August 6, 2002
Pseudonyms on American Records (1892-1942): A Guide to False Names and Label Errors. Compiled and annotated by Allan Sutton. Denver, CO: Mainspring Press, 2001. 340 pages. ISBN: 0-9671819-1-7. $53.00 postpaid. Publisher’s website: www.mainspringpress.com.
Reviewed by Tim Brooks
This is actually the second edition of a slender volume by Sutton first published by Greenwood Press in 1993 under the title A Guide to Pseudonyms on American Records, 1892-1942. Just as the author has vastly expanded and improved his excellent guide to 78 rpm-era record labels, American Record Labels and Companies, his work on artist pseudonyms has been significantly enhanced in this new edition.[i] One indication of the amount of new material is the page count: 340 pages, vs. 148 for the 1993 edition.
The book is organized into several sections, the largest of which (269 pages) is the listing by pseudonym, with alphabetical entries ranging from the Acme Male Quartet (a disguise for the Shannon Four on Pathe and related labels) to the Zylo-Specialty Orchestra (the Green Brothers on Banner and Regal). This is followed by a number of helpful appendixes, including “Selected Group Personnel,” which lists the members of groups such as the American Quartet and the Victor Light Opera Company; a list of birth and legal names (did you know that Roy Acuff’s real first name was “Claxton”?) and a directory to record label groups, useful because many pseudonyms were shared across related labels. There is also a Performer Index, which lists real names followed by the pseudonyms used by those performers.
All of these sections lend themselves to entertaining browsing as well as reference work. For example the longstanding rumor that blues singer “”Flo Bert” was actually black operatic soprano Florence Cole-Talbert is recounted, but called “highly suspect.” “Gertrude Dwyer” is revealed to be an actual performer and not a pseudonym for Vaughn DeLeath, although the name was used on two of DeLeath’s recordings (the probable source of the confusion). “Vel Veteran” was used on Grey Gull for Irving Kaufman and Arthur Fields (but not for Vernon Dalhart, as often claimed). “Andy Boy” on Bluebird was not a pseudonym–”Boy” was the man’s real last name. And remarkably, “Atwood Twitchell,” that most obvious of invented names on early discs and cylinders, was a real person and not a pseudonym for anybody!
Band and orchestra pseudonyms were common in the 1920s and some of those entries are quite lengthy. Listing the bands that masqueraded as “The Missouri Jazz Band” takes three-and-a-half pages; “The Dixie Jazz Band,” four pages; “The Majestic Dance Orchestra,” five-and-a-half pages; and “The Imperial Dance Orchestra,” six pages. Unfortunately the author is unable to positively identify the wonderfully-named “Nubian Five” on Pathe, Perfect and related labels. It may be Joseph Samuels’ Jazz Band, but probably isn’t the Original Memphis Five as some have speculated.
There are, we discover, two sets of Duncan Sisters (Rosetta and Vivian on Victor, and Verna Lee and Lottie Jo on Columbia). Then there is that most in-your-face of pseudonyms, the one that fairly shouts “THIS IS A FAKE NAME AND WE’RE NOT GOING TO TELL YOU WHO IT IS!” I am referring, of course, to the inimitable “Mr. X” on Grey Gull labels in the 1920s. It’s Arthur Fields most of the time, but not always.
The author seems to have done his work carefully, although he would be the first to admit that this is a field in which one can never be certain of anything. In the Introduction he describes his research methods, which included mining private and institutional catalogs and discographies, and original company files, tracing pseudononymous masters to releases under the real name, consulting previously published analyses, and last–and least–aural identification. A few distinctive voices can be reliably identified by ear (Arthur Fields and Irving Kaufman come to mind), but most cannot, and bands can be almost impossible to identify this way. Much of the erroneous information now in circulation comes from collectors who “thought they heard” someone on a record–usually someone famous. Malcolm Shaw, in his rambling Foreword, says that as a young collector “I heard Fletcher Henderson on nearly every acoustically recorded hot arrangement issued as the ‘Dixie Jazz Band’… I heard Bix where there was no Bix.” Why? Because he desperately wanted to.
The author sifts though such anecdotal attributions carefully, pointing out cases where there is divergent opinion, and cases in which previous attributions have been disproved. An unusually large number of mistaken pseudonyms have apparently been attributed to Vernon Dalhart. Sutton notes, “Unfortunately, some seriously flawed lists of Dalhart pseudonyms remain in general circulation in print and on the internet, thus perpetuating these errors.” It’s fine to be polite, but I wish he had identified the lists so that readers could be wary of them.
The pioneering work of Jim Walsh, who published lists of artist pseudonyms in the 1940s and in 1962, is acknowledged, but corrected where necessary (which is fairly often). For example, contrary to Walsh, “Willie Weston” was a real performer, not a pseudonym. Likewise, “Charles Keene” was not a pseudonym for Gene Austin.
