The BirdcageMoe Asch's Microphone
The Western Electric 639B was called “The Birdcage” because of its size and shape. It is a hybrid of a dynamic capsule and a ribbon microphone, and features various pickup patterns. This was one of the microphones Moses Asch used in the Asch Recording studios in the 1940s. It is likely that Moe used it for several sessions during the Asch Records days and/or for radio broadcasts.More
Since there are no photos of him actually working with this mic, it is impossible to say exactly when he used it. But we know the microphone was introduced in 1939 (hence the 39 in the model number), and we know that in 1949, an antitrust suit was brought against Western Electric. Subsequently, the 639 was sold to Altec for further manufacturing. Therefore, we can surmise that Moe’s microphone, definitely a Western Electric, was acquired between 1939 and 1949.
Not only is this historical gem part of the Smithsonian Folkways collection, it is still used for recordings: the mic was given a new lease on life by Folkways engineer Pete Reiniger to record National Museum of the American Indian Director, Kevin Gover, reading the English version of the poem “Yaku Taki” for the Smithsonian Folkways release ¡Así Kotama! The Flutes of Otavalo, Ecuador.Audio
Made for You and MeThe Original “This Land Is Your Land”
From the 1920s to the 1950s, when someone recorded spoken word or music, it was instantaneously recorded onto 78 rpm discs. Moses Asch had three previous labels in the early 1940s (Asch, Disc and Cub), and an active New York City recording studio, before he co-founded Folkways Records with Marian Distler in 1948. During March, April and May 1944, on a hiatus from wartime service in the Merchant Marines, Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston came into that studio on nine separate occasions to record dozens of songs. Woody would set a loose-leaf binder of song lyrics before him and let it fly.More
On May 19, 1944, one of the many songs he recorded was “This Land is Your Land” for the first time. When he initially wrote the song, it included additional “protest” verses, including ones challenging private land ownership. When it was released in the 1950s, however, it was an edited version for children that Woody had recorded in 1947, without the controversial verses. A recording of the original, longer version was thought to be lost until Smithsonian Folkways uncovered it and released it in 1997. In recent years, people have re-discovered the missing verses and started singing them again. At the first inauguration of President Obama, Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen performed the complete song.Audio
Happening Upon HistoryMoe’s Log Book
Moses Asch did not take detailed notes about his recording sessions during his career. After the Smithsonian acquired Folkways in 1987, researchers inquired about recording dates of key sessions; however, due to lack of records, most could only be approximated. By pure happenstance, we discovered that the final pages of Moe’s check ledger book contained a detailed log of his recording sessions from 1940–1945. This included the sessions of Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Mary Lou Williams and others.More
When a take was recorded, it was noted by date and assigned a matrix number. Many started with MA- (for Moses Asch). An example of this can be seen in the first entry on the page in this exhibit (Lead Belly 4/23/44: 683 - “How Do You Know” . . . etc.). Once a take was released on a 78 rpm disc, the matrix number was scratched into or written on the label in the space between the grooves and the center label, to let the listener know which take was used. This page has some of his key sessions.Audio“A visit to the Asch Studios ”This produced piece was found on an unlabeled acetate recording in Moe Asch’s Collection. It is a staged production of two young reporters visiting Asch at his studio. The exact date of this recording is unknown, but was likely sometime between 1942 and 1944.
Music’s Longest VoyageThe Voyager Golden Record
In 1976, NASA enlisted public astronomer Carl Sagan to create what would become known as The Voyager Golden Record. It actually contained two records of images and sounds, each set of which was installed aboard the Voyager 1 and the Voyager 2, both launched in 1977. The thought was that if any intelligent species in the universe discovered them and could read them, they would understand a bit about the human species.More
Sagan approached Alan Lomax about adding some Indigenous music from cultures around the world to the disc. Lomax suggested three Folkways tracks: bagpipes from Azerbaijan, a Peruvian recording by John Cohen, and a Navajo Night Chant recorded by Willard Rhodes (included below). The Voyager discs include 27 tracks in all. The record pictured in this feature is the Ozma Records vinyl reissue of the album (best for human listening), which won a Grammy Award for Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package in 2018. For photographs of the original golden record, see NASA’s website.Audio
The Voyager 1, which has reached interstellar space, is now the farthest human-made object from Earth (over 13 billion miles away from Earth as of March 2018). As both Voyagers continue their outward journey, it can be said that Folkways has some of the broadest distribution in the record industry!
Of Cowboys and PresidentsLomax’s Cowboy Songs
When Moses Asch was a young man in 1925, he happened upon a copy of John Lomax’s 1910 book, Cowboy Songs, in a Paris bookstore. Lomax had spent years collecting cowboy snippets and songs in Texas and published a book that compiled versions of many of the songs he had recorded. This is Asch’s second copy of Cowboy Songs, the 1938 edition.More
John Avery Lomax (1867-1948) was among the most important American collectors of folk songs of his time. He was one of the first to argue that these songs should be studied and preserved. Along with his son Alan, he ran the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress for many years, building up a massive and valuable collection of songs. The Lomaxes were responsible for the first recordings of Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters and many others. Some of the songs documented in the book were later recorded by Folkways artists and released on various albums; many ended up in a compilation called Cowboy Songs on Folkways.Audio
Asch, an avid collector of books, was impressed when he discovered that Theodore Roosevelt had written the introduction to the volume, discussing the importance of studying folk culture and the voices of the common people. Asch cited this moment as a major source of inspiration in determining his life’s work. The inscription from Theodore Roosevelt appears in every copy of the book.
