Jew comes by inheritance into the place he holds in the field of music today; for centuries his music and religion have been interwoven, The Dealer enjoys a unique position in being able to cater to the needs of the Jewish public today, for the Hebrew-Yiddish catalog offers a selection of records and artists which cannot be duplicated. The Voice of the Victor, (U.S. trade magazine) - February 1922.

If we step back 30 years from this clumsily- worded advice and shift the scene to the port of Odessa, on Russia's Black Sea, we can find the audience for whom these records were intended. From across Russia they were gathering at the docks clutching their belongings and tickets to the new world. They had good reason to want to leave. Czarist persecution was squeezing the non-Christian population from its homelands, a proletariat revolution seemed an impossible dream, and whilst America was not, by any means, the only option open to them, it was the major one.

If they got through the bureaucratic hurdles awaiting them at Ellis Island - many were turned back on medical grounds - then the 'New Life' and its attendant culture shock thrust them into a sink-or-swim environment as challenging in its own very different way as the one they had so recently abandoned.

Russian-Jewish success in America was swift, spectacular and very high profile. Stephen Birmingham's excellent study The Rest Of Us charts this progress in some detail. Within a generation Russian Jews had not only merged into the fabric of American life, they were busy weaving their own patterns. With this success came the opportunity to own all that had been dreamed of in the Old Countries and much that had been beyond imagination. In the first years of the 20th century, America offered many affordable status symbols, but one that captured every imagination was the Phonograph.

"To the non-Jewish dealer who has not specialized in foreign language business, a word of explanation may not come amiss. We may divide the Jewish record list into two classes: sacred and secular. The sacred numbers, which are a part of synagogue worship, are sung in the traditional Hebrew tongue. In the synagogue the prayers are not read but chanted, by the Chazan or Cantor, very often with responses by the choir. The dealer in Victor products is able to offer his clientele the records of Cantor Joseph Rosenblatt, whose prominence in the orthodox Hebrew Church makes his name a household word among his co-religionists". - The Voice Of Victor

Cantor Rosenblatt was a remarkable man by any standards. Born in Byela Tzerkov, Ukraine, in 1882, he toured Russia with his 'baaltfillah' (preceptor) father, absorbing Chassidic traditional music. By the age of nine the boy, now known affectionately as 'Yossele' was something of a celebrity, able to sing whole passages from the liturgy without reference. At the age of eighteen he was appointed to the position of cantor in Munkaz, Hungary. As his career blossomed, he moved to Pressburg, in Austria, winning his position in that city's synagogue by beating over 50 other candidates in what amounted to a sing-off. While studying in nearby Vienna to polish his art, the Edison Record Company recorded him in 1905. It is one of the earliest examples of Cantorial singing. The following year he made a cultural leap into Western European orthodoxy by taking up an appointment in the Kohlhoefen Synagogue in Hamburg, where, if we can believe the legend, a rising Italian tenor named Caruso visited Kohlhoefen specifically to hear Rosenblatt sing.

Rosenblatt visited New York in 1912 as a guest of the Congregation Ohab Zedek who promptly engaged him as their permanent cantor at a salary considerably higher than any professional cantor had ever been paid. The Victor Company recorded him the following year, Columbia poached him in 1914 and Victor tempted him back in 1920. His American success was enduring and he became a much admired public figure, A close inspection of the pioneering 1927 sound film The Jazz Singer reveals Rosenblatt in glorious voice singing Kol Nidre (All Vows) and Yahrzeit (In Memoriam). Tragedy, however, was waiting for him just down the line. During the early 1920s Rosenblatt had sponsored a Jewish newspaper that, by 1925, had failed, leaving serious debt in its wake. In order to clear the debts of honour that weighed upon his conscience, he bizarrely undertook a massive tour of the American Vaudeville circuit and immediately followed it up by embarking on a world tour. Six years into this strenuous schedule, while participating in a film being made in Palestine in 1933, he suffered a fatal heart attack. Buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, prayers were chanted at his funeral by two other legendary Cantors - Mordecai Hershman and Sawel Kwartin.

Although over 60 Cantors had the opportunity to leave the recorded examples of their art before the middle of the century, it was arguably Rosenblatt, Hershman and Kwartin who left the deepest impressions on the collective Jewish-American conscience.

