The following disc comes from the Old Time Blues Collection’s selection of rare and unusual record labels. It is one that while seldom encountered holds a unique and important place in the history of the recording industry, and bears a rather unusual, Scandinavian name: Nordskog.
The Nordskog Phonograph Company was founded by Andrae Nordskog in 1921 in Santa Monica, California. As was emblazoned so proudly on their labels, they were the first record label based on the United States’ West Coast. Although their material was recorded locally in Los Angeles, they contracted an East Coast company, The Arto Company, to take care of pressing. This setup meant they had to ship their wax master from one coast to the other, by railroad. Unfortunately, many masters didn’t survive the journey. In spite of their rather makeshift manufacturing process, Nordskog managed to attract some significant talent, including “Queen of Vaudeville” Eva Tanguay and jazz legend Kid Ory and his Sunshine Band, and they had the distinction of producing the first recordings of several notable West Coast dance bands, such as those of Abe Lyman, Henry Halstead, and Herb Wiedoeft. Others included material by popular East Coast artists like Arthur Fields and Charles Harrison, drawing from Arto’s catalog. Trouble came in 1923, when Arto went out of business while in possession of all Nordskog’s masters. The company filed suit for the return of their property, but nothing materialized, and it was all too little and too late for Nordskog, for they too folded soon after, having released little more than fifty records.
Nordskog 3004, the fourth release on the fledgling label, was recorded early in 1922 in Los Angeles, California. Herb Wiedoeft’s name is misspelled “Weidoeft” on the label. Although not listed in either Rust’s Jazz and Ragtime Records or American Dance Band Discography, the personnel probably resembles that of Wiedoeft’s recordings for Brunswick the following year, which featured Herb Wiedoeft on trumpet, Joseph Nemoli on cornet and viola, Jesse Stafford on trombone and baritone horn, Larry Abbott, Gene Siegrist, and Fred Bibesheimer on reeds (clarinet, alto sax, tenor sax, and oboe), Vincent Rose on piano, Jose Sucedo on banjo, Guy Wiedoeft on tuba and string bass, and, Adolph Wiedoeft on drums and xylophone.
First up, they play a nicely orchestrated rendition of the popular 1922 jazz hit, “Virginia Blues”, perhaps most famously recorded by Ladd’s Black Aces featuring the recording debut of Cliff Edwards.
Virginia Blues, recorded in 1922 by Herb Weidoeft’s [sic] Famous Orchestra.
On the “B” side, they play Nacio Herb Brown and Gene Rose’s oriental fox trot “Persian Nights”. This appears to be the only version of this tune to have been recorded.
Persian Nights, recorded in 1922 by Herb Weidoeft’s [sic] Famous Orchestra.
This disc bears the distinction of being one of the first records (though not the first) whose contents could be considered “country” music. However, the pair of musicians responsible for producing these tunes—Henry C. Gilliland and A.C. “Eck” Robertson—almost certainly were the first old time musicians from Texas to make a record. What you’ll hear here is some of the finest rustic fiddling what am.
Henry Clay Gilliland was born on March 25, 1845 in Jasper County, Missouri. His family relocated to Texas when he was eight years old, settling in Parker County (home of peaches). He learned to play the fiddle at a young age from his older brother Joseph, and the two rose to prominence around Weatherford. When the South seceded, Gilliland enlisted and served in the Arizona Brigade of the Second Texas Cavalry. After the war was done, he returned home and became known as an Indian fighter and small-time politician. Alongside talents such as Moses J. Bonner, Gilliland became one of the most prominent Texas fiddlers of his day.
Eck Robertson (back row center, with fiddle) and family. As pictured in 1930 Victor catalog.
Alexander Campbell Robertson was born in Delaney, Arkansas on November 20, 1887 (though his tombstone says 1886). Like Gilliland forty-some years his senior, Robertson’s family moved to Texas in his early childhood, making their home near Amarillo in the panhandle of the state. His father was a fiddler-turned-preacher, and many of the other men in his family were also skilled on the instrument. Unsurprisingly given such a heritage, the young “Eck” soon took up the fiddle himself. At sixteen, he took off to join a medicine show, hoping to win fame as a musician. After marrying and settling briefly in Amarillo as a piano tuner, he went on the road once again to play in fiddle contests and vaudeville shows throughout the Southwest.