Tailored for the PeopleMoses Asch at a Folkways Booth
Much of what Folkways sold never passed through record stores; the products often came in heavy packaging with extensive notes which made them difficult to sell in a conventional record store. Instead, Asch sold directly to schools and universities, to African boutiques and railroad museums, to any niche he felt needed servicing. As in this photo, Moses Asch spent a good deal of time at educators’ conferences hawking his wares. He often attended conferences of primary school teachers or conferences of science teachers. Whatever the crowd, the Folkways sales booth is where he connected with people to find out what they wanted—a method far more effective than any of today’s recommendation algorithms!More
In this way, Moses Asch became a master of “niche” marketing. Not only did Asch find customers, customers began to search for him. A science teacher might propose a record of dolphin sounds to use in a class. Asch would create 50 for the class, sell the teacher 30, keep the remaining 20, and add it to his growing catalog of documentary sounds.
His Folkways Records (the official name of the company was Folkways Records and Service Corporation) lived in a different place in the constellation of record labels: apart from the major labels that churned out hits and the many independent labels which were marketed by regional independent distributors (before a more national model evolved). These regional distributors carried many similar labels—Arhoolie, Rounder, Flying Fish etc.—but rarely Folkways.
Once in a while, the majors or independent distributors would pick his 20 best-selling titles, but that was it. Folkways, as well as Stinson, CMS and a few others, were “old school.” If you were a record store and wanted to order from Folkways, traveling salesman Larry Sockell would come through with his briefcase twice a year, show what was new, and take your order.AudioMoses Asch’s lecture on folk music, Folkways 45 rpm disc, late 1950s
Return to the Aran IslesThe Cowell Diaries
The production files in the Asch Collection often include correspondence with the artist or compiler. Some of the files from the series of “ethnic” recordings include the researcher’s field notes or photographs from their trips. Among these, one file stands out: the file for the Folkways album Songs of Aran (FW 4002), recorded and researched by Sidney Robertson Cowell (1903–1995). It included Cowell’s diaries of her trip as well as compelling photographs of the islands and their inhabitants.More
Cowell also collected folk songs in Appalachia, the Ozarks and the Upper Midwest, and is perhaps best known for her recordings of laborers with the Northern California WPA, the collection of which is now housed in the Library of Congress. (She also might be lesser known as the wife of experimental music composer Henry Cowell). In the 1950s she broadened her work to Asia, but she took one fieldwork trip to Connemara and the Aran Islands during her time in Ireland from 1955 to 1956. The Arans are three islands off the west coast of Ireland, just offshore from the Cliffs of Moher.
Residents of the islands spoke and sang mostly in Irish on Cowell’s recordings. Contemporary Irish music scholar Deirdre Ní Chonghaile, who is from these islands, worked with Cowell’s Aran recordings and brought copies home to share with the descendants of the original singers. They were able to fill the gaps in the original notes and had a chance to relive their past, one of the most rewarding aspects of the repatriation work that Folkways and the Rinzler Archives often does.Audio
In the Beginning...Folkways Recordings Original Business License
From his first beginnings in the record business, Moses Asch did everything with the help of his business partner Marian Distler. In fact, it’s impossible to tell the story of the first twenty years of Asch’s career without her. She ran the day-to-day office and kept the ship a-sail. Artists who worked with Folkways in those days have remarked she was usually the person they dealt with, the cheery voice that greeted them whenever they entered the office.More
Distler was also involved in the three prior record companies to Folkways: Asch, Disc, and Cub. Cub, which focused on children’s records with “children friendly” record jackets, was only a brief foray. The first two labels had sadly gone bankrupt. Moses Asch could not formally be involved in the record business for a period of the time after Disc’s failure and the decreed settlement, but that did not prevent them from starting anew. On May 1, 1948, it was Marian Distler, not Asch, who undertook the founding and obtaining of the business license for their new enterprise, Folkways Records and Service Corporation. On this document, Asch was initially listed as an employee, but over time things reverted to their old order. They used the term “service corporation” to signal that Folkways was more than a record company; it was a service to educate the American public on literature, science, and history. They argued that enlightened voters made for a good democracy. When the occasional copyright issue came up, Asch clarified that the company was not about making money but providing the service. After being incorporated on May 1, Folkways began the great endeavor to document the world’s sounds, an endeavor that is 70 years strong and continues to expand, with Moe and Marian’s spirits as ongoing inspiration.AudioOuttake from a recording session in Moe Asch’s studio in 1944, during the Asch Records era. Asch and Distler discuss possible World War II songs for Lead Belly to perform. (Asch acetate 016).
