- Alpine Dreaming: The Helvetia Records Story, 1920–1924 by James P. Leary, Richard Martin, and Meagan Hennessey
After World War I, a number of American record labels arose that catered to the ethnic or foreign-language market, including Albanians, Arabs, Armenians, Germans, Greeks, Italians, Poles, Romanians, Scandinavians, Serbs, Slovenes, and Ukrainians. All are rare today, indicating that probably none succeeded financially. A small newcomer could not compete with the major labels, either in terms of capital or outlets for distribution. In addition, the producers relied on existing manufacturing facilities to produce them and thus needed to charge higher prices than the mass-market records in order to make a profit. Alpine Dreaming is a rare project that attempts to document one of these small ethnic labels, and it does so thoroughly.
One of the earliest groups to settle in the United States, Swiss-born Americans numbered over 200,000 by 1920. They settled in different parts of the country, but the biggest center was cheese-producing Green County in Southern Wisconsin, with Monroe as its seat. Ferdinand Ingold (1860–1926), a Swiss-born Monroe entrepreneur and record importer, created the Helvetia label in 1920. Until Ingold's 1924 bankruptcy, the label is known to have produced 36 sides. Amazingly, all 36 are included in this two-CD set. The transfers by Archeophone Records of the acoustic recordings are outstanding. The selections include solos by Charles Schoenenberger and duets with Frau Schneckenbuehl, with piano accompaniment; instrumental dance tunes by Wisconsinites Otto Rindlisbacher (known from later Library of Congress recordings and as the proprietor of a lumberjack-themed saloon in Rice Lake) and Karl Hoppe; a male quartet; an accordion duo; and an ensemble consisting of Frieda Haldi, Jacob Jost, and Constantin Wunderle (the only "big name" performers among the lot, the last two individuals having recorded extensively for Victor). Schoenenberger's piano accompanist is not named, but the arrangements sound like the pianist is reading the music. However, the music will probably not be the main draw if we compare it with the output produced in Switzerland itself during this period.
Jim Leary's extensive notes on all the songs and tunes are remarkable for their comprehensiveness, and the notes are the obvious strength of the collection, resulting in Leary's Grammy nomination for "Best Album Notes." The notes for each song include both a transcription and a translation of the lyrics, which are mostly, but not exclusively, sung in Swiss dialects. Three songs, curiously, are sung in English ("The Boy from Emmenthal," "Swiss Yodel Song," and "The Boy from the Forest"), probably a nod to the fact that most of the intended audiences of these records were fully fluent in English. Leary cites early publications and other recorded examples as well.
The general notes cover Swiss immigration to Wisconsin, the growth of Monroe's cheese industry, and Ingold's business foray into record production, thus making it a work that combines local history with the history of Swiss immigration and the immigrants' participation in singing societies, athletic clubs, and national conventions of those organizations. Leary's sources include local newspapers, Swiss American publications, and more. Photographs from postcards, newspapers, and collections such as those held by the Mills Music Library amply illustrate the performers, the label's commercial activity, and the contexts for performance in Wisconsin and in Swiss America. Leary identifies the Rainer Family's American tour, starting in 1839, as the spark that began a long series of Alpine singing families and groups that continued [End Page 472] into the postwar era with the Trapp Family. We can be sure that these groups introduced the yodeling that was part of the popular songs of Jimmie Rodgers and others.
One aspect of Alpine folk music that Leary does not discuss, but might have, is to what degree Ingold and other Monroe boosters might have wanted to associate this music with tourism in Monroe. We should recall that early Romanticism, led by Wordsworth and Ruskin, praised the Swiss Alps, and that mountaineering...