The Old-Time Herald Volume 6, Number 1


Moses Asch & Smithsonian/Folkways

by A. V. Shirk

Jazz was not permitted in the childhood home of Moses Asch. It was considered "bordello music"; not suitable for a respectable household. It was a lesson in musical discrimination that Asch never learned. When he died in 1986, he possessed one of the world's finest and most eclectic collections of traditional and folk music as well as jazz. This collection existed in Folkways Records, the company he founded and ran for almost 40 years. Now administered by the Smithsonian Institution, it is, hands down, the world's greatest collection of folk and traditional music available to the general public.

Folkways Records was never a commercial success in the sense that it would have attracted the favorable attention of venture capitalists or investors. At the time of Moses Asch's death, Folkways Records had released some 2200 albums - about an album a week since the company was founded in 1948. Of these, two-thirds sold fewer than 100 copies a year and many sold fewer than 500 copies all told. And yet, in pursuit of a policy that would cause him to be described repeatedly as "not a businessman," Asch refused to remove any album from his catalog - no matter how poorly it sold. "Do you delete the letter Q from the alphabet just because you don't use it as much as the others?" was his oft-quoted response to those who advised him to streamline his business.

Asch may not have been "a businessman," but he was an ideal person to run Folkways Records which, in its own way, was not really "a business." Folkways Records was the means by which Asch strived to record and preserve the culture and heritage of as many peoples and societies as he possibly could. His range of interests was a virtual definition of the word "eclectic." Once, when asked to define "folkways," he replied that it was "Anything that is sound, from Indonesian folk music to James Joyce reading his own poetry." Trained as a recording engineer and therefore unencumbered by any bias that might have accompanied academic credentials, he happily recorded, commissioned, or accepted anything he thought was worthwhile. The 50-page Folkways catalog includes Klezmer Music 1919-42, Traditional Drumming and Dances of Ghana, Bedouin Music of Southern Sinai, Vocal Music of Contemporary China, Temar Dream Songs from Malaya, Music from South New Guinea, Six Toronto Poets, Creole Songs of Haiti, Indian Music of Mexico, Between Sisters: Women's Songs in Spanish, Songs and Dances of Brittany, Lappish Joik Songs from Northern Norway, Polish Concentration Camp Songs, Ritual Music of Ethiopia, Songs and Ballads of the Scottish Wars. . . The list goes on and on and on.

But if Asch's vision of the world and its music was eclectic and wide ranging, it was by no means without focus. A lifelong socialist, he had a radical, populist view of folk music as an expression of the people, and the bulk of the Folkways catalog reflects his interest in American folk songs. His efforts to document and preserve this music resulted in some of the most important early - in some cases the first - recordings by Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Josh White, Richard Dyer-Bennet, Hobart Smith, Frank Warner, Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston, and Texas Gladden to name a few. Eventually, this small list of artists would grow to include hundreds of people such as Rev. Gary Davis, Big Bill Broonzy, Harry and Jeanie West, Elizabeth Cotten, The New Lost City Ramblers, Doc Watson, Jean Ritchie, Mike Seeger, Frank Wakefield, the Country Gentlemen, Peggy Seeger, Dock Boggs, and Clarence Ashley, to say nothing of Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard. What started off as a handful of albums on the Asch and Disc labels evolved into one of the greatest single collections of American folk and traditional music. Covering everything from unaccompanied field calls from the rural deep South to modern bluegrass, the Folkways collection includes cowboy songs, Anglo-American ballads, New England whaling songs, string-band music, early country music, sacred music, sea songs, political and topical songs, blues - virtually anything you can think of not excluding rhythm & blues, zydeco and American Indian music.

Moses Asch ran Folkways Records, almost single handedly, out of a small office in New York City that was described by visitors as hopelessly cluttered by piles of books and records stacked at random on tables, desks, the floor - any flat space available. The techniques Asch used to produce and market Folkways records were developed by trial and error in two earlier companies he had founded: Asch Records and Disc Records. Folkways LPs were different from virtually anything else on the market. They were usually heavy, thick pressings that resisted warping for decades. They were also packed in unusually heavy cardboard sleeves that had two pockets. One pocket was for the LP and the other was for the program notes that accompanied each album. These notes were often extremely detailed and comprehensive. The notes to Part 2 of Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley's (FA2359) are contained in a 16-page booklet. Written by Ralph Rinzler, they give, in addition to complete song texts, extensive background information on the artists as well as a discussion of the history of each song. There are also bibliographic and discographic data as well as photographs. The booklet accompanying The Ritchie Family of Kentucky (FA2316) runs 24 pages.