Roar! Grunt! Growl!Arthur Greenhall’s Sounds of Animals
One of the many interesting individuals who entered the Folkways sphere was Arthur Greenhall. Art travelled the world collecting and studying animals that most people had only seen in books or on TV. He put out a record, wrote multiple books, interviewed for magazines and newspapers, and became one of the foremost zoologists of his generation.More
As Director of the Detroit Zoo, he recorded many of his charges. A selection of these recordings made their way to the documentary recording, Sounds of Animals (Folkways 6124). In 2014, fellow Smithsonian employee Paul Greenhall (Arthur’s son) donated the collection of his father’s tapes to the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections at the Smithsonian, including these wonderful photographs of Greenhall at work.Audio
Colorful CorrespondenceHand-written Letters from Beat Poet Kenneth Patchen to Moe Asch
When processing the archival materials in the Moses and Frances Asch Collection, it was exciting to discover various written correspondence between Moe and Folkways artists. One stand-out was a collection of colorful letters from poet Kenneth Patchen. He added hand-colored designs to all of the letters he wrote to Asch. A poet of the Beat Generation, Kenneth Patchen (1911–1972) was also involved in other forms of art, like drawing and painting.More
Being active in the publication of spoken word poetry in the 1950s, it was only natural that Folkways should release recordings by Patchen and other Beat poets, including Corso and Ginsberg. Patchen was known for reciting his poetry over live jazz music, which he does on several Folkways albums. He also authored several novels, such as The Journal of Albion Moonlight, recited readings from which are featured on another Folkways album of the same name.Audio
Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit PeopleOak Publications Brings Life to Labor Songs Collection
For many years, Sing Out! magazine editor Irwin Silber shared the Folkways office space with Moses Asch. He even spent some of his hours working for Folkways. As co-habitation can often lead to collaboration, Asch and Silber embarked on a joint venture called Oak Publications. Oak published music books of folk song collections, many of which corresponded to Folkways LPs. Oak thrived during the peak years of the folk song revival in the 1960s.More
One important project Oak released was the long delayed Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People. For this project, Alan Lomax had collected topical songs from the Library of Congress collections: both field recordings and commercial recordings. Most were protest songs from various social movements. A young Pete Seeger had transcribed and edited the lyrics of the songs (many of which would be in his repertoire for years to come). And to top it off, Woody Guthrie was enlisted to write intros to each page in the way only he could. Though the project was finished in the 1940s, publishers at the time thought the songs too controversial and none would publish it. Moe and Irwin, on the other hand, embraced these kinds of projects, and Oak released it 1967.
Oak was sold to Music Sales in later years. Many of the songs in that publication can be found on the Smithsonian Folkways 2006 compilation, Classic Labor SongsAudio
The Original VisionSmithsonian Folkways’ First Album
When the first staff members were hired for Smithsonian Folkways at the beginning of 1988, there was a project in the works by The Smithsonian in collaboration with Columbia Records to help fund the Smithsonian’s purchase of Folkways Records. They were producing a record and a film called Folkways: A Vision Shared, which featured covers of Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie songs by artists such as U2, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris and other star-level musicians who had been influenced by Folkways. Then Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage Director Richard Kurin suggested that the first album by the new Smithsonian Folkways label be a collection of Woody and Lead Belly performing the same songs that were covered on the benefit album.More
It was an adventure to produce; most of the original instantaneous disc masters were poorly labelled, making it difficult to find all of the songs. Some of the Woody Guthrie songs on the original benefit album had never been recorded by Guthrie, and thus could not be included on the album. (However, in the hunt, we did discover an unreleased disc of Guthrie singing “Hobo’s Lullaby,” which many thought had never been recorded.) What could be found was released independently by Smithsonian Folkways as SFW 40001 Folkways: The Original Vision, and distributed by our first distributor Birch Tree. For the new label, it was our first foray into production, but luckily, we had some veterans on hand to guide us through the process: Mickey Hart of The Grateful Dead was involved in the sound production, using George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch facility. The album was remastered and reissued in 2005 to take advantage of advances in audio restoration technology.Audio
An Appointment with DocRalph Rinzler’s First Recording of Doc Watson
Ralph Rinzler (1934–1994) was a musician, folklorist, and former Smithsonian executive. Like thousands of others during the 1950s, he discovered folk music while at college. Ralph was one of many whose life was changed by hearing the 1952 Folkways release The Anthology of American Folk Music, edited by Harry Smith. After several post-college years of performing in a folk band and recording English folk songs under A. L. Lloyd, Rinzler became a member of the board of the Newport Folk Festival. The festival hired him to do fieldwork finding traditional musicians to bring to the festival. His trips took him to Louisiana, Alabama, Cape Breton, Newfoundland, Georgia, and throughout Appalachia.More
Still inspired by the Anthology, Ralph made a point of trying to find all the artists on the album (the original notes kept their identities vague). In 1960, in a chance encounter at the Union Grove Fiddler’s Contest, he met the Anthology’s Clarence Ashley. Ralph arranged to go visit and to record Ashley in Tennessee. At the session, there was a blind electric guitarist who he paid little attention to, until he discovered this man was a treasure trove of old folk songs. This was Arthel “Doc” Watson. Rinzler made an appointment as soon as he could to go record Watson in Deep Gap, N.C. and found that all of Watson’s Family were musical. This tape is the one he recorded that day: the first recording he made of Doc.
Rinzler maintained a strong relationship with the Watson Family, producing a Folkways album, and bringing members of the family to festivals for years to come (including Doc’s son Merle who was a budding guitarist). These recordings and relationships were among the many that Rinzler brought to the Smithsonian later, as Smithsonian Assistant Secretary for Public Service. In 1987, Rinzler was also responsible for bringing the Folkways Collection to the Smithsonian. It is fitting that the archives now bear his name.AudioExcerpt from oral history with Ralph Rinzler on discovering Doc Watson. Interviewed by Kate Rinzler, June 1, 1987; archive tape FP-2006-CT-0026Courtesy of the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution
The World of SoundHarold Courlander and the Ethnic Folkways Series
Harold Courlander (1908-1996) was an important figure in the early days of Folkways. Moses Asch’s dream was to document the music of the world, and in order to do that he needed the recordings and words of anthropologists who had been around the world. Courlander became a key consultant as the editor of the Ethnic Folkways (EFL) series. An established anthropologist, he was aware the work of others in his field and was the funnel through which key projects flowed into Folkways. He selected some of the top work of other anthropologists of the time and saw them through the production process to publish their recordings and notes. At the time, there were no other record labels doing a similar quantity of ethnographic recordings with full notes. The EFL series had originally begun as some 78 rpm projects for Disc Records (see story #8), and was initially also on 78’s for Folkways, in red album jackets.More
Courlander’s Ethnic Folkways Library was easy to spot in the early days; all of the albums in the series sported the same lone musician on the cover. There were dozens of titles in the series from around the world. Their presence in the Folkways catalog helped establish a key part of the identity of the label.