Coincidentally they were also the only three Cantors who began their recording careers in Europe and then moved to the United States. All the early American Cantors were first-generation emigres into the New World and their roots are both pure and clearly evident. To listen today to their repertoire is both surprising and revealing, for they sang not only pure liturgical music but also traditional folk song. It is a genre in which Hershman, especially, excelled. His version of Die Negidim un die Kabzonim (Rich Folk, Poor Folk) - which can be heard on Cantors & Cantorial, Pearl GEMM9313 - is both beautifully performed and very pure in approach. The lyric is biting in its observations:

"Bread for the rich is a freshly baked roll, and a dry crust for the poor.
Meat, for the wealthy, is a roast duckling, but for the impoverished, liver and lights.
For the well-to-do, fish is a freshly caught carp, but a soused herring for the paupers.
Fine things are rich sweetmeats for the rich while for the needy - a sour gherkin".

There was, however, some Cantorial recording activity in Europe also; chief among the Old World artists was the legendary Gershon Sirota. Although he toured the United States extensively and regularly between 1912 and 1927 he always returned home to Warsaw, and he may possibly have been the first Cantor ever to record, for he made cylinders in Europe during 1902. A glittering career included performances in Moscow and St. Petersburg, recordings in London and nineteen years as chief Cantor at Warsaw Synagogue. He was there in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland and Sirota stayed on, conducting regular services in the Warsaw Ghetto. 'Tragically, he perished there in 1943 along with his entire family.

All the Cantors who recorded in America were originally Russian. Few examples of the German tradition were ever recorded, with the exception of Hermann Fleischman. Whilst his ultimate fate remains undiscovered, the recordings of this Cologne- based Oberkantor, beautiful examples of the art, were suddenly deleted from German recorded catalogues in 1934 along with all other Jewish records. (By 1934-5 the Nazi party had successfully infiltrated the German record industry and embarked upon an 'aryanisation' of the catalogues.) An elder statesman at the time of recording, Fleischmann's style is archaic, formal and lacking in the improvisational skill of a Rosenblatt or a Hershman. It is also stunning in its purity and historical perspective allows us now to see how valuable was the preservation of such singing by the Parlophon record company.

The tradition, of course, remains unaltered. Cantorial singing may be heard all across the world in any community that supports a synagogue, and contemporary recordings - many of them on small, semiprivate labels - are both available and worth finding.

Thus the art of the Cantor, still a relevant tradition with age-old roots based firmly in a vibrant culture, may arguably be seen as the spiritual side of the folk-based coin that also gives us Klezmer music. Whilst some orthodox voices raised objection to the 'sin' of secular dancing and singing, many Jews grew up in an environment that included both the Talmudic chant and the good-time stomp of a bulgar.

"Secular numbers are sung or spoken in Yiddish. Although looked down upon by philologists and Hebrew scholars, this so-called jargon has been the recognised speech of most of the Jews throughout the world. The Victor Jewish list is replete with instrumental numbers, including many popular traditional numbers played by Kandell's Orchestra, Elenkrig's Orchestra, Stupel's Orchestra and Rumshisky's Orchestra" - Voice Of Victor

Victor didn't call these records Klezmer, in fact at that time very few people did, but that's exactly what they were, To be pedantic, they were largely 'modem' Klezmer, reflecting the experience of the new world as well as nostalgia for the old.

The roots of Klezmer lie lost in the folds of the middle ages, but Henry Sapoznik in The Compleat Klezmer traced the earliest authentic reference to somewhere in the 16th Century. What that music actually sounded like is, of course, largely conjectural. The few extant European recordings, from around the turn of the century, present the only aural clue we are ever likely to possess, and it is probably too small a body of evidence to base any sound assumptions upon. It is also technically limited. Acoustic recording, then the only option, severely restricted the type and number of instruments recorded and thus may not have represented the prevailing sound in any real way.

The term 'Klezmer' itself derives from the Hebrew words kleizemer', which, as Sapoznik points out, originally referred to the instruments themselves rather than the musicians. What is clear is that without the wholesale migration to a land of technical and financial opportunity, the Klezmer tradition would have almost certainly perished. The changes that Klezmer underwent in its transplant to new soil were arguably not only unavoidable but also endemic to the tradition itself. A good Klezmer is adaptable, able to play whatever the audience is willing to pay for. Within the European context there is ample written evidence to demonstrate that Klezmorim played music in a wide variety of contexts. In the synagogue, a small group would accompany parts of the service, most especially the prologue. The theatre offered another avenue, as did family or social functions, most especially the wedding. Whether the function was Jewish or not depended more upon the tolerance of the audience than the musician. In short, the Klezmorim, like the Gypsies with whom they shared so much, were often 'outsiders" and had to remain flexible in order to survive.

Flexibility was something that America offered in far greater measure than the prejudicial Czarist regime. As a result of the Russian pogroms, America experienced two major waves of Russian-Jewish immigration, just before the century turned and again just after. By good fortune these events coincided with the emergence of the first entertainment-oriented technology, the moving picture and the phonograph. In 1904, as the second migratory wave was settling into East Side New York, the Jewish newspaper Forward editorialised;

"God sent us the Victrola and you can't get away from it, unless you run to the park. As if we didn't have enough problems with cockroaches and children practising the piano next door... It's everywhere this Victrola: in the tenements, the restaurants, the ice-cream parlours, the candy stores. You lock your door at night and are safe from burglars but not from the Victrola."

