This week the Library of Congress historic newspaper resource, Chronicling America, will pass a milestone of making ten million digitized pages of American newspapers available free online. These papers were selected by institutions in thirty-eight states and territories, with more expected to be added.
When I was working on an article, “Russian American Song,” for the educational resource The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America in 2013, I tried to track down information on Nina Tarasova, as there were two folksongs recorded on Victor available in the Library’s National Jukebox that I wanted to highlight in the article. I turned to newspaper archives, beginning with America’s Historical Newspapers, 1690-1922 from Readex to try to learn more about her. I found many small announcements and a few reviews to help to get a sense of her travels and repertoire. But it was when I turned to the Chronicling America that I found information that filled out her career, perhaps partly due to the selection of papers digitized in that database. I was searching the last years that these databases covered at that time, which also may have led to mixed results.
In 1919, long before the folksong revival, Nina Tarasova, a Russian immigrant whose previous experience had been as an art student and painter, became a sensation as an “interpreter of Russian folk songs.” Her rise to stardom would be the envy of any folk singer today. Her first large concert was on Broadway at the Maxine Elliott Theatre in April of 1919. Then, in May, she performed to a full house at Aeolian Hall, where nearly one hundred people were reported to have been turned away at the door. Then she performed at Carnegie Hall in September, November, and December – a venue she regularly returned to in subsequent years. She performed at large and small venues across the country in the 1920s and 30s, made recordings for Victor and Columbia, and was featured in an early sound film, The Hut, in 1929, yet she is not well known today. Her career as a folk singer followed closely after the emigration of Russians escaping the Russian Revolution of 1917 which brought many talented people to the United States. Americans sympathized with the refugees and there was popular interest in all things Russian. Several Russian opera stars toured their new country performing Russian opera selections. Tarasova, without a polished voice, could not compete with these stars and so brilliantly crafted her own niche, advertising that she sang songs learned “at her grandmother’s knee.”
I found that Tarasova was initially criticized by many reviewers for her untrained voice. In response to her Broadway debut, one critic said that “Mme. Tarasova has a voice, but her manner of using it would raise the hair on the head of any voice teacher.” But all reviews praised her dramatic presentation of songs designed to convey the meaning of the songs to audiences who did not speak Russian. Her performances were called “charming,” “bewitching,” “vivacious,” “unclassifiable,” and “haunting.” It was said that she could bring audience members to tears in spite of the language barrier. She sang in Russian, French, and English and sometimes included Jewish folksongs in her repertoire as well, although the reviews do not say whether she sang these in Yiddish or Russian.
Tarasova’s origins have been a challenge to track down. Her accounts of her biography tended to be dramatic and changeable – I assume that this was in response to what she thought would draw an audience. One often-repeated biography found in reviews and performance announcements says that she was attending art school in Germany when the Russian Revolution occurred and that she set out to return home but found that her family had already fled to France. Other accounts said that she was pursued by the Bolsheviks across Russia.
Because she died abroad, there is a detailed report of her death from a French coroner to authorities in the United States with information provided by her sister. This gives her married name as Nina Voss, “known as” Nina Tarasova, with her maiden name Rose Schmirgeld (other documents show that she sometimes used the names Nina Voss Tarasova and Nina Tarasova Voss). She was a naturalized U.S. citizen by marriage to Stuart Voss in 1918. Her birthplace, Novonikolaevka, is given as Russia, but is in the Ukraine today. Schmirgeld is a Jewish surname, so she could well have learned Jewish songs from her family and might have known Yiddish. It was not uncommon for Jewish performers of this era to take stage names and keep their Jewish heritage private, but most chose American-sounding names. Because Tarasova spoke French and knew French folksongs and because the Jewish migration out of Ukraine to escape persecution largely preceded the Russian Revolution, it seems likely that she spent part of her youth in France and perhaps was not in Russia at the time of the Revolution at all – but firm evidence one way or another is elusive. Her birth date, which varies on passports and other documents as she gave later dates as she grew older, was given as December 25, 1894 by her sister.
Tarasova can be heard singing two folk songs in the National Jukebox. These are “Vo poli cereza stoyala” (The birch in the meadow) and “Byvali dni veseliya,” (There were once happy days), two of her most popular songs. Both feature Lazar Weiner on piano. These were recorded in 1924 and show that by then her singing was much better than described in the earliest reviews.
