The Life and Writing Career of Ulysses "Jim" Walsh
- by Tim Gracyk
Jim Walsh was recognized in his lifetime as the authority on American artists who recorded popular (as opposed to classical) music in the industry's early decades. For anyone conducting research on such artists, Walsh articles are essential secondary sources. Others have written about old records, with opera and jazz experts being numerous in the last half century, but Walsh was unique.
He wrote about vintage recordings for over half a century, beginning in 1928 and continuing into the 1980s. He was most closely associated with the monthly publication Hobbies, writing for virtually every issue from January 1942 to May 1985. A decade after he began his series, he wrote in the May 1952 issue of Hobbies, "[A] pioneer artist has been defined, for my purposes, as one who was recording before double-faced discs became popular in 1909." In that same 1952 article Walsh announced his decision to broaden his scope: "I intend from now on to stretch the term to include anyone who was making records before electric recording was introduced in 1925." On subject matters dearest to him--dozens of acoustic era artists who recorded popular fare--no others matched Walsh's expertise.
Above is a photograph taken on September 10, 1947, at John Bieling's home. Standing in the front row are Billy Murray, Will Oakland, Walter Scanlan, John Bieling, Irving Kaufman, Jim Walsh, among others. I have rare film footage of this event!
He was born Ulysses Walsh in Richmond, Virginia on July 20, 1903. Late in life he refused to disclose the year of his birth (Richmond documents had been destroyed in a courthouse fire), but early articles reveal it. He writes in the February 1932 issue of Phonograph Monthly Review, "It was the summer of 1914. The historian [Walsh himself], then a boy of eleven, had moved the family Victrola to the front porch of his home at South Boston, Va....Several years earlier, probably late in 1910, the writer, then seven years old..." He states that he is at the age of 25 in "Pioneer Phonograph Advertising" in the March 1929 issue of Phonograph Monthly Review.
Moreover, the researcher Quentin Riggs discovered the date July 20, 1903, for Walsh in Social Security files made available to the public. Although such files are often incorrect (they cite the wrong date for Walsh's death), the year 1903 discovered by Riggs confirms what is suggested in early Walsh articles.
Walsh wrote in the June 1969 issue of Hobbies, "...'Ulysses' is the name my parents gave me, and 'Jim' only a nickname I acquired later." Giving the name "Ulysses" to a boy born in Richmond, Virginia at that time was daring for his parents, William Ernest and Katie Lillian (Wrenn) Walsh, since the name would have reminded fellow Southerners of Northern general Ulysses S. Grant. Jim Walsh told reporter Pat Perkinson, for an article published in September 1965 in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, "My father was a great admirer of Ulysses S. Grant." Six months after their son was born, the Walshes moved to Durham, North Carolina.
Walsh writes in the June 1972 issue of Hobbies that, as a boy, he was "usually known to his friends as 'E'" and "had not acquired yet the nickname of 'Jim.'" "Ulysses J. Walsh" was used for articles in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s. He used the name "Ulysses ('Jim') Walsh" in Hobbies from 1942 to 1949. Beginning with the June 1949 issue of Hobbies, he used the simple name "Jim Walsh."
Writing about his family background in the June 1969 issue of Hobbies, Walsh stated, "I came from a family that was Republican and Protestant. As far back--which isn't very far--as I have been able to trace my ancestry on both my mother and father's side, I have found no trace of Catholic forbears...[My ancestors] all seemed to have headed South." His father was an insurance agent. Jim Walsh had one brother, Dr. Chad Walsh, who became head of the English department at Beloit College, in Beloit, Wisconsin.
Walsh attended public schools in Virginia and resided in that state for his entire life aside from a short time as a baby in North Carolina and later as a reporter in Tennessee just across the Virginia border. He grew up in the small Virginia towns of South Boston and Marion.
The earliest surviving piece of writing may be the article "Us and Co., As Second Carusos," credited to Lone Scout Ulysses J. Walsh. The town of Marion had a Lone Scouts organization instead of a Boy Scouts group. The young Walsh, a member, wrote for the town's Lone Scout publication. Late in life he sent a copy of the article to Quentin Riggs, saying he wrote it "shortly after I had entered my teens," so it probably dates from the World War I era. It describes his experience recording his "beautiful...boy soprano voice" on a blank cylinder purchased for 35 cents at a local drug store.
The June 1972 issue of Hobbies describes an Ada Jones concert given in early 1922 in Marion and attended by Walsh, who repeatedly calls himself in the article a "boy." He was actually 18. From 1929 to 1931 he was head of the small music department at the Boggs-Rice Furniture Company in Marion. During this employment, as he recalled in the April 1973 issue of Hobbies, he sold "a Ruth Etting record to a young man who, I later learned, was Roger Wolfe Kahn, a famous dance band leader of the 1920's, and son of Otto Kahn, the multi-millionaire banker."
He might have sold records for a longer period had the Depression not reduced discs to slow-selling luxury items. He writes in the June 1962 issue of Hobbies, "I remember being in a small coaling-mine town in Tazewell County, Va., in 1932, and feeling astonished when I saw a sign on a drug store window: 'All the new records, 75 cents. Needles, 10 cents a package.' That sign seemed like something out of a past life. All the dealers in my home town of Marion, Va., had given up trying to sell records..."
From 1932 to 1934 he was a clerk at the Marion Post Office--an occupation, he wrote in that same April 1973 article, "that caused the late Christopher Stone, assistant editor of 'The Gramophone,' to dub me 'the literary postman.'" He states in the April 1964 issue of Hobbies that he "left Marion in 1934." He had been residing at 346 Chestnut Street.