Courlander himself had a long career as a specialist in Haitian culture. He also wrote about and made recordings with other African, Caribbean, and American Indian communities, focusing on their culture, music and folk tales. Courlander was also a novelist, penning a total of 35 books during his life.Audio
A Night in Moe’s StudioGraphic Novel Series Designed by Faye Yan Zhang
In 2018, the office was fortunate to have Faye Yan Zhang visiting us on a Dumbarton Oaks Humanities fellowship. Faye is a visual artist and aspiring documentary filmmaker. She put her skills to use by creating graphic panels drawn from some of the stories of the 70 year history of Folkways. For her source material, Faye consulted biographies and books that had been written about the label, such as Worlds of Sound and Making People’s Music. More importantly, she got first-hand stories by speaking with people who had been around Folkways for a long time.More
Zhang’s vision for this series is not to depict actual historical occurrences, but rather to capture in one imaginary night the spirit of those ad hoc recording sessions and the creative atmosphere one could always find at Moe's studio. Asch-Stinson Records preceded Folkways and was an amazing place for recording important musicians during the 1940s. The Asch-Stinson studio was open at all hours and musicians would come by to record their latest project, get some money, and hang out. At any given time, Woody, Cisco, Josh, Sonny, and Pete could be there playing what they knew. Important jazz musicians were recording there too: Mary Lou Williams, Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins. This continued after the founding of Folkways in 1948. Recordings from these early sessions would be released by Folkways and Stinson for years to come.
Many of the things that have been written about the label history are in scholarly books or documentary films with limited distribution. Faye’s fun yet informative depiction of the early days of Folkways tells these stories in a graphic novel form, which she hopes will reach new viewers who may not have had access to things that were done before. Many important musical artists and songs were recorded during the 70 year history of Folkways, and the recordings continue to be reissued to this day.
Yours very truly, Barry GoldwaterMoe Asch’s Proposed Recording with the Senator
If you examine the Folkways catalog, you might notice that the releases tend to lean toward a more liberal viewpoint. In June 1962, Moses Asch received a letter from Barry Goldwater, then Senator from Arizona. He was looking for sounds of rain on the roof, which was just the kind of thing Folkways might have. Asch responded that they did not, but gave the Senator some suggestions for where he could find such recordings.More
In addition, Asch inquired if Goldwater was interested in making a recording of the story of his life and discussing his political philosophy. Goldwater was an arch-conservative Republican, a voice many would have thought unlikely for the Folkways catalog. But Asch had always said he wanted to document the world and that people had the right to hear diverse points of view. Though Asch and Goldwater exchanged several letters, there is no evidence that this project ever happened. Goldwater’s voice would be later published on Folkways Records, however, as his announcement to run for President in 1964 is captured on the documentary The White House or Bust - Seven Steps to the Presidency, Folkways 5503, 1964.Audio
Sounds of Mad Men and Wise WomenUnpublished Tony Schwartz Recordings
One of the United States’ most prolific sound recordists, Tony Schwartz, released ten albums on Folkways Records during the 1950s and 60s. Schwartz was a versatile media professional, recognized as one of the great minds of commercial and political advertising. In 1964, he designed Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Daisy” commercial, which attacked his political opponent Barry Goldwater by associating his would-be presidency with nuclear war. In his spare time, Schwartz recorded the sounds of New York City. It is these recordings that comprise the bulk of material released by Folkways Records, which features everything from neighborhood soundscapes and children’s sounds, to storytelling and street musicians.More
Alongside Schwartz’s commercial catalog is a wealth of unreleased material that we steward in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections. From soundscapes to conversations and interviews, these recordings provide windows into mid-century New York City life. For example, the reel-to-reel tape featured above contains a series of interviews with commercial artists and secretaries in New York City during the 1950s. In an excerpt from this recording, featured below, Schwartz interviews a young secretary who works with the Vice President of a New York publishing firm.AudioExcerpt from reel-to-reel tape recorded by Tony Schwartz. #0994 in the Asch collection.Courtesy Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections
In this Mad Men era of advertising, secretarial positions were one of the primary roles that women could occupy in the private sector. While some of her responsibilities may sound familiar, about halfway through the interview, Schwartz asks her what she dislikes about being a secretary. She pauses for a moment before saying,
“Well, this is something that has bothered me for four years—ever since I became a secretary. Way deep down, I don’t like the idea that I’m working at somebody else’s job. I sort of like the idea that I would like to have my own job, my own responsibilities, rather than just being a crutch to somebody.”
Statements like these, made by everyday people, are what make Schwartz’s recordings so fascinating as artifacts of time and place. Later in the interview we learn that she studied Spanish in college and had originally wanted to go into the import/export field, but found a secretarial position instead. One is left wondering whether it is secretaries like her whose sentiments foreshadowed the women’s movement for equality in the workplace, which took place only a decade or so after this interview was conducted.
