The owner and creator of that compelling contraption, Eric Byron’70, is an archivist, author, and early sound recordings aficionado. Every pleasant Sunday for about 10 years, he pulled this 200-pound phonograph, known as “Big Horn” and which he made by hand, a mile from his apartment on the Lower East Side. He brought about 100 records with him and D.J.’d selections from his archive of 78s from the early 1900s—playing everything from jazz to opera to popular works. The curious paused for a listen, with some regulars staying for hours.
Byron, now the founder and coordinator of the Ellis Island Discography Project, built his first phonograph in 1957 at age 9, after breaking his leg and being confined to a wheelchair. He was watching Mr. Wizard, a science TV program for kids, at his family’s home in East Meadow, N.Y., when an episode offered instructions for building a phonograph out of an Erector Set, poster board, and a hatpin. After putting that together, he built many more hand-crank phonographs out of household and found objects. To have something to play on them, Byron started combing flea markets and thrift stores for old recordings on 78s. A passion was born.
Around the same time, Byron began to get involved with local preservation and archaeology—a different kind of historical observing—working with a friend to successfully save a building. In high school, he worked on a local Long Island archaeology site. These interests led him to Beloit, known for its archaeologists and anthropology program. He switched his major to general anthropology and soon discovered things he had never tried before—like folk dancing and sculpture, which he loved. He spent time studying in Canada and Israel. Intellectually, Beloit blew his mind: “Existentialism—all of it, wow, wow, wow!” he says. “I could start applying all of this stuff to the questions I had about the world.”
Even after graduation, he kept coming back to Beloit, ping-ponging from Boston to Wisconsin twice. “Beloit was the best part of my life,” he says. “I loved it. I wish they had an old age section of the college because I think many of us would come back.”
Eventually, though, he landed in New York City and it stuck. His desire to learn Yiddish, partly inspired by his Yiddish-speaking maternal grandmother, had not gone well in his Boston stints. But in New York, he met the proper resources. He took courses in the Jewish language and culture at Columbia University and Queens College, attended classes at New York University in museum studies, and did graduate work at Hunter College that culminated in a master’s degree from Goddard College.
He applied all of this to various anthropological and archaeological work in New York. During the 1980s, Byron hit a devastating professional rough patch. “One of the ways I got out of that was I started making things,” he says. He made art that sold, and he created several wind-up phonographs, including Big Horn. Former Beloiters helped him—the couple Charles Kantor’71 and Carol Greenwald’73 wrote a $100 check to help cover expenses for putting the machine together. And, when he was trying to figure out how his wagon could move smoothly along New York’s bumpy sidewalks, Kantor, who named Big Horn, offered that pneumatic tires might help. “His suggestion changed everything,” says Byron. As a park regular, Big Horn received coverage from National Public Radio and was the subject of a Funky Winkerbean comic.
During this period, Byron also re-dis- covered the sound recordings he’d found in his youth—and explored more. Among these albums made in the early part of the 20th century were music, skits, comedies, and dramas. No one had marked them with an “E” for explicit content—and some of it was shocking. First, there was the sexual content. “Some of them were mind-boggling and I realized censorship was very limited,” he says. “The recordings by immigrants were very sexual.” He wondered, “You said this? It’s 1918 and you really said that?”
Second, many of these recordings were not exactly sensitive about race. The early albums were initially aimed at white Americans, then later catered to new immigrants flowing into the country.
Less commonly, those immigrants—Italian, Jewish, Irish, and more—contributed to the genre, sometimes blending native languages with English. The friction of these cultures colliding resulted in some recordings that brimmed with racial, class, and ethnic stereotypes; many were downright racist. In the preface to his book, Crank Up the Phonograph: Who We Are and Where We Came From in Early Sound Recordings, Byron writes: “It was a time when American people said what they thought, and much of what they thought made it onto the early sound recordings.”
What they thought was pretty intense. One album was so racist that the first time he heard it, Byron took the arm off the record. “Then I put it back because I wanted to hear the rest,” he says. “I got over ‘these are offensive’ and I wanted to know what was going on—why were these being done the way they were? And why did you sometimes have individuals from the very group that was being mocked doing the performing?” He began to listen to the recordings as an academic and historian. He points out that even Irving Berlin—the American composer, lyricist, and Jewish immigrant from Russia—included equally offensive songs in his oeuvre around the same time like, “Hey Wop” and “Cohen Owes Me 97 Dollars.”
Not all of the recordings were crude, though. Some were soap operatic love stories or goofy comedies—and they all offered a window onto American entertainment before radio was big and before television existed, during an influx of the old world into the “new.” Byron, who was always intrigued by his Jewish immigrant grandparents, found this study especially fascinating and exhilarating. “Starting to work with this brought me back to life,” he says.
When Byron started volunteering at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, he officially began researching recordings. In 1993, the museum hired him as a museum technician, and a few years later, he started working on the Ellis Island Discography Project—an archive he created and continues to run. He and his team find recordings about and by the “outsider,” cataloguing them in a database. So far they have more than 8,700 logged. Approximately 70 volunteers have contributed thousands of hours to the project.
Judy Giuriceo, curator of exhibits at Ellis Island, attests to the power of this collection. “The discography database that Eric Byron has created is an invaluable resource for both scholars and the general public,” she says. “The early sound recordings serve as a primary source documenting the hopes, fears, aspirations, pain, humor, and struggles of new immigrants.”
In his book, Byron notes that between 1900 and 1950, American companies produced at least 30,000 78-rpm records aimed at foreign-born communities. Collecting and studying these albums is “creating an opportunity to understand cultural patterns beyond the content of individual recordings,” he writes. For example, he and his team analyze words repeated in many of the songs to gain insight into the daily experiences of those landing in a strange land at that time. Some of the recordings by immigrants are a blend of a native language and English, yet certain English words recur. Phrases and words that often pop up are: job, police, boarder, and shut up. Because each album ran only about two to four minutes, every word was chosen with care. Byron and others are still trying to learn exactly what they reveal.
At the time, these recordings were not cheap. The audience for them was primarily the lower class, and they were doling out anywhere from 75 cents to as much as $7 for them—at times, a full day’s salary. Phonographs to play them on were sold for at least $15 and often required a payment plan. Yet these records were so popular, Byron says, that the press at the time talked about “the invasion of the phonograph on the Lower East Side.”
These days, the Lower East Side is full of power brokers blasting digital music into their ears via headphones. Yet Byron and others are still actively working on this auditory archaeology—unearthing voices from that busy, uncertain, hope-filled time. New recordings come in regularly that need to be logged and/or translated from Yiddish and other languages. It’s Byron’s fervent desire that his work collecting these “outsider” recordings continues on, even after he’s gone.
“Eric is dedicated, heart and mind, to the history and material culture of the immigrants who came through Ellis Island, especially those who later settled in New York,” says his colleague Giuriceo. “He is also a pleasure to work with—interested, interesting, enthusiastic, and generous with his knowledge.”
Due to arthritis, Byron can no longer add to his home-based collection of the 10 or so remaining wind-up phonographs he’s made or collected but hasn’t given away—including Big Horn and a small one made from a candy box and a piece of mica. But he regularly listens to his collection of 1,500 or so records. At age 68, his fingers are less nimble, yet his passion and curiosity for these recordings and the populations from which they sprung pulse unabated. “I thought when I was a kid that I could learn what it was all about,” he says. “Now that I’m an adult, I have no idea. But it’s still fascinating.”
Valerie Reiss’95 is a native New Yorker, writer, editor, yoga practitioner, and mom now based in Western Massachusetts.
Eric Byron’s book is available here