Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM: Madame Marie
Our interest in 78 rpm records of the Syrian/Lebanese diaspora stems from the three estate sales-worth of records we located here in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and the one estate of records from Janesville, Wisconsin. What is fascinating about Janesville and La Crosse compared to, say, Milwaukee or other cities in the United States is that there were few if any co-existing Greek or Armenian communities in La Crosse or Janesville. They were, with one or two exceptions, Arab American communities that existed in much larger German American or Norwegian American communities.
Some of the musicians on Arab and Arab American 78s identify as culturally Arab, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Druze, but we had not come across any Armenian or Armenian American 78s or artists from among the over 200 Middle Eastern discs we’ve come to own until we made a dash over to Baraboo, Wisconsin, a few years ago and located a few.
Curiously, there seems to have been few Arab American women musicians who recorded in the early twentieth century on Macksoud and Maloof. In fact, none recorded on Macksoud, and on Maloof, of course, there’s Fedora Kurban, and Latify Abdou remains elusive and difficult to pinpoint (there are two or three possibilities). The only other recognizable women’s name that appeared on Maloof was the mysterious and vaguely noted, — “Mme. Marie.” So, who was Madam Marie? How does someone even begin to find a person who didn’t use her last name?
If one simply searched for “Mme. Marie” and “Maloof,” one of the results would likely be a reference to the same recordings listed in Dick Spottswood’s voluminous Ethnic Music on Records. A more thorough search reveals that the only Marie to sing soprano and work with Alexander Maloof was the Armenian American singer Marie Bashian Bedikian.
What’s curious is that Marie Bashian Bedikian, unlike Armenian American soprano Zabelle Panosian (1891-1986), never seems to have commercially recorded in the Armenian language. Marie Bashian Bedikian performed live in Armenian, English, Arabic, Italian, Russian, Bulgarian, French, Greek, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian. She recorded, however, in Arabic.
Marie Caroline Bashian was born to Muqurdich Bashian and Asanet Telfeyan on 1 May 1894 in Constantinople (today Istanbul, Turkey). According to some sources, Marie attended Constantinople Women’s College. The Bashians and their three children: John, Yevnige, and Marie, fled a collapsing Ottoman Empire and escaped to the United States. Marie, her mother, and two siblings arrived in 1915. Her father arrived three years later. As Armenian Christians, it turns out, they dodged the onslaught of the Armenian genocide. Prior to 1908, Armenians ethnic minority status helped exempt them from military service. Many supported the Young Turks and the CUP with promises of equality. With the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, a dramatic decline in Ottoman held territory.
Later, fear that Russia would overtake eastern Anatolia and fear that Armenians would side with Russia led to an intolerant expression of nationalism that excluded certain groups. By the time the Bashians left, Armenians were subject to the draft in an Ottoman government holding on to an uncertain future when they had been one of the world’s most dominant empires. By then, the overall treatment of Armenians shifted. The government disarmed and segregated Armenian men, forced them into workgroups, and women and children faced relocation and forced marches into the Syrian desert. The Ottomans also allied with Germany in World War I. The combination of war, starvation, and genocide ravished much of eastern Anatolia and Greater Syria. The subsequent fighting between Greece and Turkish nationalists led to further deaths and destruction.
In the United States, where many former Ottoman subjects immigrated, issues concerning race and naturalization occupied considerable amounts of the court’s time. Between 1880 and 1944, some thirty-six cases sought to resolve if Hawaiians, Arabs, Japanese, East Indians, Filipinos, and Afghanis were white. If considered Asian, or of some racial group other than white, the 1790 Naturalization Law prohibited them from becoming US citizens. Roughly, 82,000 Armenians immigrated to the United States between 1890 and 1930. Two cases sought to resolve how to racially classify Armenians. Considered Asian by some, the courts in the Halladjian case of 1909 and the Cartozian case in 1925, drew from “scientific evidence,” legal precedent, and “common knowledge” to declare Armenians white and eligible for naturalization. The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, however, restricted Armenian immigrants to approximately 130 per year.
Arab Americans, Armenian Americans, American Turks, Greek Americans, Jewish Americans, American Christians, and Muslim Americans all contributed to Near East Relief efforts. Among those who made the greatest contributions, were artists – especially musicians who held concerts for which the proceeds went to relief efforts.
After a few more years of formal training, this is the route Marie Bashian took with performances in Armenian, English, Greek, and Arabic. Some sources suggest that shortly after her arrival in the United States, she studied at Barnard College and the Boston Conservatory. In May 1917, Marie stood out as one of Charles Kitchell’s thirteen students to perform in a school recital. Over a year later, several Brooklyn churches held Committee for Armenian Relief meetings where US Ambassador to Turkey, Abram Isaac Elkus and Rev. Dr. S. Parkes Cadman, offered the keynote addresses; Marie sang at the Central Congregation Church’s Erasmus Hall on 12 December 1918. In January 1919, the Acorn Club, an Armenian American social group, sponsored a music recital for the Armenian Relief Committee of the Emergency Aid where Marie Bashian spoke on behalf of Armenian orphans and performed a concert in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In April, as the sixth installment in the Festival of Liberty series at Wanamaker Auditorium, Marie Bashian sang a few selections and provided the entertainment for the evening as did fellow Armenian violinist Haig Guderian. A concert of “Armenian Folk Songs” and lecture about the suffering of relatives and friends left behind featured Marie Bashian on 12 November 1920 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
On a more personal note, Marie Bashian married Antranig Bedikian on 2 June 1919. He, too, came to the United States in 1915 and took up residents with the Bashians after he and Marie wed. He was nine years Marie’s senior and served as a minister in the Armenian Evangelical Church in Manhattan.