Walsh as Journalist
Walsh's true vocation was journalism and he earned his living as a newspaper man by the late 1920s. In the March 1929 issue of Phonograph Monthly Review he mentions "a recent stay in Tennessee as a member of the staff of the Knoxville News-Sentinel." His first important reporting job was for the Johnson City Press beginning on October 29, 1934. It required a move across the Tennessee border. He writes in the February 1954 issue of Hobbies that by 1940 he was, for that newspaper, "chief reporter, editorial writer, feature writer and columnist." In 1943 he returned to his home state of Virginia to work as a staff writer for the Roanoke World News. He was also affiliated in Roanoke with WSLS-Radio-TV and, beginning in June 1964, was a staff writer for the Roanoke Times.
From 1943 to 1954, he lived at 437 Cedar Avenue in Vinton, about three miles east of Roanoke. He moved on August 26, 1954 to 2524 King Street, Roanoke. In June 1959 he moved to a large white house at 225 North Maple Street in Vinton, where he remained for over two decades.
He hosted radio programs devoted to old records. His first, "Wax Works," was broadcast by WJHL in Johnson City, Tennessee, from 1939 to 1943. A show was broadcast from 1943 to 1960 by station WDBJ, then WSLS, in Roanoke, Virginia. The May 1945 issue of Hobbies features a photograph of Walsh sitting with announcer Dorothy Jennings Turner, broadcasting the program "heard at 5:30 each Saturday afternoon."
Early Articles About Artists
Walsh wrote about recordings for various publications before the Hobbies years. The name "Ulysses J. Walsh" appears in a phonograph journal for the first time in the June 1928 issue of Phonograph Monthly Review. He asks in a letter, "Who is--or was--Maurice Levi? Exactly what were his so-called 'Famous "Reuben" Songs' intended to be?...My interest in Maurice Levi is occasioned by the fact that some time ago I secured, second-hand, an ancient Edison cylinder record..." The August 1928 issue features a longer letter in which Walsh discusses Edison technology, discusses Dan W. Quinn's attempt at a comeback in 1916, and lists early Victor discs, finally asking, "Who was George Broderick? He certainly seems to have had the field pretty much to himself."
Walsh contributed articles and letters to Phonograph Monthly Review beginning in June 1928.
His first article in a national publication was "Pioneer Phonograph Advertising" in the March 1929 issue of Phonograph Monthly Review. He states, "[A]lthough I am only twenty-five years of age...I spend more time brooding over the past achievements of recording engineers than I do appreciating the wonders of the present..." He wrote a dozen pieces for the trade monthly, with three articles titled in a way that suggested he was starting a series: "Reminiscences of 'Harry Macdonough'" (November 1931), "Reminiscences of 'S.H. Dudley'" (January 1932), and "Reminiscences of Anthony and Harrison" (February 1932). When he wrote in 1934 for Music Lover's Guide, edited by Drummond McKay, he used similar titles, such as "Reminiscences of Dan W. Quinn" (July 1934) and "Reminiscences of Collins and Harlan" (October 1934). Walsh states in this latter piece, written only a year after Harlan's death, that as a boy he had enjoyed a Collins and Harlan performance in Pulaski, Virginia in April 1917 when the comic duo appeared with the Eight Popular Victor Artists. The Music Lover's Guide articles are long and therefore more satisfying than his early Hobbies articles, which were restricted to about a page each issue. Some early Hobbies articles are even briefer. His tribute to Edward Meeker was broken into three installments, the March 1946 issue giving only six paragraphs.
A letter by Walsh in the December 1930 issue of Phonograph Monthly Review is notable for two reasons. In it, he announces an ambitious plan: "I have at length decided to begin work upon a history of recording companies and recording artists, provided I can obtain sufficient material upon which to base the history...I feel it is time that the activities and actors of the earliest days be chronicled in type. Otherwise much information that would be invaluable to phonographic antiquarians of the future will pass out of memory." He believed this history would take the form of a book ("The prospect of compiling a book of recorded information fills me with enthusiasm, but as I am in my twenties...I shall need some assistance..."), but in fact he fulfilled his ambition--of making certain that information does not pass out of memory--with a lifetime of articles.
The letter also establishes that Walsh at this time had access to few printed sources. He writes, "Lack of material...would seem to be my severest handicap. I particularly need old catalogs, but the recording companies have none to spare... My own Victor catalogs go back only as far as 1916, and I have none of other companies so old as that." Although it is true that decades ago researchers had an advantage in that they could contact those who had worked in the industry during the acoustic era--that is no longer possible today--there were no organizations formed by fellow enthusiasts, no publications devoted to records of earlier times, no dealers from whom to buy such items. Acquiring old catalogs and even old recordings could be difficult. Walsh worked almost alone and started from scratch.
Another early article in a national publication is "Selling Records in a Mountain Town," published in the September 1929 issue of the trade journal Talking Machine World and Radio-Music Merchant. Walsh describes his strategies for increasing record sales as an employee of the Boggs-Rice Company of Marion, Virginia (a town of 3,500), which sold records, furniture, and other goods. Artists discussed in the article include Gid Tanner's Skillet Lickers, Frankie Marvin, and Seger Ellis--artists popular in his native Virginia at the time but not ones that Walsh would have counted among his favorites, as we know from preferences he expressed in later articles.
The young Walsh was determined to succeed as a writer. In the April 1973 issue of Hobbies, he recalls meeting, in the early 1930s, Robert H. Davis, who had been a Munsey editor. Davis recognized Walsh's name and asked if he had sent anything to Munsey. Walsh answered, "Yes...and I apologize. I was just a teen-age kid and I had no business bothering a busy man like you, but I sent you perhaps a dozen short stories, and you kept some of them long enough to make me think maybe you were going to buy them."
