Folkways Records and Service Corporation was founded in New York City in 1948 by Moe Asch and continued under his direction until his death in 1986. It was a small operation with a huge output. Never employing more than a half dozen people, Folkways released over two thousand titles in the thirty-eight years of the company's existence-an average of one record a week. Even more remarkable was his view that every title in the Folkways catalogue was a document, an integral and lasting part of the catalogue, and must remain "in print" regardless of sales. Asch made this clear by often commenting, "Just because the letter J is less popular than the letter S, you don't take it out of the dictionary."
Technical and documentary innovations also set Folkways apart from other companies. Moe Asch's microphone placement is still regarded as the most effective means for capturing natural studio sound. Folkways Records pioneered the now commonplace practice of including liner notes with the album. These "notes" were often booklet-length with extensive ethnographic information, including photographs, song lyrics, and biographies of musicians, when available. The distinctive design of Folkways covers and the thoughtful consideration of its relationship to the audio content reveals a unique approach to the marketing of the albums.
It is no surprise that Moe Asch had a keen artistic sensibility. Art and artists were ever-present throughout his life. He was the son of famous Yiddish writer and intellectual, Sholem Asch who was a central figure in the international artistic community. Asch spent his early years in Europe, traveling extensively with his family before they settled in New York. Between the world wars, he studied sound technology in Germany. He returned to New York at a time when the city was becoming the nexus of international cultural and artistic expression.
Asch used his technical skills to begin documenting the diversity of this community first for radio and later through recordings. His interest in the visual arts included an appreciation for non-Western and folk art as well as art that reflected a particular social or political experience. This interest in folk traditions is reflected not only on the recordings but also in collaborations with artists who shared his aesthetic sensibilities and social conscience and whose work appears on the covers of Folkways albums.
For most people, Folkways Records is synonymous with the recordings of the iconic folk and blues musicians Woody Guthrie, Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly), and Pete Seeger. Fans of early jazz find the recordings of giants such as James P. Johnson and Mary Lou Williams, and traditional music enthusiasts can hear Dock Boggs and Jean Ritchie. For other collectors, Folkways was the first company to record world music.
Several generations have grown up on the music of Ella Jenkins and many other performers who produced children's recordings for Folkways. Teachers and librarians around the world have introduced their students to the history of the American civil rights movement and international struggles for freedom and justice through Folkways.
A much smaller constituency knows Folkways for lectures, literature, and lives recounted-from the famous to the virtually unknown-contained in the spoken word collection. Perhaps least familiar are the remarkable Folkways soundscapes, such as the Sounds of Steam Locomotives and the Sounds of the Office, which document mid-twentieth-century everyday life and experience. This unparalleled diversity and eclecticism makes Folkways Records unique in the history of recording.
The final edition of the Folkways catalogue listed over two thousand individual recordings, divided into categories based on genre, beginning with the 2000 series (American Series) and ending with the 9000 series (Language Special Series). A relatively small number of recordings, including stereo reissues and boxed sets, were assigned to numeric categories beyond the 9000 series.
Over the years new titles were added to each category but catalogue numbers were not always assigned in strict numerical sequence. In fact, Asch left gaps in the numbering system to reserve space for future recordings-recordings that, in his mind, would fit in very specific places. To illustrate, the first recording in the "International Series" section of the catalogue is assigned catalogue number 8451. It is followed by 8452, 8454, 8460, 8470, 8471, 8501, and so on, ending with catalogue number 8886. As a result, there are 136 titles in the International Series with space reserved for 299 additional recordings. By creating spaces within his catalogue and assuming new material would gradually be added, Asch seems to have envisioned Folkways as a library of sound and a reference for generations to come.
By the early 1980s Asch began to consider the future and legacy of Folkways. He was looking for someone to take over the company who would agree to maintain the catalogue as he had. The new steward of Folkways would ensure the continued availability of every Folkways record, continue to produce recordings regardless of sales statistics, and appreciate and make use of the volumes of unexplored material not yet issued as recordings. The new Folkways would remain the "invisible conduit from the world to the ears of human beings" as he had frequently described it. By the time of Moses Asch's death in 1986, he was considering the possible acquisition of the company by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. In 1987 the Smithsonian Institution met all of the conditions set out by Moses Asch and acquired the company from his estate.
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings has continued the tradition of supporting music and sound recordings by and for people everywhere, maintaining the entire original Folkways catalogue, creating new compilations using original Folkways material, and annually producing about twenty recordings of new material from around the world.
Folkways Records produced a vast and diverse collection of Canadian material, numbering approximately 140 albums. Recorded mainly from the 1950s to the 1980s, the collection is an historical record of English and French folk songs; Aboriginal music (First Nations, Inuit, and Metis); Canadian literature and history; children's songs; and avant-garde compositions. Canadians owe much of this treasure to Montreal impresario Sam Gesser, who was Moe Asch's Canadian producer. Through Gesser's work, Folkways became the prime venue for Canada's important folk song collectors, making their foundational work accessible to Canadians and the world. The album cover images provide a remarkable visual complement to the sonic record, documenting Canadian people and places. Asch's connection to Canada developed through frequent visits to Edmonton where his son Michael was a professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta. An appreciation of the community inspired the donation of a complete set of the Folkways albums to the University in 1985, the only such donation Moses and Frances Asch made.
In 2003, the University of Alberta began working closely with Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, establishing "folkwaysAlive!" with its base and focus on this unique collection of recordings. folkwaysAlive is the University's initiative to carry forward the legacy of Folkways Recordings in Canada. Seeing the World of Sound: the Cover Art of Folkways Records, was the inaugural research project of folkwaysAlive, an exhibition which, in part, celebrated Moe Asch in the centenary of his birth.