This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
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Family Duos

22 June 2012

The photo postcard was a revolution in advertising, especially for musicians and vaudeville artists. Cheap and easy to produce, they let a picture tell the story better (sometimes) than dozens of paragraphs of hyperbole.

And while I often find family bands that produced these promotional items, I don't find many father and son duos. This one is my favorite.

Fr. Witkowsky + Son
First Class Music for Weddings, Banquets, Parties, Etc., -.

Father plays an accordion or more particular a Banyan which is a Russian and Eastern European button accordion.  Son plays a violin. Once a popular combination but perhaps less so now in the 21st century.

The photographer is Geo. Stoller of 200 East 83rd St. in New York City. A place where music and especially music for the many immigrant communities was always in demand.  Much of what we now think of as American music was in fact the result of enterprising foreign musicians who immigrated through the great gateway of New York.

The back of the card gives the important contact information in a fine Gothic font:
Fr. Witkowski 1406 Ave A N.Y.C. 3. Floor front bel. 74-75 St. 
There is also an added pencil note in Polish that I believe indicates that the photo was taken in 1917. As with many Eastern European names, Witkowki(y) can be spelled in many ways, so trying to track down a name like this is near impossible, as so many immigrants changed their names to suit American culture, or often the officials at Ellis Island just invented a new name altogether.

But the added address was an important clue, and father and son Witkowski were found in the 1916 New York City directory.

Franz and Ludwig Witkowski with the same address on Ave A, and for an added confirmation, their occupations — musician.

Did Franz and Ludwig play dance tunes from the old country? Show tunes from Broadway and Tin Pan alley? We will never know.

Here is another postcard of a similar violin and accordion duo. This one from the same period, but unfortunately without a useful address.

Noted on the back of the card is Adolph and Louis Tutuliere, but this time without a useful address. And like Witkowski, Tutuliere is a very elusive name. I think it may be French or Belgian in origin, perhaps from Quebec, but though it is unusual, I can find no record of where these two brothers are from. I believe the photo is American but it could equally be Canadian. I like the photographer's rather primitive back drop stitched to a floor cloth and how he used natural side lighting.

If we assume Adolph is on the left with the violin, Louis is holding a more familiar keyboard accordion. Note that both his instrument and Franz's banyan are very ornately decorated. Did they have the same repertoire as the Witkowski duo?

It seems appropriate to add a special musical performance from YouTube. There are many videos for accordion that I could chose and probably some for accordion and violin duos too. But there is nothing like this one.

It is the third movement from Tchaikovsky's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, played on the accordion, with both the solo and the orchestral accompaniment played by one young man. This may be the most extraordinary playing of any instrument you will likely hear on YouTube. The tempo is faster than what many great violinists will typically play. The fact that it is on an banyan/accordion is all the more amazing.

The performer is Alexander Hrustevich and he seems to be about 16-18 years old when he gave this concert. I can't tell much from the setting but it could easily be a wedding or a banquet or a party, and I would think Franz, Ludwig, Adolph and Louis would be very impressed, as it is definitely First Class Music. 

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday.
Click the link to discover more vintage photos and stories.


21 Wits said...

It's funny I thought of you when I put my post together this week, because I posted a really cool photo that you would just love yourself! You always have such awesome photos and interesting tales to go with them!

Little Nell said...

Thank you for the link to this talented musician. I was enthralled by his performance and I have never heard that piece played so fast.The pictures of the duos were interesting too. Another enjoyable post Mike.

Wendy said...

Does Alexander's banyan have more buttons than the one in the first photo? I agree -- first class! Your post reminds me of a cartoon I saw once: the top half of the cartoon shows people parading into Heaven being greeted by an angel who says, "Welcome to Heaven. Here's your harp." The bottom half shows people parading into Hell being greeted by a devil saying, "Welcome to Hell. Here's your accordian."

Caminante said...

Little Nell suggested I watch this accordionist. It was absolutely astounding - I couldn't waggle my fingers at that speed, never mind play music! What a talent.

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

I really enjoyed this post. To imagine where both duos ended up playing, how far way they needed to travel for gigs; being related ... it all sets my imagination flowing.

That boy on the accordion; he makes one instrument sound like a whole orchestra. I wonder at what age he began to play ... 2?

Thanks so much for another wonderful post.

Kathy M.

Bob Scotney said...

I'm in awe of anyone who can play a musical instrument. However I have never seen/heard a performance like the young Aleaxander in this video. Absolutely outstanding. Thanks, Mike.

Postcardy said...

The playing in the video is amazing. I never even heard of a banyan instrument before.

Sharon said...

The first thing that struck me was the surname "Witkowski". My son's favourite teacher at primary school had the same surname.
A very interesting post.

Anonymous said...

Most interesting post.

North County Film Club said...

I love your music related photos and stories.
Unfortunately I can't seem to get YouTube posts on my iPad. I'll have to check out Alexander on my office mac
On Monday.

tony said...

New York was such a great Melting Pot for Music. History you can dance along with ! Perfect!

Christine H. said...

I was enthralled with this performance too. I am fascinated by accordions in general and would buy a few more if they didn't take up so much space.

I so rarely see old photos or postcards of people playing the accordion, so it's a great treat.


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