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Lemko Wedding and Life​-​Sketches: Carpatho​-​Rusyns in New York, April 1928 - Sept. 1930

by Stefan Shkimba & Co.



Lemkos are one of several ethnic minorities, collectively called Rusyns, who have been natives of the Carpathian mountains on both slopes the present-day Polish-Slovak border, the historical district of Galicia, for centuries. Tens of thousands of Rusyns arrived in the U.S in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, settling largely around the factories and mills of Pittsburgh (Andy Warhol’s family among them) and Cleveland with communities in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Alberta, Canada. (Thomas Bell’s classic novel Out of This Furnace describes several generations of Lemkos around the steel mill in Braddock, Pennsylvania.) Like many other Slavs, they were often recruited through agents of the coal industry in collaboration with the steam ship companies to participate in the American labor force with the expectation that there would be a home to go back to. The wars in Europe prevented that.

While Canary’s bandcamp releases are primarily an outlet for my own research, some stories are inseparable from earlier, authoritative work. In this case, Walter Maksimovich and Bogdan Horbals’s beautifully detailed monograph Lemko Folk Music in America, 1928-30 (published by the authors in 2008) describes the details of the recordings of Lemko music in New York City vividly. When I wrote to Maksimovich to ask permission to quote freely and use an image from it for this project, he not only accepted but also kindly offered to loan me exceptional copies of the original discs to use. With gratitude for his generosity, I’ll say that the vast majority of the story that follows is derived from his original research and writing.

Stefan (Steve) Shkimba (also Szkymba, Shkymba, or Skimba) was born Feb. 3, 1895, according to most of his surviving documents, or March 10, 1894, according to some family members, in Wołowiec, a small village 12 miles outside of Gorlice in present-day Poland just north of border with Slovakia. At age 18, he arrived carrying $60 at the port of New York on June 10, 1912 to join his older brother Jan (John, b. Jan. 8, 1887), who had arrived seven years earlier, in Brooklyn. He moved along with Jan and his wife Anna (b. 1891 in Volovets, present-day Ukraine) to Waterbury, Connecticut, where Jan had a job working on machine belts. Stefan worked odd jobs before enlisting for service in World War I from August 1917 to October 1918.

An estimate by Paul Robert Magosci in 1994 gives the number of Lemkos in the U.S. circa WWI as 55,000. Military service paved the way to legal citizenship for many immigrants, and Stefan Shkimba was naturalized in 1921. It may have also provided a degree of financial and social stability, allowing him to marry Mary Wislocka in New Jersey in 1918. The couple remained in Waterbury Connecticut, along with Jan Shkimba’s growing family, for about eight years. There Stefan preoccupied himself in Lemko community activities, becoming a co-founder of the Carpatho-Russian National Club, an early branch of the Pennsylvania-based Lemko Committee.

Stefan and Mary relocated to Brooklyn in 1926, where he found steady work with the Transit System of the City of New York as a streetcar motorman, a job he kept for at least 15 years, while living at 96 Bedford Ave in Williamsburg. It was there that his devotion to ethnic organizing and his fascination with American technology culminated. Shkimba later described his situation (translated by Walter Maksimovich):

“…from the beginning of my arrival in America in 1912 right up to 1928 the idea was forming in my head that there will come a time when we Lemko-Rusyns, just like the other neighboring Slavic brothers, will be able to generate an artist that will take our beloved motherly words, lyrics, ethnic music, and place them on records. […] Seeing Polish, Slovak, and Ukrainian records being produced, I asked myself why not our own Lemko recordings? This was eating away at my insides, causing lack of sleep, and I asked myself when will one of us, a Lemko, release our own music on a record?”

His worrying was perhaps unique but entirely understandable. Eastern European immigrants to the U.S. accounted for about a third of the massive inward migration to the U.S. during the period 1880-1920, and when the record business began catering to them from 1910 onward, recordings in Polish, Ukrainian, and Slovak significantly outsold those by German-, Irish-, or Italian-born immigrants, who represented vastly larger per-capita populations. Although there was an eagerness to participate in the modern inscription-and-dissemination process of the record business, Shkimba’s sensitivity to a kind of exclusion may have been heightened as member of a struggling and geographically scattered minority that the broader American culture viewed as one lumpen proletariat of “polaks” and “hunkies,” relegated to hard labor and just enough housing, sausage, cabbage, and beer to keep them and their screaming children quiet, while in the homeland, attempts at an autonomous Lemko nation had come and gone.

In December 1925, the brilliant village-style Ukrainian violinist Pawlo Humeniuk (b. 1883) released a few records on the Okeh label before recording again in March 1926. The latter session included a recording that was basically a comedy sketch with musical interpolations that was issued as a 12” disc titled the “Ukrainian Wedding,” depicting all of the big emotions that you’d find at a typical Ukrainian wedding. (Touring theatrical groups during the 1910s and ’20 presented reenactments of weddings as entertainment and excuses to party for the immigrants.) For the equivalent of about $25 in today’s money, it offered about eight minutes of entertainment and was a runaway hit, selling well over 100,000 copies in a time when 500 copies was enough to satisfy the labels. From that moment forward, Slavic Americans had a voice, and it changed the record business in America for decades.