Naturally enough, people wanted something relevant to their own culture to play on this new machine. Since the companies who sold the phonographs also manufactured the records that were played on them, they were keen to record whatever people wanted to hear.

At first, Victor concentrated on selling large quantities of their famous 'Red Seal' opera records to the Jewish community, in the - largely correct - belief that a Russian Jew would buy 'good' music in the same way that an Italian or German would. To the Victor Company (and its major rival, Columbia) all immigrants represented 'foreign trade' and it took a while before they began to realise that vernacular records with a folk-based root would sell at least as well as an aria or a cornet solo. As the 'opera boom' faded somewhat, during the teens, the record companies began to cast around for the Next Big Thing.

A cautious and somewhat haphazard programme of 'Foreign' recording that had been undertaken by all the record companies almost as soon as the phonograph was first marketed, now took off in every direction. With the European War behind it, a booming economy beckoning it forward, and Volstead's infamous Prohibition Act to add spice to everyone's life, America prepared for the blossoming of its capitalist ideals.

By 1920 all the company's 'Foreign' lists had significantly expanded. Immigrant sensibility was suddenly big business. Columbia, Edison, Okeh, Pathe and Victor all geared up to compete with one another for the 'new' market. It was Victor, however, who pursued this course most aggressively. From about 1919 until the Depression started to take hold in 1931-32 they targeted almost every identifiable ethnic group with specifically tailored record lists. Because it was convenient, they classed Jews as a racial group, largely oblivious of the social differences between the 'older' German populace and the late-arriving Russians

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Aggressive Sales Methods and Brilliant Advertising "Put Over" Popular Foreign Number in Magnificent Style

SOLD! Thirty-six hundred copies of No. 73743, a special release Jewish record entitled 'Wie is mein Yukel" in one Week!

This song has been recently introduced at the old Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia in the Jewish play, "The American Rabbi's Wife". It made a tremendous hit with the local Jewish audiences.

Mr. H. Kandel, of the People's Talking Machine Company, arranged with the management for permission to distribute cards at every performance, announcing the record and where it could be obtained. The insert oval shows Mr. Kandel, and the large illustration pictures some of his sales efforts, immense streamers and "sidewalk hieroglyphics," and also the results of them a sizeable crowd.

At each of the three stores of the People's Talking Machine Company it was found necessary to have "Yukels" tied up in delivery envelopes ready to pass out to customers who stood in line waiting to buy one.

Mr. Kandel besides being an aggressive business man who knows his foreign field, is an excellent musician, nd as leader of Kandel's Orchestra has made a number of fine Victor records, much on demand among the Jewish people.

A few Klezmer Orchestras were appearing while the Great War was still being fought in Europe, and one of these, Kandell's Orchestra, turned out to be perhaps the best-loved of all American Klezmer bands. Harry Kandell was 32 years old when he and his dozen-strong group first entered the Victor studios in November 1917. A Freilachs Von Der Chuppe (A Happy Dance from the Wedding Ceremony) clearly caught the public's attention and brought the Kandell band back to record more sides just a few weeks later. The sound that Kandell's Orchestra produced was definitely 'modern'. Whilst the traditional Klezmer instrument, the violin, was still present, it was Kandell's clarinet that led the melody, and arguably he broke the ground for those who would follow by establishing an essentially 'American' Klezmer style.

Kandell's records sold in considerable quantities. While sales figures appear not to have survived it is clear from the frequency with which he was recorded, and the fondness with which he is remembered, that Kandell's success had a number of profound effects. Apart from popularising the clarinet as a preferred melodic instrument, the public's enthusiastic consumption of his records sent the record companies out looking for more like him.

The people they found were legion. Some 700 Klezmer records were issued in the United States before the 1942 Musicians Union ban on recording, mostly during the period 1920-29. The lead established by Kandell was quickly followed by Abe Schwartz, Naftule Brandwein, Joseph Cherniavsky and others who formed orchestras based largely upon the same instrumentation. Still, no-one was calling it 'Klezmer', except perhaps in private circles. The term was viewed as too 'Old World'. Previewing a 1924 Naftule Brandwein release the Victor company sidestepped the term quite markedly;

"Here's speed for you! Observe the swiftness of this remarkable music, the clarity and ingeniousness of the melodies that come so rapidly from Naftule Brandwein's musicians, and you will be thrilled. The selections on this record are highly original and out of the ordinary, and will give you a new idea of the excellence of this musical organisation. Both feature wonderful clarinet playing and both are remarkably fine dance records."

