Folkways pioneered the recording of folk music
, children’s songs and world music
, and also that of obscure sounds and weird aural documents. The story of Folkways Records is in many ways the story of Moe Asch, the label's founder. This makes it quite a difficult story to tell, for he was a difficult man, irascible
and full of contradictions.
Moe was the son of the famous Yiddish writer, Sholem Asch, and while accompanying his father on lecture tours as a child, he noticed small towns would always have their histories posted on a sheet somewhere, always prefaced by lyrics from a song by a local singer or poet. However, it was John Lomax's book, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, that he credited as the inspiration for founding Folkways, "to document, to give a voice to people who are really saying something." Rather than become a collector of lyrics, say, it is somewhat odd that Asch qualified as a sound engineer (he was the first to install sound equipment in the Yiddish and American theatres. Until then only the Roxy, Paramount and Radio City Musical Hall used sound equipment for their performers). Odder still is that after some early recordings of Yiddish music, he tried recording jazz, but found its big bands too expensive to record, and so turned to folk. This - and his sometimes casual approach to such things as royalties - might lead one to think of him as somewhat mercenary, yet he committed his label to keeping every recording issued in print, despite the fact that many might not sell a single copy in years. This commitment became the mark of integrity for right-on labels in the decades afterwards, and happily it is one that the Smithsonian honours to this day.
While digging around the web, I came across an audio file of a rare interview with Pete Seeger. It contained this wonderful anecdote regarding the beginning of Asch's career in music:
'He was installing public address systems in hotels, making a small living. But he bought an early, big, heavy recording machine, it recorded on acetate discs. In 1938, his father who was a famous writer, Sholom Asch, said, ‘Moe, can you fit that recording machine of yours in the trunk of a car? We got to go down to Princeton, New Jersey and record Dr. Einstein with a message that can be played on the radio, urging American Jews to give more assistance to their relatives and help them get out of Germany.’
'So they drove to Princeton, recorded the short message, and then over supper Einstein says, "Well young Mr. Asch, what do you do for a living?" And Moe said, "Well I’m making a living installing PA systems but I’ve got this recording machine and I’ve met this extraordinary musician named Lead Belly and nobody's recording him because they say he's not commercial, but I think his songs are part of the culture of America and should be recorded and not just put on a library shelf in Washington like the Library of Congress does, but distributed so that people can learn them."
And Einstein said, "You're exactly right. American people don't appreciate their own culture. It'll be a Polish Jew that'll do the job."'
'And so with Einstein’s encouragement, Moe Asch recorded Lead Belly, and sold all of one hundred copies in one year. The next year Woody Guthrie came, and in years following he recorded dozens of people. Then he went bankrupt, started another company - and by this time LPs were invented, and now he could sell by mail much more easily - and Folkways went on...40 years later he had over 2000 titles in his catalogue, and had established an extraordinary tradition.'
(The abortive labels were Asch Recordings (‘til ’41) and Disc Records (‘til ’48, when Folkways began.)
Asch was a pioneer, yet it is interesting that many of Folkways biggest sellers (Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Huddie 'Lead Belly' Ledbetter, Lightin’ Hopkins) were snapped up from John and Alan Lomax. But Folkways' distinctiveness can be see by its effect on Lead Belly's career. The Lomax's had him performing in prison stripes as "The Savage Singer from the Swampland" before letting his contract run out. Asch realised the authenticity and value of his repertoire, and, controversially for the time, released Play Parties in Song and Dance as Sung by Lead Belly, deepening the public's awareness of this singer's oeuvre. A gossip columnist by the name of Walter Winchell had smeared the record as a "recording of a convicted murderer singing children's songs." The notoriety that ensued helped make the album a best-seller!
Another intriguing seeming contradiction is Asch's contention that he was always apolitical. Asch worked closely with Broadside magazine, contributed financially to many leftist organizations, recorded the likes of Guthrie et al and could profess his admiration for a song like I Hate The Capitalist System, yet claimed he was neither communist nor socialist, but rather was just interested in recording people who had something to say. Of course, this position gave Folkways at least some hope of being played on the radio (Asch lived through the era of McCarthyism, of which he says "There were hundreds of blacklists, and I was on all of 'em") but it was a position he maintained right up to the eighties and until his eventual death in 1986.
It was in this year that the Smithsonian Institution acquired Folkways Records, and along with the similarly assimilated (but much, much smaller) Paredon, Cook, Dyer-Bennet, Fast Folk, and Monitor imprints, the label is now known as Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. They have done a great job in carrying on the Folkways tradition, preserving and liberally adding to the recordings made during Asch's time. They have especially expanded the world music roster, of which Asch was the great pioneer, and which is now so in vogue. I hear their records of Indonesian music are particularly fine. In Moe’s time, professors of anthropology would return from far off lands with strange tapes of foreign music and sounds. When students and other professors started asking for these tapes, they turned to Asch. He would get them to write up three or four pages, ask them if they had photos, pay 'em a hundred bucks, then put the record out with a brochure describing the contents. It is the unbelievably obscure and strange titles that appeal most to me. Eerie recordings of frog sounds, mushroom ceremonies of indigenous peoples, or even the one entitled Witches and War Whoops . Have a look through their catalogue sometime. Some day when I tire of keeping myself free from the chains of money in order to remain spiritually pure, I’m gonna buy all that stuff.
Folkways catalogue is at www.si.edu/folkways/
Making The Peoples Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records by Peter D. Goldsmith, Smithsonian, 1998.
When We Were Good:The Folk Revival By Robert Cantwell. Harvard University Press 1996
Interview with Moe Asch, 1978 - Jim Capaldi, Folkscene magazine.
Interview with Pete Seeger - Jim Goulders, WCPN radio.