So, it was probably not coincidental that one day in early 1928, Stefan Shkimba decided to claim illness and leave work early from his job running a streetcar, when he crossed the bridge to Manhattan to beg his case to record the music of his own people, it was Okeh records, the second-tier label that had first recorded Humeniuk, that he approached. Their hesitant agreement was accompanied by a requirement of $50 - nearly a month’s worth of his wages - as a guarantee to cover costs in case the recording didn’t sell. Shkimba quickly assembled a group of three singer and two instrumentalists including the violinist Van’o Zapeka (who had published a book of Lemko tunes in 1920), all of whom were born in the old country between about 1877 and 1897, and brought them on April 4, 1928 to make a record titled “Lemko Wedding.”

The performers had not played together before, and it did not go well. The resulting disc was extremely raw and amateurish. Shkimba decided to released it anyway, but perhaps by virtue of his having been well-established in the Lemko cultural scene, and perhaps because of his need to make the project pay back on his investment, it sold incredibly well. Okeh let him continue the series of Lemko Wedding discs at five succeeding sessions from August 1, 1928 through February 27, 1929, and he took on the task with increased professionalism and some additional musicians. When the “Wedding” had run its course, he supplemented the formula with recordings of a “Lemko Engagement,” a description of life “At Mother-in-Law’s,” of domestic life, and a dance party in a tavern, through the end of 1929. Advertisements he placed in the Lemko language press excoriated its readers that pride in them being Lemkos should require them to buy the records, and they were often willing to do so. Having sold about 100,000 discs from the series, many of them out of his own home, Shkimba then worked with Michael W. Duzey (b. Pielgrzymka Nov 22, 1893; d. New York March 24, 1949) on a now lost Lemko Wedding movie, made according to Maksimovich on a farm in Connecticut. (An unrelated troupe made another Lemko Wedding movie in 1963 in Yonkers, NY.)

Following Shkimba’s lead, Victor P. Hladick (b. 1873; d 1947), a coalminer who immigrated in 1893, began recording Lemko material for Okeh in June 1928 with the singers Anna Dran (b. New York April 14, 1900; d. July 22, 1989 Passaic, NJ) and Eva Tzurik resulting in about 10 discs and, in the Fall of that year cut three discs for Brunswick including two-sided sketch-with music of a Christening. Over a dozen Lemko performers who had worked with Shkimba in 1928-29 made discs under their own names for Okeh, Brunswick, and Colombia.

Shkimba recorded four more brilliant sides with an expanded band in February for a two disc “Gypsy Wedding” series for Columbia (who, by that time had acquired Okeh) before three final discs in April 1930 in the onset of the Depression and the rise of the radio in replacement of the disc medium as modern home entertainment. Shifting his focus to a 10PM Tuesday night radio show called the Karpato-Russka Hodyna on WLBX from Long Island, Shkimba continued his work, producing and presenting Lemko music. He visited Gorlice country Poland in the late ‘30s, meeting with political activists.

As of 1942, when he registered for the draft for World War II as a 47 year old man, Stefan Shkimba was still working as a streetcar driver in Brooklyn. But it is no exaggeration to say that his vision and his efforts resulted in the documentation of a generation of Lemko-speakers in the U.S. and a deepened sense among them that they, here in America, were not alone and could be heard. The value of that project has resonated over generations after Rusyns of the Carpathians were ethnically cleansed, mainly in forcible resettlement following WWII, from their native territory and subsumed into larger nation-states. The recordings that Shkimba produced nearly a century ago from that first generation of the American diaspora are a window into their 19th century village life and a significant example to the people of the United States, as we continue to contend with questions about immigration, of the cultural brilliance of rural, mountaineering people who made this country their home.

Stefan Shkimba, a man who deeply believed in the value of music and the importance of representation on records, died on Nov. 16, 1966 in Saratoga, New York.


released January 27, 2023

Transfers, restorations, and notes by Ian Nagoski
Source discs from the collection of Walter Maksimovich (except 9, 13, 14)
Title translations and research by Walter Maksimovich
More information at lemko.org and music at www.youtube.com/@lemkovladek

Recordings dates via Richard K. Spottswood Ethnic Music on Records and University of California Santa Barbara Discography of American Historical Recordings:
1-2 April 4, 1928
3-4 ca. Aug. 1, 1928
5-8 Oct. 2, 1928
9-12 Dec. 17, 1928
13-14 Jan. 10, 1929
15-16 Feb. 27, 1929
17-20 April 25, 1929
21-23 Oct. 1929
24-27 Dec. 1929
28-30 March 1930
31-32 Sept. 1930

Cover photo courtesy of Walter Maksimovich: Evodkyia Dolyna (left) and Rozalyia Bybel (right), bride and mother respectively on the recordings, previously published in Maksimovich and Bogan Horbal's book Lemko Folk Music on American Records, 1928-30.
Attached photos of Stefan Shkimba via Jill Rozdilski

Thank you: Nathan Salsburg and Ivanko.

Detailed performer notes forthcoming.


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