A “Music of the Near East” concert in February 1921 led to a rare opportunity to record in 1922, despite a solidly booked schedule for the next two years. The concert, sponsored by the Music League of the People’s Institute featured “Marie Bashian, Armenian soprano; Constantine Nicolay, Greek basso; and Alexander Maloof, Syrian pianist.” Two months later, for reasons unknown, Marie canceled an appearance at the Greek Theater in Oakland, California. A benefit for the Congregational Church in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, held at the YWCA Camp Auditorium secured Bashian as the main attraction in July 1921. Ironically, or perhaps not, we bought the two “Mme. Marie” discs we own at the Melan estate sale in Janesville, Wisconsin, just thirty miles west of where Bashian performed in 1921 (George Melan married Rose Maloof in New York).
In November, she gave a rousing performance at Stanford University in Palo Alto to raise funds for Armenian college students who survived the genocide but proved to be resilient enough to have miraculously continued their studies in US colleges and universities. For this particular concert, Bashian “divided her program into three parts:” English ballads, which included “Golden Slumbers,” Charlie is My Darlin’,” and “The Lass with the Delicate Air”; Russian folk songs, such as “Volga Boatman’s Song” and “The Red Sarafan”; and Armenian folk songs compiled by the renowned Armenian bishop and composer, Komitas Vardapet. For each set of ethnic songs she sang, Bashian dressed in costumes associated with the particular ethnic group whose song she performed at the moment. This became a hallmark of her concerts.
The press showered Marie Bashian with extensive coverage and one particular short biography in February and March 1922 appeared in dozens of newspapers from Washington and New York to Oregon. Civic organizations, such as the Buffalo Commission on Hospitals in Cilicia, raised funds for medical supplies to be delivered to Armenian refugees, booked Bashian in March 1922 also. Bashian spent the remainder of 1922 on tour raising money for the Near East Relief campaign. “Costume Recital: Folk Songs from the Orient and Occident” read ads for this particular tour which took Bashian to Norwich, Vermont, Washington, DC, upstate New York, and the Knickerbocker Field Club in Brooklyn. On 10 August 1922, she collaborated with Alexander Maloof and Salim Doumani on two Maloof recordings “Hal-Eesho Killa Murrah” Pts. 1 & 2 and Maloof #209 A/B “Zabyatal Unsi,” Pts 1 & 2. She also recorded #101 A/ B “Ya Khalti” on an unknown date. Taken as a whole, these three discs mark the only known commercial recordings made by Marie Bashian Bedikian as “Mme. Marie.”
Late fall 1922 brought Bashian back home to New York where she did not perform because she and Antranig were expecting a baby. The joyful parents welcomed Gloria Beatrice Bedikian into the world on 10 January 1923. Marie limited performances to extremely special events. By summer 1924, the entire family, Marie, Antraniq, and Gloria left the United States to attend the British Empire Exposition of 1924-1925 at Wembley. The event showcased the power, culture, and colonies of the empire. After a visit to the Exposition, Marie spent time studying in France, and subsequently touring in Italy, Austria, and Bulgaria. The exposition ran from 23 April 1924 to 31 October 1925. Whether Marie performed at or played any part in the exposition remains unclear. The family left in July 1924 and Marie and Gloria did not seem to return to the United States until July 1926, when they sailed from La Harve to New York City.
Nineteen twenty-seven appears to have been a slow year, but Marie Bashian’s regular concerts resumed by 1928. Most stories in the 1927-press about Bashian were stock AP stories about her general concerts and nothing about specific shows she performed. The YWCA of the Moravian Seminary booked Bashian for a concert in April 1928 and people filled the venue to capacity. Showing off a broader repertoire of music, Bashian performed in French, Russian, Armenian, and Bulgarian. Some selections like “The Volga Boatman” and “The Plowman’s Song” remained a part of her set, but she added others “At the Village Fountain” and “The Moon Rose High.” The audience appreciated the authenticity of Bashian’s costumes because they believed her dress “added a form of realism to her interpretation.” Smaller gigs in smaller venues, such as the concert for the Patterson, New Jersey YWCA on 15 November, filled much of the year, then Brooklyn Institute of the Arts and Sciences hosted its annual Christmas series and on Tuesday, 18 December 1928, Marie Bashian presented her much-anticipated Christmas Carol concert. It was at this event that she sang in a stunning eight languages.