Unlike most commercial record companies, Folkways Records made no attempt to sell specific types of music to specific groups of people. Blues recordings were not promoted in African American communities and recordings of southern Anglo-American ballads were not shipped en masse to Appalachian markets. Asch wanted all of his recordings to have as much general distribution as possible. He wanted everyone to be able to hear what he had to offer. In 1952, The New York Times described, in an otherwise favorable review, much of the singing on a recent Folkways release as " . . flat and undistinguished. . . ." The album in question was the Anthology of American Folk Music, a six LP set containing reissues of 84 commercial folk music recordings originally released between 1927 and 1932. The New York Times had thus dismissed the vocal talents of Clarence Ashley, Buell Kazee, The Carolina Tar Heels, The Carter Family, Frank Hutchison, Charlie Poole, Mississippi John Hurt, and Furry Lewis among others. This has to be a record of some sorts. There can't have been many other occasions when a reviewer has displayed so much insensitivity to so much of our cultural heritage in so few words. But then, perhaps I am being unfair to the Times. It had, after all, been decades since anyone could just walk into a record store and buy any of this stuff, and if it had not been for Asch and Folkways Records, the New York Times reviewer would not have even had the chance to decide whether he liked the singing or not. The importance of this release was that it made it possible for an entire generation of people to become acquainted with music that had been previously available only to a few collectors or scholars. And I cannot dismiss the feeling that the New York Times reviewer, identified only as "R. P.," may have come to reconsider that original judgment.

Folkways Records became a major resource not only to the general public, but to academic and research institutions as well. The Voice of America, The American Museum of National History and many libraries and universities came to rely on Folkways Records as an important source. Even so, Asch took pride in the fact that half of his sales were to private individuals rather than institutions. He once compared the phonograph needle in the record groove to the plow in the furrow. "Recording," he said "is like cultivating." Evidence of the widespread influence Folkways recordings have had sometimes turns up in unexpected places. The Dholak Geet festive music for occasions such as fairs and weddings that can be heard on the 1951 recording Folk Music of Pakistan (Folkways record FE 4425) also turn up in Act II of the Peggy Glanville-Hicks opera, The Transposed Heads, which is set in India (Louisville record LOU-546-6). The orchestration is different, but the music is certainly the same.

Although many of the people Asch recorded felt honored to be included in the Folkways catalog, not all of them came away from the experience enamored of him. His determined, independent-minded approach to business practices rarely encompassed such things as paying royalties. Virtually every cent Asch had, he put back into the business - a practice that may have kept him from bankruptcy. Artists like Pete Seeger, who understood what Asch was doing with Folkways and who knew under what financial constraints he was working, didn't worry too much about getting paid. But I can remember, back in the 1960s, hearing about Dave Van Ronk's enthusiasm for being a Folkways artist evaporating as he learned that he would have to go to Moses Asch's office and throw a scene in order to get any royalties. And, of course, Pete Seeger had an income apart from Folkways that Dave Van Ronk may have lacked at the time.

By the mid-1980s, Moses Asch, who was only five years younger than the century, was trying to find an organization that could assume the care and administration of Folkways Records when he would no longer be available. He was not having much luck. Few record companies were interested in continuing discussions with him when they learned of his inflexible requirement that all of the Folkways records be kept in the catalog. At the time of his death in 1986. however, he was negotiating with the Smithsonian Institution - virtually the only organization capable of handling Folkways Records and sympathetic to Asch's conditions.

When the Smithsonian Institution acquired Folkways Records in 1987, they received the Folkways catalog, which consisted of the master tapes (or, in some cases, master discs), production data and the program notes that were originally issued with each album. They also acquired a warehouse full of 177,000 LPs. Along with the recorded collection, the Smithsonian also received the complete Folkways correspondence and business files as well as hundreds of photographs and other material such as unpublished writings and drawings by Woody Guthrie.

In addition they found themselves in possession of 500 to 600 boxes containing about 5,000 reel-to-reel tapes and some 4,000 78-RPM discs. Some of this material is nothing more than false starts or otherwise imperfect takes, but much of it is unreleased material by such people as Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie. Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston recorded 160 selections in April 1944 alone! About 100 of these still survive.

