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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Record collectors: digitize your collections!

I got to a stopping point on my previous summer project - recording the tracks for my new songs Hanukkah music cd Mrs Maccabee's Kitchen - and while I wait for the Rubber Room to be free so I can go in and master it, I have moved on to the next project.

I have a collection of seven little booklets published by Itzik Zhelonek (Zielonek) in Warsaw between the wars; I found them at the Chabad library in Brooklyn and they are very, very rare, perhaps the only copies in the world. I took pictures of all the pages and cleaned them up and sent digital copies to a couple of archives.

Now I'm on a treasure hunt - I'm trying to chase down all the melodies since only the texts are printed in the booklets. I'm going to put them all in a songbook and then Itzik Zhelanek's beloved theater songs will live on.

The songs seem to fall into three categories: folksongs (mostly not hard to find); songs which came over to Warsaw from Second Avenue (many of these I've found in sheet-music collections); and the rarest - home-grown Varshavian parodies and theater songs. I have never seen any Yiddish theater music printed in Poland. I have never found on eBay or at YIVO or the other places I've looked any of the many Jewish records published in Poland and Russia in the 1930s.

My internet friend Michael Aylward, a fabulously dedicated discographer, has been collecting the vanishing traces of these recordings, proving that they actually once existed, but most of them - if they do exist still - are in the hands of private collectors. These collectors evidently treasure them as rare objects but do not necessarily ever play them and certainly do not digitize them for the rest of us to enjoy - I will make a great exception and say that Youtube heroes jurekpink and 24052 have put a wonderful quantity of old Polish records online.

Mourning the thousands of lost songs, I wrote to Michael after finding out that a stack of sheet music "a mile high" was thrown out when Reyzl Bozyk, life-long Yiddish theater songstress, died. He wrote this:

It rather bears out something that the German discographer Rainer Lotz once told me.  He said:  "The biggest obstacle in attempting to salvage the remants of the recording industry of the first half of the 20th century is the private collector.  They amass these treasures, often in great quantities during their lives, but, being almost overwhelmingly male" (I would add 'exclusively' as I have never, ever met a female record collector) "they die before their wives and the first thing that happens is that the collection is loaded into the back of the car and taken straight to the nearest refuse tip.  Typically, such collections are amassed as part of the private world that most collectors seem to construct for who knows what kind of psychological reasons.  They rarely talk to their families about what goes on up in the attic or out in the shed, so when the time comes, those charged with sorting out their affairs rarely have an inkling as to what they are dealing with.

So here is my plea, collector of unique Jewish recordings on 78s or cassettes or whatever: please have your collection digitized while you are alive. There are wonderful people saving this music for all of us: at the  Robert and Molly Freedman Jewish Sound Archive at the University of Pennsylvania, at the  Dartmouth Jewish Sound Archive, and at  Florida Atlantic University Judaica Sound Archives. These institutions will take care that your music lives on forever.


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