In later years he never referred to his articles that had appeared in the late 1920s in Phonograph Monthly Review and Talking Machine World and Radio-Music Merchant. He may have forgotten that he had contributed them. (He advertised in Hobbies for issues of Talking Machine World of the 1920s, which suggests that he did not have many copies of this trade publication.) Another possible reason for his not referring to early work is that Walsh late in life was sensitive about others knowing his age, and in several early articles Walsh had announced his true age. David Milefsky states in Issue 75 of New Amberola Graphic, "When once he learned that someone quite dear to him had tried to discover the year of his birth, he all but had a fit!"
Jim Walsh's favorite recording artist was Billy Murray. Although they became good friends, Walsh found Murray to be reluctant to talk about his own life, which frustrated Walsh's plans to write a full biography of the tenor.
Late in life he did express pride in an article first published on September 24, 1933. In the June 1969 issue of Hobbies he states, "My friendship by correspondence with [violinist and Edison executive] Arthur Walsh began in 1933 when I wrote the first article about record collecting published by any nationally circulated American magazine, as far as I know. The article was called 'On The Trail of the Rare Record.' It was published in the New York Herald Tribune Sunday Magazine (forerunner of 'This Week'), syndicated to many Sunday newspapers throughout the country, and reprinted in abridged form by a Canadian publication, Magazine Digest."
Walsh began a series of articles in 1939 for The American Music Lover, edited by Peter Hugh Reed. The series, titled "Gramophoniana," was short-lived. The second installment is Walsh's "Cut in Wax--Some Notes on Len Spencer," a longer and more detailed article than any Walsh article in Hobbies.
A 1947 issue of The New Yorker published a Walsh letter debunking the myth that President McKinley made a recording before he was slain on September 6, 1901 (Frank C. Stanley, Len Spencer, and others cut excerpts of the McKinley speech given on September 5, 1901).
He wrote for Variety and Gramophone. Ben Dulaney reports in the August 1959 issue of The Commonwealth that since 1947, Walsh "has been 'official discologist and musicologist' for Variety...He reportedly had more copy in that publication's massive fiftieth anniversary edition...than anyone else." Walsh also contributed notes for LPs that reissued vintage recordings. To compile a Walsh bibliography would be difficult since he often used pseudonyms. For at least one Variety article--"Edison Site Rally Pulls Old-Record Buffs And Artists," published on October 23, 1974--he used the name "L.S. Burt," which must have led some readers to believe it was written by Edison National Historic Site curator Leah S. Burt. Walsh sent a copy of the article to correspondent Robert Olson, adding in his hand-writing, "Written by Jim Walsh. I didn't want to use my name since I told in this article of some of the things I had said in my talk." For "Disk Pioneers In Annual Pow [pow-wow?]," published on October 20, 1976 in the Halifax Gazette-Virginian, he used the name Addison Dashiell (the full name of record pioneer A.D. Madeira was Addison Dashiell Madeira).
The Hobbies Series
His greatest contribution to the field of record research was his long-running series in Hobbies, a publication that began in 1931 when three magazines merged. Walsh began his series in the January 1942 issue. "The Coney Island Crowd" was the title for his series, and he explained that this heading "seems appropriate because Victor Black Label [sic] artists years ago fell into the habit of so terming themselves because of a chance remark of a recording official." The series was renamed "Favorite Pioneer Recording Artists" in September. He opens his January 1942 article by stating, "Hobbies' decision to publish articles now and then for collectors of old-time 'popular' records is particularly gratifying to me since I was more or less the pioneer prophet of this now well-established cult."
Before the series, he had written three earlier pieces for Hobbies--two letters, one article. The December 1935 issue of Hobbies includes a letter in which Walsh urges researchers to take more seriously the work of popular artists: "Musical snobs, of course, will protest scornfully against the assertation [sic], but the truth is that the many men and the fewer women who made [their] reputation[s] as recorders of popular songs and humorous sketches from, say 1895 to 1920, were as brilliant a group as the Red Seal galaxy of the earlier days. If Caruso, Melba and Plancon are immortal, so, in their equally expert way, should be Billy Murray, Ada Jones and Len Spencer. In variety, and in versatility of achievement, these geniuses put the operatic contingent to shame." A second letter was printed in the June 1935 issue.
The first article written by him for Hobbies--"Folk Music Collecting"--appeared in the May 1937 issue but it is not characteristic since Walsh discusses the kind of music that British researcher Cecil Sharp had once investigated in the Blue Ridge mountains region of Virginia. Sharp's example had inspired many others to document the old songs still sung in the 1930s in rural areas of America. Walsh lists other types of "folk music" worthy of documentation--"the negro songs of the far South; the 'steamboat tunes' common along the Mississippi and other large rivers; the cowboy and other pioneer ditties of the far West..." He mentions no recording artists. Nothing more by Walsh appeared in Hobbies until he joined as a regular contributor over four years later.
Passion for Recording Pioneers
Many recording artists that Walsh wrote about were ones he had admired when a child. He told reporter Pat Perkinson that he recalled hearing "Night Trip to Buffalo" when he was two and that, by the age of three, he had made friends with a boy whose home had a Victrola, upon which Walsh first heard the piccolo playing of George Schweinfest. In later years he hunted for that same "Night Trip to Buffalo" disc and found it in a second-hand store called Noah's Ark. (It was recorded by various companies--Victor recorded a version as early as May 25, 1900.)
