DC 1000

Spoken Word Series

by Jay Bruder   

     "DC" records was a relatively well established local record label with not less than 14 different 78 rpm single records in release when the American Federation of Musicians' recording ban brought a temporary halt to recording sessions with union musicians on the 1st of January 1948. During the musician's strike "DC" Records had to become creative in finding new source material for record releases. Mrs. Lillian Claiborne and her partner, Mr. Haskell Davis, launched a spoken word series in 1948. While it was not a commercial success, their one spoken word release may well have been their most significant contribution to postwar recording.

       The "DC" album set entitled "The Voice of Gandhi" was released after the assassination of the Indian leader on January 30th, 1948.  The veteran journalist Alfred Wagg contributed this recording of Mahatma Gandhi in English. Mr. Wagg provided commentary on the speech recorded from New Delhi, on April 2, 1947. Mr. Wagg was granted copyright for "The Voice of Gandhi in four parts" on 9 March 1948. The release of the set should have been contemporary with the copyright. In the speech Gandhi firmly critiques the West. It is one of the few surviving examples of Gandhi speaking at length in English. 


     This 2 disc album set is distinctive for its presentation in a custom pocketed album jacket with a color hardboard cover, a format which matched the best production standards of the major record labels during the post World War II period. (This is a record album in the original sense -a folio of discs with enclosed "liner notes" -as opposed to a single Long Play (LP) disc in a cardboard sleeve with cover notes.)  The four sides are coupled on two discs to facilitate near continuous play on an automatic record changer (sides A and D were on one disc, while sides B and C were paired on the other). While it is not known where Mrs. Claiborne had the jackets prepared, the records themselves closely resemble other discs mastered locally and pressed at the now legendary Paragon Enterprises operation at Chevy Chase Lake on Connecticut Avenue near the DC-Maryland line. Additionally, the cover illustration was rendered by "Davis" which leads one to speculate that Haskell Davis was also a graphic artist. Other 78 rpm album sets were issued by Paragon for artists under the Paragon label. There are no business files surviving which would tell us how many copies were made but, it is a safe guess that for a two disc set by a small independent record company the production run was not less than 100 and not more than 1,000. Unlike many other "DC" releases of the period, there is no evidence of a second pressing.  

     Fortunately, at least one complete album set was preserved for 60 years by Mr. John Cosgrove, Past President of the National Press Club, and a friend of Mr. Wagg.   Mr. Cosgrove stated that: "Al Wagg came back from India with these glass-based acetate recordings of Gandhi. He asked me what he should do with them. I told him that he should give them to the National Archives."  Leslie Waffen of the National Archives has kindly verified the accession paperwork. On 16 February 1948, just two weeks after the Gandhi assassination, Alfred Wagg donated  thirteen 16-inch instantaneous transcription discs which covered some three and one half hours of the1947 Inter-Asian Relations Conference.  The Gandhi material on the source discs was approximately 30 minutes in duration. However, the edited the "DC" set runs just over 11 minutes including commentary by Alfred Wagg.

     Mr. Cosgrove remembers that as part of the agreement with the Archives Mr. Wagg would get a copy of the recordings for himself. If that is, in fact, the sequence of events, these copies would have become the basis for the "DC" Records set. The accession paperwork from the National Archives contains a 14 February 1948 press release which announced a 16 February presentation ceremony at the National Archives Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue and Eight Street in which "part of" the Gandhi speech was to be heard.  The Indian Ambassador, Asaf Ali, spoke at the ceremony.   The announcement credits the recordings to Mr. Wagg and the All-India Radio Service.  Since Mr. Wagg did not file the copyright until 9 March 1948, and since the copyright number is printed on the "DC" set, it is unlikely that the edited source material and commentary used for the "DC" set were presented to the audience on 16 February 1948 but, that some portion of the original transcriptions were presented.

     Mr. Cosgrove did not remember how Mr. Wagg connected with "DC" Records, but a local band leader may have been the link. After discussing the Wagg recordings at some length with Mr. Cosgrove and Marlene  Justen, the Archivist for the National Press Club, I asked Mr. Cosgrove about some of Mrs. Claiborne's other artists. When I asked if he remembered the Orchestra Leader, Tiny Meeker, Mr Cosgrove responded immediately that Tiny used to play all the functions at the Press Club during that period. Tiny was good friends with the Press Clubs' Manager, James Montfort, who would not hire another band for a function if Tiny was available. Since Tiny had several releases on "DC" in 1947, it is likely that he was responsible for the connection between Alfred Wagg and "DC" Records. Mr. Cosgrove clearly remembered meeting  both Haskell Davis and Lillian Claiborne at the Paragon building near Chevy Chase Lake. It appeared to him that Claiborne and Davis were doing business from that location. In contemporary advertisements in the entertainment trade journal "The Billboard" magazine "DC" Records was still giving out the Davis family residence on Van Buren Street, N.W., Washington, DC as the company mailing address. The Davis residence was about 4 miles away from Paragon on the other side of Rock Creek Park by the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.  In addition to releases on Paragon and "DC," the Paragon plant also produced records on other local labels, such as the early bluegrass and country material on Rich-R-Tone.

         The The Gandhi album set, which has long been ignored by record collectors who focus almost exclusively on music, is arguably "DC" Records' most important contribution to documenting the culture of the 20th Century. Shankar Vedantam has written an excellent article on the historical significance of this recording for The Washington Post.  Follow this one way link to read Shankar's article on the Washington Post web site and listen to an accompanying interview with Mahatma Gandhi's grandson Rajmohan Gandhi and an audio clip from the original recording.

      Uncovering the story behind the Gandhi set is a tale of great serendipity. Kip Lornell found one of the discs from the Gandhi set and passed it on to me in September 1992 but, it was not until Shankar Vedantam contacted me via the website in mid-May 2008 that I made any progress in tracing the origins of the recording. Shankar was present at the National Press Club on 7 May 2008 when Professor Rajmohan Gandhi presented his new book on his grandfather entitled "Gandhi -The Man, His People, and The Empire." At the end of the presentation, Mr. Cosgrove retrieved from his office his copy of the Alfred Wagg set to show Professor Gandhi. That the book presentation was almost exactly 60 years from the date of copyright of the "DC" set was indeed ironic. While the "DC" album is unquestionably scarce, Leslie Waffen at the National Archives points out that the source recordings have been available to the public since 1951, as Mr. Wagg only put a 3-year restriction on their release. During the 1970s The National Archive published a reference work for libraries and archives entitled "The Crucial Decade: Voices of the Postwar Era, 1946-1954" which listed the the Gandhi recording. The National Archives transferred the audio to reel-to-reel tape and it has been available to researchers since that time.    

     Thanks to Kip Lornell for the disc illustrated above, Shankar Vedantam for his research on the significance of the recording and Mr. John Cosgrove for sharing his copy of the "DC" album and his extraordinary memory, Marlene Justen, Archivist of the National Press Club for her preservation work,  and Leslie Waffen for his research at the National Archives. Cover image of Gandhi set courtesy of Mr. John Cosgrove and the National Press Club Archives.


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