Traces of a TransitionThe Original “Folkways at the Smithsonian” Poster from Birch Tree
When the Smithsonian was finalizing the acquisition of Folkways Records in 1987, it had a different plan than the current organization. This poster is relic of that initial direction. The original thinking was that Folkways would be run by Smithsonian Press, which mostly published books but also had a record label called the Smithsonian Collection of Recordings. That label put out recordings of shows from the Smithsonian as well as high-end box sets of musicals, jazz, and country, among other genres. Under the Smithsonian Collection of Recordings, the distribution of Folkways Records was to be done by an educational distributor in Princeton, New Jersey, called Birch Tree.More
Birch Tree had been a long time customer of Folkways, and when the Smithsonian acquired the Folkways masters from the Asch estate, Birch Tree purchased the remaining inventory. It was also a publishing company, owning the rights to big sellers such as “Happy Birthday,” (before Warner bought it from them in 1989) and the Suzuki Method for Teaching Music.
Birch Tree did indeed carry out the distribution of Folkways for the first year after the label’s transfer to the Smithsonian. However, instead of Smithsonian Press, the administration of Folkways was placed in the Smithsonian Office of Folklife Programs, known for running the yearly Festival of American Folklife. Ralph Rinzler, who negotiated the acquisition, had started that office in 1980. In-house staff for Folkways started working as part of the Office of Folklife Programs at the beginning of 1988. For the first six months, we were still only Folkways, and worked on re-printing Folkways titles as needed. Some of those reprints are represented on this first (and only) Birch Tree poster.
In summer of 1988, the new label Smithsonian Folkways was started to carry on the Folkways legacy, and Birch Tree was replaced by Rounder as the distributor. After Smithsonian Folkways’ first release, a compilation of Asch recordings of Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly (see story #12), its first new production was a cassette-only title, Musics of the Soviet Union, to go along with the yearly folk festival.Audio
NamesakeWilliam Sumner’s Folkways
After Moe’s first labels Asch, Disc and Cub were dissolved and he and Marian Distler endeavored to start his new label in 1948, a certain title on his bookshelf caught his eye. American social scientists William Graham Sumner authored the 1906 book Folkways: a study of the sociological importance of usages, manners, customs, mores, and morals, which was included among Asch’s extensive library. It was among the many that came to the Smithsonian after Asch’s death.More
Though Sumner’s conservative, proto-libertarian perspective seemed at odds with the types of things Asch was publishing at the time (Sumner was staunchly opposed to socialism and communism), he was also known for his anti-imperialist stance. Folkways was largely responsible for disseminating the term “ethnocentrism,” which Sumner used to criticize the imperialist claim to cultural superiority. This was likely in Asch’s mind as he chose that book as a namesake for his endeavor to create a sonic encyclopedia that would treat all “entries” as equally important.AudioMoses Asch, excerpt from an interview with Izzy Young, June 13, 1970
Postcolonial VoicesCreative Collaborations in the New Mozambique
Folkways Records has a number of recordings that were captured during, or just after, colonial independence movements of the mid-twentieth century. In 1975, Mozambique became a republic after nearly 500 years of Portuguese colonial rule. The post-colonial FRELIMO (Front for the Liberation of Mozambique) government soon established its own cultural training program that invited artists from abroad to serve as cooperantes-in-residence, providing technical training to Mozambicans in the fields of arts and communication. Ron and Ophera Hallis, two filmmakers from Canada, were among those who were chosen for the program. During their 18-month residency at the National Film Institute in Maputo (1978-79), they produced three documentary films about Mozambican life and music in the post-colonial era, and released Music from Mozambique on Folkways Records in 1980.More
The contents of this album are heavily influenced by the era in which they were recorded. Many of the songs are fiercely anti-colonial and had been banned under the Portuguese colonial government. The communal village in which they were documented, O.M.M., is named after the national women’s liberation movement (Organização da Mulher Moçambicana) and features many songs led by women and girls. By Ron Hallis’ own account, many of the villagers had limited access to recording technology prior to his work with the community and leapt at the opportunity to participate in the documentation process. The photo above, taken by Ophera Hallis, shows a young girl “Anastasia” listening to one of her recordings. The caption notes that it is the first time she has heard her own voice on tape. The photo is a good representation of the spirit of the times, speaking to the youthful optimism for a new Mozambican future; one in which self-representation and the means of cultural production are in the hands of ordinary people.
Memory of the WorldUNESCO Inscription of the Moses and Frances Asch Collection
The Moses and Frances Asch Collection (1926–1987) is the founding archival collection of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. It was acquired by the Smithsonian in 1987, and includes a diversity of correspondence, audio, and visual materials from Folkways Records and other labels founded by Moses Asch. In 2015, the Moses and Frances Asch Collection, which includes the entire Folkways Records catalog, was recognized by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as one of the world’s foremost collections of documentary heritage. It joined UNESCO’s Memory of the World International Register as the United States’ eighth inscription and the first such collection that is primarily comprised of music-related materials. The certificate represents the immense contributions of artists, documentarians, and staff members to creating, stewarding, and promoting the world's cultural heritage.