Walsh indicates in several articles that his love for popular recording artists began in childhood. He writes in the September 1956 issue of Hobbies, "I have pored over record catalogs since I was six or seven years old." In the February 1954 issue he states, "Most...biographical sketches [in Hobbies] have dealt with the 'popular' performers whom I can never sufficiently honor because their recorded work did so much to make my childhood happy." In the November 1952 issue of Hobbies, he writes, "[W]hen I was a small boy I imagined I was the owner and operator of the Walsh Talking Machine Company, and that I started, in a pencil tablet, a catalog that grew to contain several thousand double-faced records. That mythical phonograph company was the greatest pleasure of my life."
In his first Hobbies contribution, the letter published in the December 1935 issue, he indicates how long he had been enjoying Billy Murray's artistry: "I have been listening to his records ever since I was six years of age, and can truthfully say that I have never tired of him and each year has deepened my admiration."
Many times he expressed a special fondness for Billy Murray. He writes in the June 1945 issue of Hobbies, "Ever since I was six or seven years old [Murray] has been my favorite recording artist and today he is one of my dearest friends." He writes in the June 1942 issue, "As a very small boy I played his records incessantly and he was almost never out of my mind. I even dreamed about him. The greatest evening of my life was the one on which I saw him appear with the Eight [Famous Victor Artists]."
Murray and Walsh became friends during a visit Murray made to Johnson City, Tennessee, in October 1938. In October 1940, Walsh was Murray's houseguest in Freeport, New York, for two weeks and he wrote in the January 1975 issue of Hobbies, "I arrived on Friday, October 11, and on the following Monday went to the National Broadcasting Company studios. Walter Scanlan took me into a room where a radio transcription was being made of a program called 'Harlem Quiz'...Walter pointed out Irving Kaufman, who was short, freckled and rather bald, and also showed me Al Bernard." Walsh says in this article that on this trip he saw an ocean for the first time. He did not travel often from his part of Virginia.
He met many record artists. He writes in the April 1964 issue of Hobbies, "Mr. [Edwin M.] Whitney, whom I met in Knoxville, Tenn., in 1927, was the first...I ever talked with."
On which singers was Walsh the undisputed authority? An answer is in the June 1945 issue of Hobbies. He opens with a question posed to him by others: "Whom do you consider the 10 or 12 most outstanding pioneer recording artists?" "Outstanding" is not defined--in artistic achievement, versatility, influence on other artists, record sales? Walsh then lists "The Supreme Fifteen." He does not say that he limited his selection to singers of "popular" material though he names only such artists (neither instrumentalist Vess Ossman nor Victor Red Seal artist Enrico Caruso is listed). He states enigmatically, "Of course, it is understood that personal taste inevitably plays a part in the making of any such selection. However, I have not been seriously guided by my own preferences."
He lists Billy Murray, Henry Burr, Ada Jones, Len Spencer, Arthur Collins, Byron G. Harlan, Harry Macdonough, Albert Campbell, Frank C. Stanley, Steve Porter, Billy Golden, S.H. Dudley, Dan W. Quinn, William F. Hooley, and Cal Stewart. Walsh knew the recordings of these artists better than any other writer.
Walsh as Researcher and Historian
Walsh made excellent use of primary resources--recordings, record catalogs and supplements, interviews with people who had made records decades earlier. When mentioning a song title, composer, record number, or artist's name, he carefully cited correct information. He consulted catalogs and record labels when writing. He announced in the November 1966 issue of Hobbies that he was unable to write about recording artists for a time--he wrote on record-related topics--since his catalogs were temporarily unavailable: "More than a year ago I gave my large collection of old record catalogs and other phonograph reference material to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. All these catalogs, books, magazines, etc., have been sent to Washington to be specially bound, then returned to me for my lifetime, after which they will pass permanently into the Library's possession."
In the March 1965 issue of Hobbies, Walsh duplicated for the benefit of readers notes he wrote for himself during a Library of Congress visit. He examined rare issues of The Phonogram, a publication that promoted new Edison cylinders (Herbert A. Shattuck edited it from 1902 to 1922). It was characteristic of him to study rare material when given an opportunity, make notes of significant findings, and pass along that information to readers.
In other articles Walsh summarized information taken from rarer sources. Published in late 1968 and early 1969 were articles titled "How To Tell When Victor Records Were Made." He wrote the series while examining papers sent to him by the wife of a RCA attorney who rescued the papers as the company discarded them.
Friendships with artists helped Walsh learn about the record industry's early years. He learned much from Billy Murray (though Walsh admits in the September 1956 issue of Hobbies that Murray "was not a student of record catalogs"), Albert C. Campbell, Walter Van Brunt, Frank Banta, and others who had made records earlier in life. By the early 1930s he had corresponded with Byron G. Harlan, John Young, Sam Rous ("S.H. Dudley"), and John S. MacDonald ("Harry Macdonough").
Albert Campbell was among Jim Walsh's many "record pioneer" friends--a wonderful source for information about the early years of recording.
In the early 1930s in Phonograph Monthly Review articles, he quotes letters he received from these pioneering artists. In the November 1931 issue, he states that Harlan "is planning to give a series of radio programs, based on the duets which he and Mr. Collins recorded from 1902 to 1924. How is he to obtain these records, so that he may have his old songs recalled to his mind, is puzzling the comedian; and it has just occurred to me that many of the readers of the REVIEW may have such numbers which they will be willing to turn over to him, either as a loan or a gift...I have sent him 33 myself."
He writes in the April 1954 issue of Hobbies, "I have written about many artists whom I have met in person. Others were already dead before I wrote concerning them. But there have been still others with whom I corresponded and for whom I formed a deep affection but was never fortunate to greet in the flesh. Frank Crumit was one. And Helen Trix was another."