Not surprisingly, simply receiving, cataloging, and storing this material is a major project for Smithsonian/Folkways archivist Jeff Place. The 78-RPM master discs present particular problems. They consist of a lacquer of acetate (or occasionally shellac) covering a base of aluminum (or sometimes glass). Although these combinations work well for a while, the lacquer - particularly the acetate - is not really stable. After several decades it becomes brittle and may start to peel off. Many of the several thousand 78-RPM masters in the Asch archive are in such condition that they will survive only a few playings. One of Place's main concerns has been providing proper storage for all of this material and then getting it transferred to high quality tape from which it can be digitally remastered. The staff at the Smithsonian soon discovered that there were often identification and labeling problems. Sometimes the tape reels would be labeled with something entirely different from the labels on the boxes in which they were found. And the tapes, when played, would sometimes be found to contain something entirely different still. "I just know there's a Leadbelly recording in a box labeled ïIndonesia' in there somewhere," said Place. There are also items that are missing. Not all of these are simply misplaced. From time to time, Asch would license out Folkways material to other companies. His technique for delivering this material was simple. He went to the original master tapes, cut out what was needed and shipped it off to the licensee. Sometimes, when the material was returned, it was properly replaced; sometimes it wasn't. Sometimes it was never returned. Sorting out and cataloging all of this material is a time-consuming, laborious process that is still going on. About 20% of the collection remains to be processed.

Upon the Smithsonian's acquisition of the Asch material and the creation of Smithsonian/Folkways the position of Curator and Director was accepted by anthropologist Anthony Seeger. He faces a formidable challenge. He is required to observe Asch's wishes concerning the operation of Folkways - particularly in keeping the complete catalog available. But he also has to operate on a sound financial basis, and Smithsonian/Folkways receives no private or government support or subsidies. All of the funds for its operation, including conservation and restoration as well as production and marketing, come from the sale of Smithsonian/Folkways recordings. Seeger is not really in a position to fall back on Moses Asch's freewheeling approach to fiscal responsibility. It would probably be considered tacky for him to allow Smithsonian/Folkways to court bankruptcy. An additional constraint is his stated intention to see to it that all Smithsonian /Folkways artists receive the royalties to which they are entitled. This should come as a pleasant surprise to a lot of people who had no idea there was any such thing as a Folkways royalty statement.

An early concern of Seeger's was how to maintain the 2200-odd item Folkways catalog. Initially, orders were filled out of the 177,000 LPs that the Smithsonian received from Folkways. But this was only a temporary solution. For one thing, the LP collection, large as it was, was nevertheless incomplete. Being "in catalog" did not necessarily mean being "in stock." And, of course, the demand for LPs was diminishing rapidly. Eventually, Anthony Seeger sold off the stock of LPs, and he now maintains the back catalog on high quality CrO2 tapes recorded from the original master tapes, at real-time, without equalization or Dolby. These tapes are accompanied by copies of the original album notes. No attempt has been made to record and stock the entire catalog. When an order for an album comes in, five copies are made; one to fill the order and the others for stock. "I look at the sales figures and I realized that we might not even be using cassettes any more by the time we got an order for some of those items," said Seeger. Archivist Jeff Place has compiled a 50-page catalog listing these recordings by type, by subject, by country, and by artist. Anyone who remembers how hard it was to locate a given record in the old Folkways catalog will appreciate his efforts. The catalog is also available on the World Wide Web where you can browse and search by album title, song title, artist, instrument, year recorded, and genre, as well as geographic, national, or ethnic attributes. You can also shop on-line.

There are actually two Folkways catalogs. There is the "Folkways" catalog which contains the albums issued by Folkways under Moses Asch and which are now available on cassette. Then there is the "Smithsonian/Folkways" catalog which lists the CDs, cassettes and videos which have been issued under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution. The older Folkways catalog constitutes a largely unknown treasure. Although all of these records have been technically in print since they were originally released, distribution and marketing problems sometimes made them practically unavailable. Now that Smithsonian/Folkways has made them easy to order (to say nothing of easy to look up), the catalog should be required reading for anyone interested in traditional and old-time music. A journey through the Folkways catalog will uncover recordings by the Stoneman Family, the early Country Gentlemen, Dock Boggs, and Buell Kazee. There are two albums that include Sam McGee,whose "Buck Dancer's Choice" has influenced finger picking for decades. There is an album of old-time string band music with Gordon Tanner, the son of Gid Tanner whose band, "The Skillet Lickers" helped define string-band music. And no old-time banjo player will want to overlook the recordings by Pete Steele and Rufus Crisp. In spite of Asch's desire that all Folkways recordings be kept in print, however, it looked for a while as though at least one item had dropped through the cracks. The New Lost City Ramblers, under the name of The New Lost City Bang Boys, recorded a set of bawdy songs that was released as Earth is Earth (Folkways 869 - a number thought appropriate to the material). I wasn't able to locate this in the catalog but I understand that it will be released soon.

