How the gramophone came to influence Irish music



In 1900, New York’s Third Avenue was bustling with activity. Horse drawn carriages and a few motor cars moved under the elevated train lines of the street. This is where Ellen O’Byrne, originally from 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, this would have been a place where newcomers could meet friends and neighbors, while established members of the community could drop by to check in on news and have 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, it could no longer 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 dealers decided to stop producing Irish records. According to The Irish in the Atlantic World, that’s when O’Byrne decided to act.

But let’s start by looking back …

From office tools to entertainment devices

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 course 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 By the time Edison tackled these issues, his invention had already been replaced by a gramophone that played disc-shaped records rather than cylindrical records.

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 quickly became the norm and a primitive recording industry quickly emerged.

Marketing music to immigrants

In the beginning, the industry was entirely focused on selling gramophones and records to the American middle class. But as this population depleted, 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 importance 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 the creation of records 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 switched to 78 rpm discs. Popular records came from Irish tenor John McCormack and German-American accordionist John Kimmel, who was known to play Irish tunes.

O’Byrne wanted to store more dance tracks, but Gennett Records did the opposite and stopped recording Irish music altogether. So O’Byrne took matters into his own hands.

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

He later said in an interview, “Well, I found Eddie Herborn and John Wheeler playing the banjo and accordion, and they sounded great. So my mom went to Columbia and they said that, if she agreed to buy five hundred copies of them, they would record Herborn and Wheeler. She agreed … “

Herborn and Wheeler recorded Mouse in the closet in September 1916. O’Byrne reportedly went door-to-door in New York’s Irish neighborhoods to spread the word and his 500 copies sold out quickly.

This debut record was included in Columbia’s catalog for decades, and by the following January Herborn and Wheeler had made another record with Dublin’s rocky roads 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 New York Irish History Roundtable research group, O’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 created the Copley label in 1948.

The Golden Age of Irish Music Recordings

After 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 newspaper called World of talking machines detailed the phenomenon:

“Few people are more interested in music and entertainment than those hardy, foreign-born Americans who make up such a large part of the average city’s population, and … although they can live thrifty lives well. in ways, music plays an important role in their life and they spend large sums of money every year on this entertainment. “

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

New York in particular has become a hub for recording and it is here that well-known musicians like Michael Coleman, John McKenna, William Mullaly and James Morrison recorded 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 will 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 performed in informal dances or house parties.

Instead, dance halls were developed and traditional Irish music was performed in controlled settings. This movement was intended to hamper the popularity of dance and jazz. But, according to academic Gerard Dooley, moving to these larger venues has resulted in 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 migrants had crossed the Atlantic, taking with them older traditions of song and dance. They were also free to experiment with their sounds. The Flanagan Brothers, for example, commonly used banjos and experimented with jazz sets.

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Bring him 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 brought home with returning emigrants.

Chicago conductor Francis O’Neill, originally from County Cork, was a famous Irish music collector and he sent some of the earliest recordings of wax cylinders to Ireland by post.

While 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 into 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? Discover the Music and Dance gallery in the EPIC The Irish Emigrant Museum virtual tour.



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