Writing introductory essays for Ron Dethlefson's two-volume Edison Blue Amberol Recordings, Walsh discussed how he became increasingly interested in the minutiae of the industry. In an unpublished paragraph sent to V78J by Ron Dethlefson, Walsh lists industry insiders who helped him: "I had become on intimate correspondence terms with several veteran phonograph company officials, of whom Frank Dorian, secretary to W.C. Fuhri, then president of the Columbia Phonograph Company, was especially helpful to me. Others who gave valuable aid were Frank Walker and George Clarence Jell, of the Columbia recording department; John Shearman, an Edison public relations man, and E.C. Forman, a Victor sales manager. They--Mr. Dorian, especially--were untiring in helping me trace the whereabouts of surviving early recording artists and sending me their addresses. It was because of their help that I learned where Dan W. Quinn had a theatrical booking agency in New York City and wrote to him. How thrilled I was when I received a long, handwritten letter from him, addressing me not as 'Dear Mr. Walsh,' but as 'Dear Ulysses'!"
He was most satisfied with his articles when he had access to primary sources on a given topic. He states in the July 1958 issue of Hobbies that an early article on Len Spencer, published in the August 1947 issue of Hobbies, "was based so largely on third and fourth-hand information that I doubted its being as accurate as I should like...[T]he article [from 1947] stands as perhaps the least trustworthy of any I have published."
When uncertain about facts or unsuccessful in obtaining information that he felt was needed, he announced as much. An excellent researcher, he often cited primary and secondary resources that no previous writers had examined. Anyone who compares Walsh's quotes, paraphrases, and summaries with original source material will find that he was careful with sources when writing for Hobbies and other publications.
On his tenth anniversary as a regular Hobbies contributor, Walsh made clear to all readers his concern for accuracy. In an article published in May 1952 and titled "The First Ten Years," he writes, "My knowledge of the early recording days has increased since I began writing for Hobbies, and I now know that in past issues I have unintentionally made mistakes...With this in mind, I have recently gone through all my preceding articles, marking any misstatements or other errors. This I have found a valuable lesson in humility...And now, as a prelude to going into the next ten years with clean hands and a clear conscience, I propose to devote my efforts this month to correcting and expiating past 'sins.'"
In one article (January 1971), he corrected an error made nearly three decades earlier concerning pioneer George W. Johnson, and his explanation is noteworthy. Walsh said that he wished to "apologize to the memory of a man to whom I unintentionally did an injustice 26 years ago in Hobbies for September 1944." He had repeated in 1944 a claim from Fred Gaisberg's problematic memoir The Music Goes Round that Johnson had been hanged for murder. In the 1971 article, Walsh wrote that he had "learned beyond dispute that [Johnson] was not put to death as a common criminal. This article...is to set the record straight. It is my hope and belief that 100, or 200 years from now researchers in the early history of the phonograph will be conning bound volumes of Hobbies, and I don't want to pass out of this world knowing that I helped to blacken permanently the name of a presumably innocent man. Hence this act of retribution 26 years after my original statements about Johnson appeared."
He made occasional errors, as we now know because of information made available only in recent years. They were often the result of former recording artists mis-remembering events of decades earlier. Walsh's article on countertenor Richard Jose is unreliable because Walsh cited information provided by Jose's widow, who gave a highly romanticized account of her husband's career. But Walsh's mistakes were rarely serious.
He counted among his readers not only collectors of old recordings but also musicians who had, decades earlier, made recordings. Walsh carefully gave credit to those who gave him information, suggestions, and photographs. A few times he allowed others to write in his place for Hobbies. But Walsh was proud of his longstanding association with Hobbies and prefaced some articles with this warning: "'Favorite Pioneer Recording Artists' is written entirely by Jim Walsh. No unsolicited contributions will be accepted."
He was an excellent researcher but was also unafraid to express views that were unconventional, perhaps even eccentric. He writes in the August 1970 issue of Hobbies, "...In my opinion, [Walter] Van Brunt/Scanlan sang the songs associated with Bill Scanlon [William J. Scanlan, famous Irish singer and songwriter] and [Chauncey] Olcott better than Olcott did--or John McCormack, for that matter. I consider him the best of the 'Irish tenors'--and in view of [Van Brunt's] Dutch ancestry perhaps he should be called 'the Dutch Irishman.'" To state that Van Brunt was the best "Irish" tenor--better at singing Irish songs than even John McCormack--is to take a decidedly unorthodox position.
He had an unusually high regard for Al Bernard, stating in the March 1974 issue of Hobbies, "I am certain he deserves high rank among the greatest 'popular' recording artists in a 20-year period beginning just after the end of World War I." No other writer has lavished such praise on Bernard, who is now largely forgotten. Expressing admiration for Bernard's blues singing, Walsh states in the May 1974 issue of Hobbies, "For years it has been the fashion of collectors who consider themselves 'connoisseurs' of 'blues' and 'spirituals' to sneer at Bernard's interpretations. Their ears, such as they are, tell them that no 'blues' are worth hearing unless they are lugubriously howled, wailed or shrieked by Negro women or, less frequently, intoned by black men. They have a right to their opinions, but I resent their condescendingly superior attitude, and wouldn't give one Bernard record for fifty by Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey." His belief that Bernard was a more accomplished blues singer than Bessie Smith and his suggestion that Smith "howled, wailed or shrieked" indicate a blind spot on Walsh's part or an unfamiliarity with Smith recordings.