Interviews display her remarkable talent for crafting her public image. In one interview she explained, “You know the strangest thing about my success is that there is really no secret to it! As a matter of fact, I don’t believe there is a secret to any success. That phrase, to me, always seemed so paradoxical. Ever since the first artist of the Stone Age carved a figure on the wall of his cave home or moulded a grotesque statue out of clay, success in art can be traced back to three things: genuine talent, the divine spark, and, endless work. It doesn’t make a bit of difference in what field an artist succeeds, these three essentials must be there if he is to receive the fullest measure of success. In my own case I believe I was particularly fortunate in having come, as you Americans say, ‘With the right thing at the right time!'” In 1922, Alexander Herman, who interviewed several Russian immigrant performers for their reaction to an invitation by Lenin for Russian artists to return home, wrote “Mme. Tarasova, singer of Russian folk songs, says she won’t return because, ‘A bird cannot sing on an empty stomach. I dodged the Bolsheviki as I came out of Russia and I was glad to get out.'”
One question I wanted to answer through newspaper research concerned a group of four photographs of a woman in men’s traditional Russian costume in the George Grantham Bain Collection found in the Library’s Prints and Photographs database. These were marked “Tarasova” with no date and no first name. These show the performer’s face more clearly than photographs printed in newspapers, so I hoped that they might be of Nina. In my search I initially I found only a few photographs of her in a Russian woman’s traditional headdress, which partially obscured her face. It seemed it might be a different performer, as the costume did not match what I had previously seen, yet who else on American stages in the early twentieth century would be referred to simply as “Tarasova?” One of the Bain Collection photos shows the performer with a man beside her and is marked on the top “Samolioff & Tarasova.” Searching on the unusual spelling “Samoiloff,” I found that Lazar Samoiloff (Lazar Samoilovich Kvasha) was a Russian operatic baritone and voice instructor with a studio at Carnegie Hall in the early twentieth century. I found his newspaper advertisements for voice lessons that listed Nina Tarasova as one of his star pupils – which makes perfect sense given the criticism of her early concerts. So at this point I was sure I was on the right track, but I still needed a matching or similar photo to be certain. Using Chronicling America, I finally found what I was searching for in The Washington Times, April 15, 1920 on page 11, illustrating an interview just prior to her performance at The National Theater in Washington, D.C. Though she wore a darker jacket, it was the same costume underneath and the face was clearly Nina Tarasova’s. Searching further, I was also able to find some reviews with descriptions of her costumes that included this outfit.
Today both the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America and Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers, 1690-1922 have added many more newspapers to their databases and searching both, I found that I could learn still more about the life of Nina Tarasova. An important tip for researchers on similar quests is that the different newspaper databases include different newspapers and so it is helpful to try different resources that cover the desired time period.
One newly-found article that resonates with the later history of folk singing in the United States is found in New York’s The Daily Review, April 4, 1921, page 8, leading up to her performance at Carnegie Hall on April 9, “Tarasova and the Educational Importance of Her Programs” (no byline), dealt with controversy as to whether Nina Tarasova’s repertoire of peasant songs could be considered “educational” (presumably in comparison to opera). The author defended her folksongs, answering the question posed. She wrote, “At the present advanced state of musical education in America emphatically yes!” and gave several examples of folksongs Tarasova sang that Tchaikovsky used as inspiration for his works, including “Vo poli cereza stoyala” (The birch in the meadow) found in his Symphony No. 4.
Nina Tarasova returned to her first love, painting, in the late 1930s and became an art restorer. She died while visiting her sister in Nice, France, in 1967. I expect that there is more that can be learned about her life through news and magazine sources, and perhaps there are readers who can share more information about her as well.
1. “People Turned Away at Second Song Recital of Mme. Tarasova,” (no byline) New York Tribune, May 13, 1919, p. 13.
2. “Nina Tarasova, Singer of Russian Folk Songs, Heard at Maxine Elliott’s Theatre,” (no byline) The New York Tribune, April 28, 1919, p.19.
3. Nina Voss in the Reports of Deaths of American Citizens Abroad, 1835-1974, May 25, 1967.
4. Schwartz, Laszlo. “Great Folk Song Star Tells Secret of Success,” The Washington Times, p. 11, April 15, 1920.
5. Herman, Alexander. “Russian Intellectuals in the United States Reject Lenin’s Bid to Lure Them Back,” Kalamazoo Gazette, (Kalamazoo, Michigan), page 1, February 14, 1922.