Despite the apparent care with which the author did his research he does miss a few well-established facts. He says he does not know on what labels Len Spencer used the name “Garry Allen,” but these were long ago identified by Walsh as early 1890s New Jersey cylinders. The evidence is a New Jersey catalog marked up by Spencer himself and filled with “Garry Allen” cylinders. (The catalog is now at the Library of Congress.) It was a bit startling to see the Tollefsen Trio referred to as simply a pseudonym for the Taylor Trio. Carl Tollefsen’s Trio was very real, recorded as early as 1912, and was active for more than twenty years. It is probably better known than the Taylor Trio, whose chief claim to fame may be that it was the organization in which Hackel met Bergé (Alexander Hackel and William E. Bergé later fronted the quaintly named Hackel-Bergé Orchestra on Victor). Jim Walsh published a four-part article on the Tollefsens in Hobbies in 1978.
Sutton should also have been a little more careful with his entry on “Blake’s Jazzone Orchestra.” He states unequivocally that their 1917 Pathe is often “mistakenly” credited to Eubie Blake, but is actually by a Richmond, Virginia, group unrelated to the ragtime pianist. This is one of the more controversial discs in jazz history, with different present day “experts” insisting that it is or isn’t Eubie.[ii] There is no consensus. Sutton bases his conclusion on a statement in Charters and Kunstadt’s Jazz–A History of the New York Scene (1962), however those writers gave no source for their claim, and none has been found in the forty years since then. After spending a good deal of time researching this matter for an article I am writing, I believe it is still very much an open issue. Pseudonyms on American Records does not help by publishing its own unsubstantiated conclusion.
This brings up the matter of sources. It constantly amazes me that researchers who themselves suffer so much from the lack of documentation by previous writers persist in offering none–or little–themselves. Sutton, of all people, has to be aware of this. In the Introduction he laments the unreliability of much that has gone before, and details the lengths to which he has had to go to reconstruct who actually used what pseudonym. He gives some rather generalized indication of the types of sources used (which is more than some writers do), and includes a short bibliography (including some of my own work), but unless a source happens to be mentioned in an individual entry you are on your own after that. His reasoning? Sources would take too much space and make the book “less convenient” to use (p. xvi).
This is absolute nonsense. The author himself has demonstrated, in his label book, that it is possible to append an unobtrusive “References” section at the end of a book, in smaller type to save space, for the important reference of current scholars and future researchers. In the label book the source listing takes about twelve pages (having been greatly improved from a simpler version in the first edition). Here, even if it took double that, it would be well worth it. Gene Austin researchers will want to know that there was an article by Don Peak and Tor Magnusson in the New Amberola Graphic in 1984 titled “Charles Keene Is Not a Pseudonym for Gene Austin,” giving immaculate documentation to support that conclusion. They won’t find the article mentioned here. Jazz, blues and classical researchers will similarly want to know where certain conclusions came from. Having recently finished a detailed article on the Fisk Jubilee Singers, I can say that there was no female participating on the group’s Columbia recordings of the early 1920s–none is heard, and every release is designated “male quartet” on the label, on the Columbia file cards, or both. Yet Sutton matter-of-factly asserts “by 1919 the quartet had been expanded to include Mrs. James A. Myers.” Where did he get that from? Did it come from a discography, which may have misread the picture of the touring group that appeared in the Columbia catalog of this era? With no source, there is no way to trace anything.
There is no reason to throw up images of bulging, cost-prohibitive books, or footnotes littering every entry. Sourcing does not have to be done that way. If authors would use half as much ingenuity finding ways to incorporate sources, unobtrusively and efficiently, as they do organizing the rest of their work, we would all be better off. In an expensive book intended for serious reference, readers and libraries should demand no less. End of sermon.
Despite the documentation shortcomings, and occasional lapses in specific entries, this is a carefully constructed work and in no way a simple reprinting of previous lists (such as those of Walsh). It represents a significant advance over the 1993 version. It is a helpful and recommended addition to the bookshelves of those interested in the field, and I hope that the author will continue to refine and expand his work as new information becomes available.
[i]. Sutton, Directory of American Disc Record Brands and Manufacturers, 1891-1943 (Greenwood Press, 1994); Sutton and Kurt Nauck, American Record Labels and Companies: An Encyclopedia (Mainspring Press, 2000).
[ii]. Among those in the “It’s Eubie” corner are Walter Bruyninckx, 85 Years of Recorded Jazz (2001), Tom Lord, The Jazz Discography (1990s), and Mark Berresford, liner notes to “Ragtime to Jazz I: 1912-1919,” Timeless CBC-1-035 (1997 CD). In the “It’s NOT Eubie” corner are Brian Rust, Jazz Records (later editions) and of course Charters and Kunstadt. None offer any evidence for their assertions. Eubie himself, when asked, said he didn’t remember (Record Research, February 1955, p.10). Doug Seroff has suggested that the leader may be Enoch W. Blake, a black cornetist and bandleader who was appearing around this time with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and the Silas Green and Florida Blossom shows.