Paradise GardenHoward Finster’s Visionary Art
Famed self-taught artist Rev. Howard Finster released Man of Many Voices on Folkways Records in 1985. Described as a children’s record, it contains stories and songs from Finster’s childhood in Alabama, as well as dramatic improvisations and animal sounds recorded in his personal studio in Summerville, Georgia. As a musician, visual artist, storyteller, and preacher, Finster rose to prominence in the 1970s when his visionary art environment Paradise Garden attracted national attention from artists. Rock bands like R.E.M. and the Talking Heads commissioned him to create cover art for their commercial recordings in the 1980s and his work may be found in dozens of cultural institutions across the country—from the High Museum in Atlanta to the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. On Man of Many Voices, Finster creates his own album cover art using a mix of photography, drawings, and text, creating a compelling collage of words and images.More
In his lifetime, Finster produced thousands of artistic creations, ranging from sculpture and mosaics to paintings, poetry, music compositions, and religious iconography. In his obituary, the New York Times described him as “a Baptist preacher whose evangelical faith, outgoing personality and compulsive work habits made him one of the most prominent and prolific folk artists of the 20th century.” Finster’s recordings came to the Smithsonian through producer Art Rosenbaum, who collaborated closely with Finster in situ at Paradise Garden and often traveled with him when he exhibited artwork around the country. In addition to writing the liner notes for Man of Many Voices, Rosenbaum includes several tracks by Finster on another album that he produced called Folk Visions and Voices: Traditional Music and Song in Northern Georgia - Vol. 2 (1984), which was part of a larger project about vernacular artists in the state of Georgia. Finster can also be heard on the Smithsonian Folkways compilation A Fish That's a Song, where he shares a brief vignette about how poverty affected his social opportunities as a child. In addition to sound recordings and cover art, the Smithsonian also stewards a collection of Howard Finster’s visual art at the American Art Museum.
Experimental VoicesSorrel Doris Hays’ Contributions to 20th-Century Music
Born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1941, Sorrel Doris Hays was an important female voice in the mid-twentieth century experimental music scene. Classically trained, and a talented multi-instrumentalist composer, her foray into experimental music started as an interpreter of Henry Cowell but quickly expanded to include a rich repertoire of original compositions that blend piano, magnetic tape, electronic synthesizers, documentary fieldwork, and feminist commentary.More
In Southern Voices, she used contact microphones on her subjects’ throats to record Southern speech dialects, then ran these through a Buchla synthesizer to create “documentary music”. Supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, excerpts of the project were eventually released as Voicings for Tape/Soprano/Piano on Folkways Records in 1983. The photograph above shows her working on the project with a child in Albany, Georgia.
On another track, “Celebration of NO from Beyond Violence” (1982) she creates a simple, yet powerful conceptual piece about women’s ability to resist violence through collective action. In her own words, the “massed voices of NO,” which are expressed in several different languages, “surround the violent act to prevent it from growth.”
SnoopycatThe Adventures of Marian Anderson’s Cat, Snoopy
While Marian Anderson’s rich contralto singing voice made her an American music legend, a lesser known fact is how dedicated she was to her pet cat named Snoopy. In the 1960s, Anderson collaborated with New York writer Frida Sarsen Bucky to create a story album that’s all about the escapades of her favorite feline friend.More
Written by Bucky, narrated and sung by Anderson, Snoopycat: The Adventures of Marian Anderson's Cat Snoopy (1963) is an endearing, quirky children’s album filled with vivid descriptions of human-animal interaction and original, fictional adventures. The song compositions vary in length and structure, but Anderson’s voice shines deeply throughout. “She broke down race barriers, attracted huge crowds, won the Presidential Medal of Freedom – and loved her cat,” wrote the Guardian of this release. Before proposing the album to Moses Asch at Folkways Records, Bucky had already established a repertoire of children’s material to draw upon, including a book on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Scottish Terrier named Fala.
[Fun fact: Ms. Bucky was the wife of Dr. Gustav Bucky, the respected German-American radiologist who worked with Albert Einstein on medical imaging technology. Sadly, her husband died the same year that this release was published.]
Hazel & AlicePioneering Women of Bluegrass
In the 1950s, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard made a splash in the bluegrass scene as a powerful female music duo. They were the first women to front a bluegrass band and their groundbreaking work went on to inspire generations of women performers. Naomi and Wynonna Judd are among those who credit Hazel & Alice with influencing their musical roots.More
"Their whole sound was so unpolished, so authentic, they were unabashedly just who they were—it was really like looking in the mirror of truth. We felt like we knew them, and when we listened to the songs, it crystallized the possibility that two women could sing together,” recalled Naomi to the Washington Post.
During their career together, Hazel & Alice released two full-length albums on Folkways Records: Won’t You Come and Sing for Me? (1965) and Who’s that Knocking? (1973). The original cover art for both of these albums is stewarded by the Smithsonian. The renderings above show the layout stage of the production process, where type clippings and photographs were manually assembled in an album sleeve format to prepare for printing. In the 1990s, these two albums were combined into a single CD release Pioneering Women of Bluegrass (1996), which remains available on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
The Father of American ExperimentalismCharles Ives on Folkways
Composer Charles Ives (1874-1954), often referred to as the “father” of American Experimentalism, appears on several Folkways albums. Although his compositions were rarely well received by his contemporaries, by the mid-twentieth century, his work had inspired many young composers who reveled in Ives’ musical unorthodoxy. “His work is at once iconoclastic and closely tied to his musical heritage; in its conception and form, both staggeringly complex and immediately accessible; and in its musical language, both universal and distinctly American,” writes the Library of Congress.More
As Prof. David Bernstein writes, the Folkways collection includes several important recordings of music by Ives. Two volumes of his songs released on Folkways in 1965 feature tenor Ted Puffer accompanied by James Tenney and Philip Corner. Tenney, who worked at Bell Labs developing the first computer music, was a staunch advocate of Ives’s music and was also a virtuoso pianist known for his legendary performances of the Ives “Concord Sonata.” He draws our attention to the significance of Ives’ work in the liner notes:
In the face of such an expansive and inclusive approach to music, the very word “style” begins to take on new meaning. His material was virtually the whole world of sound—all aspects of aural experience—and he worked with this broader range of materials in ways that not only anticipated but helped make possible many of the more recent extensions of the medium, such as those that have become possible in electronic music.