Some Outstanding Hobbies Articles
His Hobbies articles contain an incredible amount of information about artists and the industry, most of that information being unavailable to hobbyists prior to Walsh's reporting. Even today, despite books having been published about the industry's early years, many facts about artists can be found only in his articles. The following are representative of Walsh at his best:
1) History of the Peerless Quartet (December 1969). As Walsh states in the article's opening, the Peerless Quartet was undoubtedly "the most popular, successful and long lived of all singing organizations that made records." He discusses the quartet's origins, lists significant recordings, and notes personnel changes.
2) Will F. Denny and Joe Natus (October & November 1961). The Part II of this series is important for not only information about two noteworthy recording pioneers but a rare photograph of 42 Edison cylinder record artists, with each artist identified.
3) A Directory of Pioneer Recording Groups (October 1962). Labels and catalogs rarely identified singers in ensemble performances, so this list identifying singers in groups is invaluable.
4) Performers Who Used More Than One Name (November 1962). Walsh published the first major listing of recording pseudonyms in 1944, but this 1962 list is more complete and accurate. Allan Sutton expands upon Walsh's pioneering efforts in the 1993 Greenwood Press book A Guide To Pseudonyms On American Records, 1892-1942.
5) A Directory of Births and Deaths (December 1961). Here are years of birth and death for hundreds of popular and classical recording artists, in many cases with cities of birth and death noted.
6) A Revised Supplementary List of Birth and Deaths (July 1962). Hobbies readers responded to the 1961 Directory of Births and Death by correcting errors and supplying missing information. Walsh writes, "I hope this list will prove even more useful than the original one. And it may be that in another two or three years I can publish a still more comprehensive one..." But this July 1962 list would be the last of its kind.
7) The (Premier) American Quartet (February & March 1970). The quartet, with Billy Murray as second tenor, was naturally one of Walsh's favorites. He discusses the complex evolution of this singing group and the best records.
8) A Matter of Identification (July 1970). Duplicated is a rare photograph (owned by Elliott Shaw) of 20 singers assembled before the door of old Trinity Church in Camden, New Jersey. The group was recording as the Victor Male Chorus, and some individuals are easy to identify, such as tenors Henry Burr, Lewis James and Richard Crooks. Because others are difficult to identify, Walsh explores possibilities, providing interesting analysis. He had even contacted Olive Kline and Wilfred Glenn for their help in identifying colleagues of decades earlier.
Occasionally he wrote detailed tributes that required installments in Hobbies. Notable series include those on Vernon Dalhart (1960), "Six Comediennes" (1963), and Peter Dawson (1962). Walsh wrote to correspondent Robert Olson on November 1, 1960, "The Dalhart series is the most popular I have ever written and has brought me more mail than I can conveniently cope with."
In the 1960s and early 1970s, his articles in Hobbies were more substantial than those of the 1940s and 1950s. Although in the first two decades Walsh wrote excellent articles about artists widely admired by collectors of old recordings, he was given a relatively small amount of space, with many articles in the 1940s less than a page long. For example, his third installment about Edward Meeker, published in April 1946, is a mere nine paragraphs and takes up less than half a page. By the 1960s his articles were sometimes a full nine pages, with many rare visuals.
By the 1960s Walsh had access to more information about the industry and artists than in earlier years, the result of research as well as correspondence with former recording artists and Hobbies readers. He had written about Byron G. Harlan in the February and March, 1943 issues of Hobbies but could have written a more definitive account of the tenor had he waited two decades. In recounting his meeting with singer Tiny Tim in the September 1969 issue of Hobbies, Walsh writes that he prepared for Tiny Tim "a four- or five-page single-spaced manuscript about Harlan. This I sent to Tim with the information that this was more accurate than my 1943 Hobbies articles, which I have found need revision in several respects." However, Walsh never again wrote Hobbies articles about Harlan.
Typically three or four months passed between the time that he wrote an article and the time it was published in Hobbies. The January 1977 issue of Hobbies has Walsh's account, written shortly after the event, of a gathering of collectors at the Edison National Historic Site on October 15, 1976. In the December 1961 issue, which lists years of birth and death for hundreds of popular and classical recording artists, Walsh adds in parenthesis to the Byron G. Harlan entry, "This is being typed on the 100th anniversary of his birth." Harlan had been born on August 29, 1861.
Walsh on Edison Technology
Walsh listened carefully to records of all formats--two-minute and four-minute wax cylinders, celluloid cylinders, lateral-cut as well as vertical-cut discs. He was equally familiar with Victor, Columbia, Edison, and Pathe products. Although primarily interested in the lives and careers of artists, he was knowledgeable about talking machine technology and especially loved Edison products. The proud owner of over 3,000 Diamond Discs, he often stated his conviction that Edison Diamond Disc technology delivered the finest sound quality. He writes in Brass Pounders Gossip, "It is a virtually undisputed fact that the thick Edison records were incomparably the best of their period, and many famous artists have told me that Edison was the only company then able to take down their voices as they actually were."
He contrasts cylinder and Diamond Disc technology in the June 1978 issue of Hobbies: "Never had I heard any piano music on an Edison cylinder that was agreeable to my ears. The Blue Amberol records all had pitch wavers--the veteran recording expert, 'Bill' Hayes, told me, 'We never were able to find a way of making the Amberols run exactly true'--and the fluttery effect caused by the unsteadiness of pitch turns the piano on cylinders into a torment to my nerves. On the wax two-minute cylinders a piano sounded like an out-of-tune banjo. On the Diamond Disc, however, 'Monastery Bells' sounds like perfect piano recording because the pitch is absolutely un-varying. The thickness and solidity of the discs are among the many reasons why they were superior to the cylinders which were dubbed from them."
