March 11, 1990

Edison Blue Amberol Recordings, Volume II: 1915 to 1929.  By Ronald Dethlefson.  New York: APM Press, 1981; 504 pp., illus. ISBN 0‑937‑612‑01‑4.  Hardbound.

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

This is a review of a book that you can no longer obtain.  At least, not easily.  It is, however, a book that anyone interested in early recording should know about.

Edison Blue Amberol Recordings Volume I (covering 1912‑1914) was published in 1980, followed by Volume II in 1981, in limited editions of 500 copies each.  Both volumes quickly went out of print.  At the time they were issued, they cost $20 and $50, respectively.  I recently received an auction list from a New York dealer offering used copies of the two, with minimum bids of $175 and $150 each; Dethlefson himself has offered a used copy of the set for $350!  What has caused the value of these books to escalate so drastically?

At first glance these volumes seem a bit of a mish‑mash, handsome but somewhat unfocused scrapbooks of early Edison printed material.  In fact, they are indispensable sources of information on Edison artists (popular and classical) and the manner in which their recordings were first offered to the public.

Volume II is divided into nine principal sections.  The heart of the book consists of 330 pages of reprints of nearly every Blue Amberol monthly release bulletin from 1915 to 1929, arranged in chronological order and accompanied by a dating guide.  Many of these include descriptive paragraphs about each record released that month.  There is also a 38 page section of artist photos; a 30 page chapter by Jim Walsh about Edison artists, including lengthy biographies of Cal Stewart, Vernon Dalhart, Walter Van Brunt, Ada Jones and Collins and Harlan; a chapter on special records made for Henry Ford; illustrative production statistics for Blue Amberol cylinders; literature on Amberola phonographs; a reprint of the “Amberola Monthly” for August, 1918; three dozen pre‑1915 cylinder record slips that had turned up since the publication of Volume I; and 28 illustrative liner notes for Diamond Disc issues.

The quality of the reproductions is spectacular, on slick paper and sometimes in color (often blue, of course!).  If you have a record number or issue date, information is easy to find.  If you don’t, you’ll need to find that information in another source in order to locate a desired artist or recording here.  EBAR, Volume II cries for an artist and title index.  The author planned to publish one in a subsequent volume, but Volume III never materialized.

Nevertheless, the information in EBAR is so valuable that it is no wonder researchers who neglected to buy it originally are now paying a premium for used copies.  Essentially, this is 500 pages of high‑quality reprints of original source documents.  The few aggravations (lack of an index) and inconsistencies (what are Diamond Disc notes doing here?) are worth the trouble.

What is the moral of all this?  Dethlefson has recently published a comprehensive, 275 page book on Edison Diamond Discs, covering 1910‑1929.  (This is a revised edition of his earlier, smaller book on the same subject.)  It will be printed in a limited edition of 250 copies and cost $45.  Too much?  Want to think about it for a while?  If you’re at all interested in the subject‑‑don’t wait too long.


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