How the gramophone influenced Irish music

In 1900, New York’s Third Avenue was bustling with activity. Horse-drawn carriages and the occasional motor car moved under the elevated train lines of the street. This is where Ellen O’Byrne, a native of Leitrim, chose to set up her Irish music store.

Nestled between pet and hardware stores, under balconies and beds, it built a mecca for Irish immigrants. According to Professor Roxanne O’Connell, it would have been a place where newcomers could meet friends and neighbors, while sedentary members of the community could drop in for news and a cup of tea. Of course, they could also stock up on music.

As New York’s population began to explode, O’Byrne saw more and more customers walk through the door. She stocked the shelves with Irish flags, instruments, sheet music and every Irish record she could get her hands on.

But, in 1916, she could not meet the demand. Dance tunes, like Pile of barley, sold out very quickly but only a limited selection was available. To make matters worse, one of the only stockists decided to stop making Irish records. According to The Irish in the Atlantic world, that’s when O’Byrne decided to take action.

But let’s start by taking a look back …

From office tool to entertainment device

In the 1880s, Thomas Edison and his rivals – Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter – were racing to perfect their latest inventions. They were working on a device to record business correspondence. A device they thought would become as popular as the typewriter.

Edison called his invention the phonograph, while Bell and Tainter called theirs the graphophone. But, in the end, neither was a huge success. So Edison changed tack and started selling pre-recorded wax cylinders that played music.

But these wax cylinders were easily damaged and could not be mass produced. By the time Edison addressed these questions, his invention had already been superseded by a gramophone that played disc-shaped records, rather than cylindrical discs.

This innovation came from Emile Berliner, who was a German immigrant living in Washington, DC. In the early 1890s, he launched the “Gram-o-phone”. 78 RPM records soon has become the norm and a primitive recording industry soon arose.

Marketing music to immigrants

In the beginning, the industry was entirely focused on selling gramophones and records to the American middle class. But as that demographics wore off, record companies had to develop new markets. At the start of the 20th century, they turned to the country’s expanding ethnic communities.

Big labels, like Columbia, quickly understood the value of tapping into people’s national pride and began to offer recordings in different languages.

According to The Irish in the Atlantic World, selling records to communities in Eastern Europe has proven to be a huge success. This, coupled with the determination of Ellen O’Byrne, has led to an increase in record creation for the Irish Diaspora.

The Bowery, New York, circa 1898

Ellen O’Byrne DeWitt

At the age of fifteen, O’Byrne emigrated to New York from Dromod in County Leitrim. Here she met her husband Justus DeWitt who was a Dutch immigrant. Together, they opened the Irish music store O’Byrne DeWitt at 1398 Third Avenue in Manhattan.

In 1900, the store stocked the first cylinders of Edison wax, then upgraded to 78 RPM discs. Popular records came from Irish tenor John McCormack and German-American accordionist John Kimmel, known for playing Irish tunes.

O’Byrne wanted to store more dance tracks, but Gennett Records went the other way and stopped recording Irish music altogether. O’Byrne therefore took matters into his own hands.

Every Sunday at Celtic Park in Queens, members of the Irish community come together to play sports and music. So O’Byrne sent his son Justus there to find talented musicians.

He said later in an interview: “Well, I found Eddie Herborn and John Wheeler playing banjo and accordion, and they sounded great. So my mom went to Colombia and they said if she would buy them five hundred copies, they would record Herborn and Wheeler. She has accepted…”

Herborn and Wheeler checked in Mouse in the closet in September 1916. O’Byrne is said to have door-to-door in the Irish neighborhoods of New York to spread the word and its 500 copies quickly sold out.

This debut record was included in Columbia’s catalog for decades thereafter, and the following January, Herborn and Wheeler had made another record with The Rocky Roads in Dublin and The barley stack.

Supporting a major label to record Irish musicians turned out to be a wise business decision for O’Byrne. According to the research group New York Irish History RoundtableO’Byrne’s success enabled him to purchase the building where his store was located. She also bought the building next door and made real estate investments in Staten Island.

She died in 1925, just after opening another store in Boston. But his son continued to sell records and continued to create the Copley label in 1948.

The golden age of Irish music recordings

Following the success of O’Byrne and Columbia, other labels began to create content for the Irish-American market and many important records were made in the years that followed.

As stated in The Irish in the Atlantic world, a 1926 trade journal called Talking Machine World detailed the phenomenon:

“Few people are more interested in music and entertainment than those Americans of foreign origin who make up such a large part of the population of a town or city, and … although they can live economically on in many ways, music plays an important role in their lives and they spend large sums of money on this entertainment every year. ”

With that in mind, the record companies were eager to bring original Irish musicians into the studio and scoured dance halls in New York and Boston for talent.

New York, in particular, became a hub for recording and it was here that well-known musicians like Michael Coleman, John McKenna, William Mullaly and James Morrison made influential records in the 1920s.

A booming economy, the growing success of Irish immigrants and a growing interest in Irish culture have all contributed to the creation of hundreds of records. Over time, they would have an impact in Ireland.

Divergent styles

After the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, the influence of the Catholic Church meant that Irish music was no longer played at informal crossroads dances or house parties.

Instead of, dance halls have been developed and traditional Irish music was performed in controlled environments. This movement was intended to hamper the popularity of set dance and jazz. But, according to academic Gerard Dooley, the move to these larger venues led to the decline of solo violin and bodhrán players, as well as the rise of large céilí groups.

In the United States, by contrast, waves of Irish immigrants crossed the Atlantic, bringing with them older traditions of song and dance. They were also free to experiment with their sounds. Bands like the Flanagan Brothers, for example, commonly used banjos and experimented with jazz sets.

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Bring it back across the Atlantic

While Irish music recordings were selling quickly in America, they were not readily available in Ireland.

They were often sent across the Atlantic as gifts or taken home with returning emigrants.

Chicago conductor Francis O’Neill from County Cork was a famous Irish music collector and returned some of the earliest wax cylinder recordings to Ireland by mail.

Although some records could be purchased in London through catalogs and newspaper supplements, it was not until the late 1920s that UK records became readily available.

As sales slowed in the United States due to the Great Depression, reissues were introduced in Ireland – many of which continued to sell until the 1970s.

From these records, many musicians have learned new songs and discovered unique styles of violin and piano accompaniments. Coleman and Morrison’s recordings had a particularly strong impact in Ireland and influenced the way Irish music is played there today.

Want to learn more about the influence of Irish music around the world? Check the Music and Dance gallery in the EPIC The Irish Emigrant Museum virtual tour.

About Paul Cox

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