End of Hobbies Series
Despite debilitating illnesses in his last decades, health problems never prevented a Walsh article from reaching his audience since he wrote "stand-by" articles in anticipation of hospital stays.
By 1976, Hobbies editors reduced space for Walsh articles, breaking articles into increasingly small installments, which aggravated him. He wrote to a correspondent in Chehalis, Washington on June 7, 1976, "As a rule, Hobbies is now giving me less space than I got five, ten or even twenty or twenty-five years ago, and I certainly don't think it's right in view of my being a contributor of 35 years service...None of its other contributors has been taken into 'Who's Who in America' on the strength of his Hobbies writing, and I have obtained more publicity for the magazine than all its other writers combined. However, they have also done many nice things for me, so I go along the best I can."
His last Hobbies article appeared in the May 1985 issue (Volume 90, No. 3): "Victor Records of Historical and Personal Interest, Part II." The monthly, renamed Antiques and Collecting Hobbies, does not announce that this was his final article. Co-editors Stephen Stroff and Bob Ault briefly took over the column, dropping "Favorite" from the title of the series and renaming it "Pioneer Recording Artists."
No Books Published
In 1930 Walsh announced intentions to compile a book about recording artists, and in the June 1947 issue of Audio Record, he again refers to his ambition: "For a considerable time I have been collecting material for a book to be called 'Record Makers,' which will give the life stories of these old timers." He evidently thought seriously about this in the mid-1940s. In the February 1947 issue of Hobbies, he describes a visit to John Bieling's home in September 1946 (this would subsequently be named the first John Bieling Day--artists Bieling and Billy Murray spent an afternoon recalling recording days for collectors Walsh, Bryant Burke and Jim Van Demark) and writes about Eugene Rose and Bieling being "much interested in my hope of completing within the next year a book of biographical sketches of artists who made records from 1877 to 1909."
The book never materialized. He may have been warning readers not to expect a book soon when he wrote in the August 1951 issue of Hobbies, "A set of books the size of the Encyclopedia Britannica would be required to publish an exhaustive account of all the American performers who made records at some time from Edison's invention of the phonograph in 1877 to the advent of the electric recording in 1925...When I wake in the middle of the night one of the things I worry about is the disconcerting knowledge that I could turn out an article a month for the next hundred years and still have left artists worth writing about at the end of my century of exertion."
It is regrettable that Walsh never compiled his proposed book, but in magazines from 1928 to 1985 he passed along more information than he could have put in any one book. Moreover, in his Hobbies series Walsh was able to correct errors, combat persistent myths, and present newly discovered information. It was a perfect forum for him.
His articles are not likely to be collected in any book since the cost would be too high for the small market that today exists for such information. Walsh was often asked by his readers if he planned to compile articles into a single volume. He wrote to correspondent Harold A. Layer on April 23, 1970: "Thousands of persons have asked me to do that, but it is out of the question because I have now written almost three million words for Hobbies, and it would take 45 or 50 average size books to contain what I have already written, much less what I hope to go on to writing for many years to come...I have been told that one or two persons have Xeroxed my old articles and sell, or try to sell, them at the exorbitant (to me) price of three dollars an article."
Other Interests and Personal Traits
Anyone interested in learning about Walsh himself will find abundant details in the articles he wrote about artists. A typical case of Walsh relating personal information when writing about records is found in the January 1962 issue of Hobbies, which begins his long series on Peter Dawson: "As a lifelong abstainer, I have not tasted Peter Dawson whisky or any other alcoholic beverage, and never knowingly shall, but I never tire of Dawson's records..."
He was a Charles Dickens authority. Walsh wrote articles about the novelist, owned several first editions as well as some Dickens letters, owned every issue of The Dickensian from 1905 onwards, and stayed in touch with Monica Dickens, a descendant of the novelist. He writes in the September 1969 issue of Hobbies, "During all my life, from the time I reached the age of nine, Charles Dickens has been my favorite author. I suppose I must have read each of his books at least three dozen times." Since he never traveled abroad, he never fulfilled a lifetime ambition to visit in England the places about which the novelist wrote. Other favorite authors were Mark Twain and P.G. Wodehouse.
He loved cats and sometimes while writing articles stopped discussing the subject matter at hand so he could comment on his pets. In the middle of a Chauncey Olcott article, published in Hobbies in September 1970, he drops his subject to add a paragraph beginning with this line: "The many Hobbies readers who like to receive the latest information about my cats will be interested to know that the two paragraphs just preceding were typed under hardships, because Little Nipper, the 12-year-old patriarch of my feline family...came in while I was writing, jumped into my lap, began biting my fingers..." Cat anecdotes that may have charmed a few readers in Walsh's time make for tedious reading today, and it is surprising that this otherwise highly disciplined writer included observations about his pets in articles about record artists.
Walsh wrote humorous verses and published some under the nom de plume Prof. Plum Duff Walsh, Ph.D., the name of his favorite cat. They were published regularly in the early 1970s in The Old Timer.
He was frank about his dislike of trends in modern popular music. He concludes his September 1970 Hobbies article by stating, "From [songwriter Ernest] Ball to the Beatles has been a tragic plunge downward, I think." The statement goes undeveloped. At other times he wrote negative and overly simplistic comments about music he personally did not enjoy--it was his chief weakness as a musical critic. He wrote intelligently about music he enjoyed but made sweeping and naive comments about music he disliked.
