The Polish Museum of America holds collections commemorating various aspects of Polish immigrant life, including social, religious, and patriotic activities. Music was an integral part of the cultural life of Polonia, and in recent years, the PMA’s Music Collection grew thanks to generous contributors. The PMA holds a unique collection of sheet music printed by and for the Polish community.
The Music Collection is comprised of:
• Records – including 10-inch 78rpm, 7-inch 45rpm, and 12-inch long-playing records by mainstream American companies, such as Columbia, (RCA) Victor, OKeh, Vocalion, and others
• Polish piano rolls
• Sheet music – including music published by Wladyslaw H. Sajewski (Chicago), Boleslaw Joseph Zalewski (Chicago), Vitak-Elsnic Co. (Chicago), Joseph Krygier (Philadelphia), Ignacy Podgorski (Philadelphia), and Henry Schunke (Buffalo, NY)
• Collections of handwritten and printed scores of composer/organist Antoni Mallek (1851-1917) and Eugeniusz Walkiewicz (1880-1946)
Music Collections online
Select catalogs available online, by Poland’s National Library (in Polish only).
The Music Collection History
The exact nature and size of the museum’s original music collection is not easy to determine. To be sure, sheet music, particularly the handwritten scores of composer/organist Antoni Mallek (1851-1917), were an early part of it. Formally published music, issued by the Sajewski Music Company, along with some smaller publishers, later entered the collection. With improvements in technology, mechanically reproduced music, in the form of piano rolls, and later, records—10-inch 78rpm, 7-inch 45rpm and 12-inch long-playing records—came along.
The lion’s share of the museum’s music collection consists of countless sheet music in various forms–notes for individual songs, instrument instruction books, band books, dance albums.and other themed-song books–published by the W. H. Sajewski Music Company. Founded as an urban general store in 1897 by Władysław H. Sajewski (1872-1948), the Sajewski Music Store by 1910 was specializing in music. It later billed itself as “the largest and oldest Polish Music Store in the U.S.” The shop operated until May 9, 1981. At that time, Sajewski’s son, Alvin C. Sajewski (1905-1990), who had helped his father run the store from an early age, converted the business to a strictly mail-order operation from his home until his own death. When the house was sold, Sajewski’s heirs donated the collection of records, sheet music, copyright documents and correspondence to the PMA in July, 1999. This transfer swelled the size of the collection considerably.
The second largest part of the PMA Music Library are the 4,000 78rpm records that both Sajewski father and son were instrumental in producing. They not merely sold records, but were also talent scouts and promoters. The decade from 1925 to 1935 is considered the golden age in American ethnic recording. This was ethnic music that was recorded by mainstream American companies, such as Columbia, (RCA) Victor, OKeh, Vocalion and several other smaller companies. Ethnically-owned labels didn’t appear until the post-WW II era. These mainstream labels conducted a little known side-business of “foreign-language records” for about 50 years, starting about 1893. They engaged in this type of record production because they found it profitable. Turning out these smaller-volume records when the pressing plant was idle generated more revenue. And most important, these record companies simply found that immigrant music consumers constituted a very loyal clientele. The music that appealed to these immigrants was an array of folk, patriotic, and military music, along with music-comedy skits and religious music.
But how did these companies find the recording talent, especially when a sizable language barrier existed? In an interview for the book, Ethnic Recordings in America: A Neglected Heritage, published by the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress in 1982, Alvin Sajewski recalled how a singer in the early days of the business would often be chosen in an informal audition in his father’s record store. Customers would come in asking for a record of a song they knew. Sajewski would ask the patron to sing a few bars of the song he/she wanted. If it was sung in a way that Sajewski knew would sell, then that person became the recording artist. Frank Przybyłski (1875-1953), a trained musician and arranger, whose name appears on innumerable Sajewski-published sheet music, would often be the arranger for these recording sessions.
Record companies eventually began to assign record, or catalog numbers, to specific ethnic groups. Not only did companies distinguish their foreign-language records by catalog number, they also began to issue separate catalogs for them for their dealers, often with colorful covers evoking the essence of each group’s homeland. The PMA has a couple of the Polish-record catalogs issued by Victor and Columbia. The OKeh/Odeon and Brunswick/Vocaltion labels issued them as well. Rounding out the records in our music library are a few thousand 33 1/3 long-playing records, and a few hundred 7-inch 45rpm records. In general, they are polka recordings made in the 1950’s and ‘60’s. There are also about 200 piano rolls in our collection that date from the World War I era. The Sajewski company played a role in getting the U.S. Roll Company to issue Polish piano rolls. About 1924 or 1925, Przybylski and several others opened a factory which manufactured their own rolls. They called it the Victor Roll Company.
The PMA Music Room has a professional turntable and speakers for playback of the vintage records in its collection. We also have a CD recorder so that this music can be heard on modern playback devices; this also limits the wear and tear incurred when the original recordings are played. This equipment was donated by PMA Lifetime Member Joe Oberaitis, who also donated the seven-volume Ethnic Music on Records—A Discography of Ethnic Recordings Produced in the United States, 1893 to 1942. This catalog furnishes detail on Polonia’s recorded legacy by giving the location, often the exact date, and the instruments used when these recordings were made.
Our music collection has also been an invaluable aid to researchers. Mr. Jaroslaw Golembioski, a Chicago-based musician born in Poland, spoke at the Chicago Public Library on Polish opera singers in America. Wishing to enhance his lectures with original recordings, Golembioski contacted the museum about our record collection. He was astonished at the number of Polish operatic singers in America who made records, and that these recordings were catalogued in the Ethnic Music on Records series. On the same note, Emmy-winning producer Jim Brown’s office contacted the PMA in the spring of 2006 for recordings and music-related memorabilia for the PBS original program American Roots Music: Chicago, which aired later that November. More recently, independent producer Joe Weed, of Highland Publishing located in Los Gatos, California, sought our assistance in the form of records and sheet music for the documentary he’s producing on the Polish origins of the The Westphalia Waltz. Its melody is based on the Polish music standard Pytala Sie Pani. Mr. Weed plans additional documentaries on the Polish origins of other popular American music, such as Pawel Walc and Maiden’s Prayer. The melody for Pawel Walc was appropriated for the popular country and western ballad, Cattle Call. Our vast amount of sheet music, other recordings in various formats, and piano rolls are presently in the stage of being cataloged. Proper archival storage boxes for this priceless material is also in progress.