In previous posts I’ve raved about how the American green Columbia label released some of the very finest Irish, Ukrainian, and Polish folk music from the late 1920s through the early 1930s. Their “F” series (records where the catalog numbers ended in the letter F) stood for “foreign.” Despite the name, the vast majority of recordings on the F series were recorded in North America and marketed to North American immigrant populations. And in terms of output, no market was catered to more than the Italian-American market. Columbia released 1,292 “Italian” records in the F series. Only Polish and Greek records came remotely close, with 799 and 696 releases, respectively.
Giovanni Vicari (1905-1985) was an undisputed mandolin and banjo master, and recorded mazurkas, tangos, and folk melodies from Naples and Sicily, the earliest of which were for Columbia. According to possibly apocryphal legend, he rarely left New York’s Little Italy during his life, and still played for friends in local barber shops and the like. He had to have gotten out of the neighborhood a bit however, as he seems to be the same Giovanni Vicari who played mandolin on several Vivaldi pieces conducted by Leonard Bernstein for a 1958 session. Vicari apparently had many students as well, one of whom was filmmaker and 78 collector Terry Zwigoff. In the 1940s, Vicari had something of a parallel career, recording Latin music for the Harmonia label under the name “Juan Vicari y su Genial Orquesta”!
When I imagine New York City and its immigrant communities in the 1920s, I can really picture this recording being part of a traveling art form. The record company was located in New York, the artist was in New York, it was recorded in New York, and it was sold in Italian-American neighborhood shops in New York to Italian-Americans – with the New York metropolitan area still having the largest concentration of Italians in North America. The music went from neighborhood to neighborhood, from the shop to homes, and into the ears of families, friends and passers-by – all in a very short radius of one another. It reminds me of my favorite film about New York City and the traveling art form: Style Wars. The art of graffiti writers on subway trains went from borough to borough, day after day, communicating a certain message in a certain language to other graffiti writers. (That film had a major impact on me when I saw its premiere on PBS at age 11, and was partially responsible for me moving to NYC seven years later.) Perhaps the recording will only ever be a traveling artifact – the music itself is the art form.
This piece, “Doll’s Eyes,” was recorded in New York in June of 1928, when Vicari was just 23 years old. It’s got a beautiful sound to accompany the adroit banjo playing - nice and loud.
For more Vicari, check out Rounder’s CD Italian String Virtuosi.
Technical Notes Label: Columbia Issue Number: 14407-F Matrix Number: 109406 (2-A-1)