The image above is a photographic portrait of Ives as a young man (circa 1910) which appears in the liner notes of several Folkways releases, including Charles Ives: The Sonatas for Violin and Piano, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, as well as Charles Ives: The Short Piano Pieces.
Postcards from AfricaLangston Hughes and Africa’s Literary Movements
Writer and poet Langston Hughes made several trips to Africa during the mid-twentieth century. This was a period of intense political transformation on the continent as many nations struggled to gain independence from colonial powers. Hughes’ work had a major influence on writers throughout the African diaspora, perhaps most notably in the Négritude and pan-African literary movements, and he was inspired in turn by the strides made by African writers to assert their unique literary identities.More
Due to the date of this correspondence (June 16), the location (Kampala, Uganda), and the stamps used, we believe that the postcard above was likely written during Hughes’ trip to the first African Writers Conference at Makerere University College in Kampala, Uganda, in 1962. Officially called the “Conference of African Writers of English Expression,” it is regarded as “the very first major international gathering of writers and critics of African literature on the African continent.” At the conference, Hughes was invited to serve as an observer and poetry judge, and he was also spontaneously recognized as a guest of honor. Afterward, he flew to Ghana to help dedicate a new U.S. Information Service Office Center and Library, sponsored by the U.S. Information Agency.
Langston’s message on the postcard conveys a simple, resolute statement about the purpose of his journey: “Dear Moe, This is the big-game country—but I am NOT on safari. Hello to Marian. Langston.”
Traditional Music from CambodiaRare Recordings from Turbulent Times
Forty years ago, in August of 1978, composer Chinary Ung reached out to Moses Asch and inquired whether Folkways Records would publish his Cambodian field music recordings. Ung had traveled the country only two years prior as a Ford Foundation fellow, collecting musical documentation from a variety of Cambodian contexts. He documented this music during a time of violent upheaval in Cambodia, when the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-79) took power and ninety percent of the country’s musicians were killed or perished prematurely. His two albums on Folkways, Cambodia: Traditional Music, Vol. 1: Instrumental and Vocal Pieces and Cambodia: Traditional Music, Vol. 2: Tribe Music, Folk Music and Popular Dances are unique testaments to the period, something which Ung himself acknowledged in his initial letter to Moe: “this sort of music cannot be recollected anymore in Cambodia.”More
The liner notes for each release attempt to document the breadth of these once vibrant musical traditions. The music ranges from entertaining compositions played by Mohori ensembles, to Pleng Arak, which is typically performed during rituals and rites of passage. There are instrument illustrations and photographs that accompany nearly every page of documentation, making this an invaluable resource to those who want to visualize the instruments that are heard on the recording. The photograph above is stored in the releases’ archival production file and features many of the instruments that appear throughout the albums.
Jazz for the SoulMary Lou Williams Original EP Cover Art
Mary Lou Williams was an exceptionally versatile jazz artist whose career spanned more than 30 years of genre-bending accomplishments, from Dixieland and swing to bop and avant-garde. As a composer, arranger, and pianist, she is one if the few women jazz instrumentalists to achieve widespread notoriety in jazz history scholarship.More
In 1962 and 1963, when Mary Lou Williams Presents Saint Martin de Porres was made, and in 1964 when it was released, Williams made an effort to explore the nature of the music she was creating by writing about it. The liner notes from her EP, Jazz for the Soul, which was released with additional material as the LP Mary Lou Williams(1964), includes her own commentary on the origins of jazz:
From suffering came the Negro spirituals, songs of joy, and songs of sorrow. The main origin of American Jazz is the spiritual. Because of the deeply religious background of the American Negro, he was able to mix this strong influence with rhythms that reached deep enough into the inner self to give expression to outcries of sincere joy, which became known as jazz.
The album debuted one of her most well-known compositions, “Black Christ of the Andes (Hymn in Honor of St. Martin de Porres).” It is considered her first sacred jazz composition and was intended for use in the Roman Catholic liturgy. “Williams—a former Baptist—converted to Roman Catholicism and undertook a personal crusade of charity work in the jazz community. Her hymn in honor of Martin de Porres is intricately interwoven with her profound religious experience and civil rights activism,” writes Gayle Murchison (2002). While the LP cover art was famously donated by prolific artist David Stone Martin, the cover art of the EP, pictured above, can seldom be found in record stores. It was hand-drawn by Alisa Mandel, an artist from Greenwich Village who Williams knew as a fellow member of the St. Thomas More Society for Intellectual Catholics. This original EP cover art offers a stark chiaroscuro portrait drawing of Williams, and although it is no longer published in commercial print, the Smithsonian stewards the original version in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections.