Brandwein had started out his American recording career with the Abe Schwartz Orchestra, but by 1922 was recording under his own name. Some thing of an eccentric, there are stories of him playing with his back to the audience so that no-one could steal his ideas, and of nearly electrocuting himself onstage when sweat permeated an Uncle Sam costume made entirely of Christmas tree lights.

The Abe Schwartz Orchestra also played host to another important and influential Klezmorim - perhaps the best known of all - Dave Tarras. Born in Ternoka. Ukraine in 1897, Tarras arrived in New York aged 24 and was recording with Schwartz three years later. In a long and honourable career, he cut many records, but he played and received the National Heritage Folklife Award in 1984, five years before his death. His influence, particularly among the current revivalists, has been enormous.

When times got hard in the early 1930s and the record companies cut back their catalogues, almost the first things to go - before even the Blues or Gospel records - were the ethnic lists. In 1932 Columbia deleted almost everything in its 'foreign' catalogues, Victor cut back drastically and other smaller companies either folded or were swallowed up in mergers. As America climbed slowly out of the depression through the '30s, recording began again but there was a marked absence of traditional old-time Klezmer. Many theories have been tabled as to why, some argue that Klezmer was a first-generation music, and that by the mid-'30s second generation Jews were more interested in Swing. Others theorised that the Russian Jewish emigres consciously rejected the old world cultures in an attempt to assimilate into American society, but the most likely answer is that it was both these reasons and more besides. The 1920s had been a golden age for recording of all kinds right across the world. It was the decade in which popular recorded music first really blossomed and a wide overview reveals a pattern of commercial readiness to record anything. By the middle of the following decade, the industry had gained some measure of maturity and already it was less keen Lo experiment quite so wildly. There is already evidence of the 'formula' attitude among the major companies that would, a few years later, lose them the ethnic markets altogether. A postwar return to independent local product occured within almost every immigrant group in the U.S.A. after 1944, just as it did in Blues and Country.

The current revival of interest in traditional Klezmer dates back to the late 1970s with the emergence of the Berkeley-based Klezmorim band and the independent producer Chris Strachwitz's willingness to record them. Followed closely on the East Coast by Henry Sapoznik's Kapelye and the Klezmer Conservatory Band, and bolstered by well-crafted reissues of original recordings on Global Village and Folklyric, Klezmer now enjoys its rightful position within the folk-roots world. I would now humbly suggest that the same recognition be awarded to another great Jewish folk tradition - the art of the Cantor.

Faust Family Kapelye, 1912 (from the cover of Folkways 34021)

On CD:


Claremont 785030 Legendary Cantors

Pearl GEMM9313 Cantors & Cantorials 1 904-36

Symposium 1044 Great Cantors 1093-30

Start with any one and you'll end up getting them all. First rate compilations with full descriptive notes.


Rounder 1089 Klezmer Pioneers 1905-52

Yazoo 7001 Dave Tarras 1925-56

The Yazoo features Tarras in a number of settings and offers good examples of seminal recordings by important orchestras. The Rounder is an excellent compilation also.

Cassette and vinyl:

Both the Rounder and Yazoo CDs are on tape, and the following, while perhaps difficult to locate, are worth looking for:

Folklyric 9034 Klezmer 1910-27- a fine introduction to the genre.

Folkways 34021 Klezmer- early recordings 1910-42, with excellent notes by Henry Sapoznik

Global Village 101 Jackie Jazz 'em Up - early Klezmer bands

104 Klezmer 1910-42

105 & 106 Dave Tarras Vols 1 & 2

108 Sid Beckerman

109 Naftule Brandwein

128 Harry Kandell

You might still find Folklyric 9034 on vinyl where it has fuller notes than its tape equivalent. The same is true for Folkways 34021. If you haunt secondhand stores, look for old albums on the U.S. Jewish Music Archives label - they issued the early recordings of Rosenblatt, Kwartin and others in the '60s.


For Klezmer, Henry Sapoznik's The Compleat Klezmer (Tare publications, NY) is about the only reliable source. For Cantors there is little, but you will get a good deal of information out of the liner notes to the Claremont, Pearl and Symposium CDs. Stephen Birmingham's The Rest Of Us - The Rise Of America's Eastern European Jews (Future paperbacks) provides an excellent in depth background and social context.

With thanks to: National Sound Archive, British Library, Music Library and my great-grandfather for his timely departure from Czar Alexander's regime.

This article was originally published in the magazine FolkROOTS.
Copyright belongs to the author.
Electronic edition by Lars Fredriksson, April 17, 1997