The new year started on a more serious note with a collaboration about life in pre-War and post-War Turkey. On 7 January 1929, Madame Halide Edib offered an informative and engaging keynote address after a shortened concert and lecture by Marie Bashian. Also, in January, the Hartford, Connecticut Tuesday Morning Women’s Club treated its members to Bashian’s costume recital. Miss Mary Olivia Robinson provided Piano accompaniment. In March, off to Ottawa, Canada, she traveled for a recital at the Little Theater sponsored by Ottawa Morning Music Club.
Concerts and recitals for civics groups, women’s clubs, charitable organizations, and church groups filled Bashian’s scheduled through the 1930s, even as the country entered the worst years of economic depression. In March 1930, she performed in Ithaca, and December 1930, her Folk Song of the Balkan States concert was the “second in a series of winter musicals” sponsored by a local civic organization. The Central New Jersey YWCA’s annual meeting also hired Marie to perform at their funding raising dinner. The Moravian Seminary and College for Women also booked her for several concerts. On occasion, Bashian posted ads in the Bergen Evening Record newspaper. October of 1936, found Bashian in Burlington, Vermont, as entertainment for the Kalifa Club. Regular bookings came from the various women’s groups at Leonia’s Calvary Lutheran Church and the city’s Presbyterian Church who sponsored benefit concerts starring Bashian in March 1935, October 1937, and April 1939.
Marie Bashian continued to perform into the 1940s, although she turned her attention to voice instruction which she taught out of her home studio. As Gloria came of age, she too, proved to have a beautiful singing voice. Marie encouraged and supported Gloria and hosted a recital at the family’s Crescent Avenue home in 1940. Gloria performed with Nancy Bogert. A number of friends and family attended as did two of the music faculty from Finch Junior College in Manhattan. Marie held similar recitals for her other pupils like Florence Washburn in May 1943. Customarily, ten to twenty noted guests attend the recitals and came from areas nearby such as Patterson, Englewood, Palisades Park, and Manhattan.
When not performing or addressing the needs of Antranig’s congregation, the Bedikian’s worked as peace/ human relations ambassadors. One of the events they hosted in September 1944 was a Russian dinner to promote greater peace, co-operation, and cultural understanding between the United States and Russia.
In 1952, the Leonia Men’s Club sponsored a “hobby night” at the Leonia Presbyterian Church so local residents might discover new hobbies by having the opportunity to speak to and learn from “amateurs and professionals” in their respective fields. The event included painters, sculptors, actors, singers and voice coaches, pianists, jewelry makers, and instrumentalists who played trombone, violin, trumpet, organ, and flute players. The Leonia Board of Education co-sponsored the event. Marie, of course, discussed her singing career.
After the demands of her singing career faded, Marie appeared in the press as Bedikian rather than Bashian. The Leonia Women’s Club hosted “The Story of Christmas” through pictures and music in December 1956. Marie Bedikian provided music and picture curation to those who attended the events. Still, with just as much life and vigor, Marie and her daughter, Gloria remained busy locally. In a January 1962 public library and Women’s Club collaborative, operatic production of Hansel and Gretel, Marie narrated the story and Gloria (contralto), married to Dr. Levon Fred Ayvazian since 1947, appeared opposite Ankin Bertelsen’s Gretel as Hansel. The opera version of this classic story included “pantomime, dancing…vocal solos and duets.” Marjorie Elmendorf played accompanying piano.
If you thought Marie Bedikian slowed down in her years as a septuagenarian and an octogenarian – think again. Working with her daughter, who helped organize her shows, Marie made elaborate “single needle laces” displayed in art exhibitions in the Maurice Fine Public Library in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and other libraries throughout the state in 1977, 1978, and 1979. Some of her creations were made to be “decorative hangings, traditional bridal headgear, and utilitarian pieces.” Making laces had been a tradition undertaken by Armenian and Arab women for centuries and carried throughout the Armenian and Arab diasporas. These pattern-free creations helped women generate income for their families at the turn of the twentieth century. Married women made laces that they themselves or their husbands, who worked as peddlers and small businessmen, sold on their routes or in storefronts.
On 17 February 1980, after sixty years of marriage to Marie, Reverend Antranig Bedikian died. His tenure at the Armenian Evangelical Church in New York City lasted from 1915 to 1953. Over the years, Rev. Bedikian edited an Armenian American newspaper, The Gotchnag, published a book, The Golden Age of the Armenian, served as director of the Armenian Missionary Association of America, and worked as a member of the National Association for Armenian Research and Study.
Marie Bashian Bedikian lived to be 94. Her granddaughters remember her fondly and lovingly speak about her singing career with much pride. They had neither heard about her few recordings on Maloof nor were they terribly surprised at all by what their grandmother accomplished during her lifetime. They have most of the original photos that once accompanied newspaper stories about their grandmother and they are all equally committed to the arts and cultural awareness and appreciation.
Richard M. Breaux is an Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse from Oakland, California. His courses and research explore the social and cultural histories of African Americans and Arab Americans in the 20th Century.
Check out Arab America’s blog here!