It is the Smithsonian-Folkways releases that display Anthony Seeger's willingness and ability to honor both the letter and the spirit of Asch's wishes. The excellent and rapidly growing Smithsonian-Folkways catalog contains well over 100 CDs and, at the rate they are going, that figure may be close to 200 by the time this article is published. Seeger has expressed a desire to see Smithsonian-Folkways maintain very high standards in its releases. He wants them to be well-produced, long-playing CDs accompanied by well-written, informative notes. He has also been heard to express contempt for some of the multi-generation copies of material from the Asch archives that has turned up on very inexpensive releases.

Where it has been possible, Seeger has invited the original producers of Folkways albums to produce the Smithsonian/Folkways reissues. The results have been impressive. John Cohen's two-CD reissue of 1960 Mountain Music of Kentucky contains more than twice the material of the original album. It also has new notes that discuss the recording project, the music and the artists from an entirely different prospective than was possible three and a half decades ago. The 36-page booklet that accompanies the album also includes some remarkable photographs. This is an album not to be missed. The late Ralph Rinzler reproduced his Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley's recordings with equally impressive results. Under the title Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley, the two-CD album includes many previously unreleased tracks. Included in the 32-page booklet are photographs, notes on each song and a fascinating essay by Rinzler on the circumstances that resulted in these recordings being made. And Old-Time Herald readers will be interested in the recent Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard reissue that draws from their two Folkways albums. There are occasional surprises in some of these re-releases, however. Although the reissue of Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson at Folk City includes four new songs, it does not include three that are on the original LP. And for some reason, Ralph Rinzler did not include Clarence Ashley's beautiful performance of "Omie Wise" on his Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley reissue. Among the projects that Seeger expects to see completed in the near future are 90 recordings by Leadbelly to be released on three CDs. There are also three CDs of Woody Guthrie that we should be seeing soon. Seeger also plans to reissue the famous six-LP Anthology of American Folk Music although this project is expected to take a little longer than some of the others. The 84 78-RPM recordings that were included on this set were all taken from the private collection of Harry Smith. The recordings were originally issued, however, on several different labels. Some of these such as RCA Victor and Columbia still owned the copyrights, which meant that they alone had the right to any commercial use of the recordings. Asch's method of dealing with this problem was to simply release whatever he wanted and to get indignant when anyone complained. Seeger does not feel that this approach is appropriate to Smithsonian/Folkways - or perhaps he is unsure of his ability to generate the required level of indignation. In any event, the release of this set is pending negotiations establishing Smithsonian/Folkways' license to the material.

Not content with simply reissuing Folkways albums, Seeger is also overseeing the release of entirely new albums, some drawn from sources well beyond the Asch collection. The recently released, That's Why We're Marching, World War II and the American Folk Song Movement, was conceived and put together by Archivist Jeff Place and Research Associate Guy Logsdon. That album was drawn largely from unreleased material in the Asch collection. Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Ballads, Banjo Tunes, and Sacred Songs of Western North Carolina, however, is drawn from the Library of Congress and early commercial recordings by that North Carolina folklorist and performer. The material for Doug and Jack Wallin, Family Songs and Stories from the North Carolina Mountains came from the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Smithsonian/Folkways has also acquired other labels including Cook, a high end audiophile catalog that issued 140 titles between 1950 and 1960; Paredon, a catalog of political and topical songs produced by Irwin Silber and Barbara Dane, and Dyer-Bennet Records, which were produced in the 1950s and 1960s by singer/guitarist Richard Dyer-Bennet. Recordings from these labels are now being made available. Other future projects include supplying the back Folkways catalog, now available only on cassettes, on special order CDs; and the production of enhanced, multi-media CDs.

Under the direction of Anthony Seeger, Smithsonian/Folkways is continuing in the spirit of the original Folkways Company without being anachronistic. He and his staff are also adapting Folkways operation to changing conditions without compromising Moses Asch's ideals. This is no small accomplishment. Smithsonian/Folkways is staffed by folklorists, archivists, researchers and librarians - not record producers. Nevertheless, Smithsonian/Folkways recordings have set a standard of quality that few in the industry can approach and virtually no one had exceeded. It is encouraging to see Moses Asch's legacy in such capable hands.

Smithsonian/Folkways is located at The Smithsonian Institution, 955 L'Enfant Plaza, Suite 2600, Washington, DC. 20560; phone 202-287-3251 (general), 202-287-3262 (catalogs); FAX 202-287-3699. Smithsonian/Folkways Mail Order is located at 414 Hungerford Dr., Suite 444, Rockville MD 20850; phone 301-443-2314, 800-410-9815 (orders only); FAX 301-443-1819. Smithsonian/Folkways website address is

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