He corresponded with countless admirers of his Hobbies articles though ill health and time constraints prevented him from answering all letters. He writes in the July 1962 issue of Hobbies, "I'd like to apologize to scores of readers whose letters I haven't been able to answer in recent months. My workaday duties have increased to such an extent that I no longer have time to carry on a regular correspondence with anyone. Not only that, but I have been under doctor's orders for some time to 'slow down' because of a stomach ailment...Many of my good friends...have been waiting more or less patiently half a year or more for me to write to them. Eventually I shall." In 1963 Walsh semi-retired from the newspaper business and finally had additional time to conduct research and write for various publications about old recording artists.
He wrote to Harold Layer on November 7, 1970, "[T]he heat and humidity of last summer virtually put an end to my correspondence activities for a few months. I had hoped to regain some strength when October came, but I haven't, and I still feel extremely weak and tired all the time." He corresponded often with researcher Robert Olson, beginning in 1960, and in a letter dated December 30, 1978, after apologizing for papers being misplaced, Walsh referred to his bedroom as "overflowing with unanswered mail," adding, "Since I had my illness, involving loss of memory last year, I no longer have much interest in records and recording artists, and trying to answer letters of inquiry becomes an increasingly taxing job."
Some collectors today cherish letters sent years ago by Walsh. When he did write, he was a generous correspondent, answering questions thoroughly and passing along rich details about--and memories of--record artists of earlier decades.
Listening to music became increasingly difficult for Walsh, who wrote to Robert Olson on February 25, 1974, "For several years I have been afflicted with imbalance of inner ear fluid that distorts the sound of music and makes listening to records a torment, so I listen as little as possible--mostly in checking details of a record about which I am writing." He added, "My Hobbies material is already written and in the editor's possession to run through part of 1976. During the past few months the paper shortage has caused Hobbies to reduce the length of my monthly installments, and this worries me." At this time he also suffered from gout as well as edema, or fluid retention in the joints. Within a few years he often suffered a dizziness that prevented him from using a typewriter, and he more and more responded to correspondents by writing on postcards.
In his home on March 11, 1976, he spoke into a microphone about Billy Murray for a project that would result in two cassettes marketed by Merritt F. Malvern, an engineer at Buffalo TV station WBEN. Walsh's commentary between Murray performances is excellent, and one hears a strong Southern accent--what he called, in the December 1950 issue of Hobbies, a "corn pone an' 'lasses" Virginia accent.
On October 15, 1976, 150 enthusiasts of vintage recordings gathered at an Edison National Historic Site auditorium for a program. Walsh spoke at the meeting, urging that a Pioneer Recording Artists Hall of Fame be established. According to an article in Variety (October 20, 1976--Walsh himself wrote the article, using the pseudonym Addison Dashiell), "He proposed an arrangement similar to, but on a more modest scale, than the National Baseball Museum Hall of Fame at Cooperstown."
In the March 1977 issue of Hobbies, he quoted much of his speech, including these sentences: "Perhaps a Pioneer Recording Artists' Hall of Fame could be set up in the Library of Congress, which in course of time will receive my records, record players, reference materials and many hundreds of photographs that now adorn the walls of my creaky old home. Possibly my collection could be used as the basis of a Recording Artists' Hall of Fame...I haven't discussed this with any official of the Edison National Historic Site, but I wonder if the Hall of Fame I suggest could be established here. Of course it should not be restricted to Edison artists."
In 1979 he donated his outstanding collection of records and paper items to the Library of Congress. He had made arrangements for the donation as early as 1965. The records--discs and cylinders--were soon added to the institution's record collection, but since no funding was provided for organizing and cataloging the many paper items, they are not available for examination. Despite his wishes that the materials serve researchers, paper materials remain inaccessible. No researcher has published articles citing Walsh's papers at the Library of Congress. Walsh's own diary, begun in 1940, is presumably at the Library of Congress.
In 1981 he contributed a substantial article about pioneers (29 printed pages) to Ron Dethlefson's Edison Blue Amberol Recordings, Volume II: 1915-1929. For Volume I of Dethlefson's set of Blue Amberol books, Walsh had written an introduction of less than a dozen paragraphs. For Volume II, relying on memory due to his collection being at the Library of Congress, he summarized biographical facts and career highlights of artists such as Cal Stewart, Vernon Dalhart, Ada Jones, Walter Van Brunt, and Collins and Harlan.
Writing to Dethlefson on a postcard dated June 11, 1981, Walsh makes an interesting observation about his own large body of published work: "After lying abed...I decided to defy the intense heat and go through back copies of Hobbies, to check my recollections of Collins and Harlan and correct any errors that had crept into the recesses of my so-called mind. It was a tough job, but worth doing. For the first time I realized the immensity of the task I have accomplished in writing about recording artists for the past 40 years."
He spent his last years in nursing homes, beginning with room 314 at the Burrell Nursing Home in Roanoke. John A. Petty visited Walsh here on April 8, 1987, and taped their conversation. Petty noted that the room was bare, with no radio, no TV, no machine for playing old recordings, no pictures on walls. On a set of drawers was a lone picture of a cat that Walsh had named Garfield (he had found for this cat a new home prior to his move into the nursing home). A few record collecting magazines had been sent to Walsh by well-wishers but nothing else in the room indicated that he had devoted a life to studying and discussing old recordings. Walsh, who was mentally alert, reminisced about Billy Murray, and even sang from memory the tricky lyrics to the comic "If It Wasn't For The Irish and the Jews."
Jim Walsh died on December 24, 1990, at the Camelot Nursing Home in Salem, Virginia at age 87. The person who saw to Walsh's daily needs described Walsh as wholly bed-ridden in his final months. Walsh was relatively cheerful in this home yet at the same time highly "unmotivated," lacking interest in just about everything brought to his attention.
Walsh never married and had no immediate survivors, according to an obituary in the January 28, 1991, issue of Variety.