MalcolmSonia Sanchez’s Unreleased Poetry Reading
For more than 50 years, Sonia Sanchez’s poetry, teachings, plays, and activism have inspired generations of women and African Americans. She initially made a name for herself as a member of the Black Arts Movement, during which time she recorded one album on Folkways Records, released in 1971. On a sun lady for all seasons reads her poetry, Sanchez reads from several of her early publications, including Homecoming (1969)—her first volume of adult poetry—and the children’s book It’s a New Day (1971). Some of Sanchez’s early poetry took on a politically militant tone in her exploration of Black separatism. In the early 1960s, she met Malcolm X and began participating in the Black Liberation movement, formally joining the Nation of Islam in 1972. In response to the assassination of Malcolm X, she wrote several explicit poems that pondered the next steps for the Black Power Movement.More
Two such poems, “Malcolm” and “for unborn malcolms”, are featured in Homecoming and were slated for release on a sun lady for all seasons reads her poetry, but failed to make the final track list. In “Malcolm,” Sanchez expresses a mix of sorrow and indignation while lamenting “what could have been” after the loss of Malcolm X. In “for unborn malcolms,” Sanchez’s anger is palpably sharper as she calls for retribution (“an eye for an eye”) against white supremacy. While we do not know why these poems were cut from the final track list of a sun lady for all seasons reads her poetry, it is clear that they were edited out fairly late in the process, as evidenced by drafts of liners notes and sequence structure that appear in our files. The Ralph Rinzler Archive stewards two audio versions of “Malcolm,” one of which edits out an explicit word from the original poem. Although it was published in print more than half a century ago, the poem continues to inspire African American writers today, from Herb Boyd to Ta-Nehisi Coates. We are including the original, unedited version of this unreleased poetry reading in this post, which was recorded during the height of the Black Arts Movement, circa 1970.“Malcolm”Previously unpublished recording of Sonia Sanchez reading her poem, “Malcolm,” which was cut at the last minute from her Folkways album a sun lady for all seasons reads her poetry. Courtesy of the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections.
Eleanor RooseveltCreating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
In 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt was appointed as a delegate to the United Nations during the first meeting of the UN General Assembly. In 1946, she was elected to chair the Commission on Human Rights, which oversaw the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The declaration sets out a “common standard of achievements for all people in all nations” and is considered to be the foundational document of international human rights. In 1958, Folkways Records released an interview album with Roosevelt wherein she details the trials, tribulations, negotiations, discussions, and successes of developing human rights documents with the international community.More
Although the UDHR is not a legally binding instrument, it set the stage for the development of international covenants that are legally binding (early drafts of which are included in the Folkways LP liner notes). The timing of the passage of the UDHR coincided with post-WWII decolonization processes and the founding of new nations across the globe, thus having broad legal consequences. To this, Roosevelt notes in her interview that “the greatest gain [in passing the UDHR at this time] is many of the things in the Declaration have been incorporated in the constitutions of countries that have gained their freedom since the Declaration was written.”Audio
Elizabeth CottenTurning Folk Music Upside-Down
Elizabeth "Libba" Cotten (1895–1987), best known for her timeless song "Freight Train," built her musical legacy on a firm foundation of late 19th- and early 20th-century African American instrumental traditions. Through her songwriting, her quietly commanding personality, and her unique left-handed guitar and banjo styles, she inspired and influenced generations of younger artists. In 1984, Cotten was declared a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts and was later recognized by the Smithsonian Institution as a "living treasure." She received a Grammy Award in 1985 when she was ninety years old, almost eighty years after she first began composing her own work.More
Born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Libba Cotten taught herself how to play the banjo and guitar at an early age. Although forbidden to do so, she often borrowed her brother's instruments when he was away, reversing the banjo and guitar to make them easier to play left-handed. (Notably, she did not reverse the strings, leading her to develop her own “upside-down” playing style that is unique from other left-handed musicians). The photo above was taken in Washington, D.C. by John Cohen, musicologist and founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers. It was used on the cover of Cotten’s first album with Folkways, Folksongs and Instrumentals With Guitar, which was re-released in 1989 as Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes.Audio
VortexHenry Jacobs Experiments with “Spiral Sound”
Henry Sandy Jacobs (1924–2015), sound artist, humorist, recordist, and radio disc jockey, appears on three experimental albums that were released by Folkways Records in the 1950s. He got his start as the creator and host of radio program “Music and Folklore” on WILL FM in Illinois and KPFA in California. Blending ethnomusicology, satire, folklore, and a number of music recordings from Folkways Records, Jacobs’ creativity and notoriety on the air led to the release of Radio Programme, No. 1: Henry Jacobs' “Music and Folklore” in 1955. A track from Radio Programme No. 1,“Sonata for Loudspeakers,” also appears on the 1957 album Sounds of New Music alongside tracks from John Cage, Henry Cowell, Edgard Varèse, and others.More
Jacobs co-created the internationally acclaimed Vortex performances, which debuted at San Francisco’s Morrison Planetarium in 1957 and are widely cited as inspiring the technological innovation of surround sound. In a Smithsonian Folkways Magazine interview with Jacobs in 2013, he described the project in the following terms.
When I discovered the planetarium, and its round theater, and the distribution of a dozen speakers around the periphery of the planetarium... I approached them and asked them if they would be interested in a sound experiment where we would develop a control devise, so that the sound could spiral around your head in a giant sweep... like, picture a railroad train on a track, swirling around the planetarium, and you could make the train go "RRRRRRROOOOOAAA" - you know, whirl around, acoustically. So, the planetarium found that [to be] an exciting experiment and they produced a device, we called it a ‘motorman control,’ like a control on a streetcar or something, but it was a hand operated thing where you could rotate [sound with] a lever...
In 1959, Folkways Records released excerpts from these performances on the album Highlights of Vortex: Electronic Experiments and Music. In the above photograph, Henry Sandy Jacobs stands with his “motorman control” in front of custom made “boobam” drums, which were designed for Vortex by William Loughborough.Audio
Stay tuned as more treasures and tales are revealed!Throughout Folkways' 70th year, we will release 7 stories every month. Follow us on social media to be alerted when the next 7 stories are published.