The two men crossed paths at a Confederate reunion in 1922 in Richmond, Virginia; Robertson was the son of a veteran, Gilliland was a veteran himself. Together, they played before a crowd of some four-thousand at the convention. The two fiddlers evidently hit it off, and, with aid from a friend of Gilliland’s in a high place, very soon after traveled to New York to make a record for the Victor Talking Machine Company. On June 30, 1922, the duo cut four sides, starting with “Arkansaw Traveler”, which, coupled with “Sallie Gooden” (Victor 18956) is often credited as the first “country” music record (though it is debatably not). The following day, Robertson returned to the studio alone to make six more solo recordings. Six of those ten sides saw release, only two of which featured Gilliland. Henry C. Gilliland died on April 21, 1924 in Altus, Oklahoma at the age of seventy-nine, and was thereafter memorialized as the “greatest fiddler in the world.” Eck Robertson on the other hand continued to perform and record.
In 1929, the Victor company twice ventured into Dallas to record the local talent, and Eck returned to the studio, this time bringing his family along: wife Nettie, son Dueron, and daughter Daphne. In four sessions that year—one in August and three in October, the last of which was only nine days before the stock market crash that would all but kill off such recording field trips —Robertson recorded a further fourteen sides, five solo, nine with his family, and two with fellow fiddler Dr. J.B. Cranfill (seemingly the same man as the noted Dallas prohibitionist James Britton Buchanan Boone Cranfill, though I can’t find definitive confirmation), which altogether yielded a total of ten issued sides. From then on out, he maintained that Victor had given him the short end of the stick. Robertson also performed on Fort Worth’s WBAP from time to time, and he made a reported hundred non-commercial recordings for the Sellers transcription company of Dallas in September of 1940, which appear to be lost today. Eck Roberton died on February 15, 1975 at age of eighty-eight, in Borger, Texas.
Victor 19149 was recorded on June 30 and July 1, 1922 in New York City, the former being their first session. It was released on November 30, 1923, and remained in the catalog until 1936. I found this record in Mineral Wells, Texas, not far from Gilliland’s home town of Weatherford; perhaps it was his own personal copy. Unlikely a prospect as that is, it is conceivable that it could have been owned by someone personally acquainted with him.
First, both Robertson and Gilliland play a fiddle duet on the classic “Turkey in the Straw”. Listen closely to the end for a little artifact from the recording studio: a small “bump”. Could be one of the men setting down his instrument, could be something else entirely.
Turkey in the Straw, recorded June 30, 1922 by Henry C. Gilliland–A. C. (Eck) Robertson.
Next, Eck plays solo on another old time classic, the traditional Texas fiddle tune “Ragtime Annie”. Ladies and gentlemen, this is truly old time fiddling.
Ragtime Annie, recorded July 1, 1922 by A. C. (Eck) Robertson.
With 2015 being the first Christmastime we’ve had on Old Time Blues, I think it would be appropriate to start a new tradition, one record to share every Christmas Eve (much in the same way that the fine folks over at Shorpy post that same office party photograph every year). This particular record, made specially by Starr Piano Company for the Christmas season, I think is the perfect one with which to start such a tradition.
Now, on December 25, 2016, 2017, 2018—a whole three years later—Old Time Blues continues in our yuletide tradition of celebrating a very William Jennings Bryan Christmas!
Christmas Greetings from the folks at Gennett Records, and here at Old Time Blues!
Bryan and the Lord’s Prayer, pasted inside the card paper record sleeve.
This record is only one in a series of ten “Christmas Greetings” records issued by the Starr Piano Company of Richmond, Indiana, for Christmas of 1923; others included Bryan reciting the 23rd Psalm, a recitation of “Always Christmas” by Wilbur D. Nesbit, movie stars Bebe Daniels and Shirley Mason each extending their Christmas greetings, and the same from Mrs. Henry Gennett herself, among other, mostly spoken word, recordings by notable personalities of the day. The “B” sides of each featured a Christmas song performed by various singers, bands, and vocal groups.
The “A” side of Gennett 5225 was recorded July 3, 1923, at the Gennett studio of the Starr Piano Company in Richmond, Indiana. The “B” side was recorded in February of 1922, presumably in the same place.
On this very special Christmas Greetings disc, former Secretary of State, three time Democratic Presidential candidate, and esteemed orator William Jennings Bryan delivers a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. It is one of a handful phonograph recordings made by the orator, others including eleven sides for Victor in 1908, and a couple of others for Gennett made at the same time. I don’t know about you, but I cherish this rare opportunity to hear the voice of the “Great Commoner” on phonograph record.
The Lord’s Prayer, recorded July 3, 1923 by William Jennings Bryan.
On the back of this record, the Westminster Quartette sings a solemn a capella rendition of “Nearer, My God, To Thee”.
Nearer, My God, To Thee, recorded February 1922 by the Westminster Quartette.