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    The Look of the Listen
    The Cover Art of Folkways Records

The Look of the Listen is a website that explores the breadth and diversity of Folkways Records cover art. Produced by the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, in partnership with Smithsonian Folkways, this virtual presentation grows out of a gallery exhibition, Seeing the World of Sound: The Cover Art of Folkways Records, presented at the university’s Fine Arts Building Gallery (FAB) in 2005.1

Since the birth of Folkways Records in 1948, the label’s cover art has been a signature of its mission and message—an invitation to discover the fascinating beauty of recordings by and for people everywhere, and to explore the subtleties of the auditory environment that surrounds us. For nearly four decades, a number of talented artists contributed to crafting a visual identity for Folkways Records that was as distinctive and eclectic as the sounds and extensive documentation packaged in the cardboard album jackets. Working within parameters dictated as much by economics as by founder Moses Asch’s straightforward and direct vision, these designers generated a visually powerful series of album cover artworks that made striking use of two-color printing, field photography, matte paper, and expressionistic illustrations. Among the many graphic artists who designed for Folkways during these years were Ronald Clyne, Craig Mierop, Irwin Rosenhouse, and David Stone Martin.

The original exhibition was co-curated by Margaret Asch, who had long understood that the cover art was an integral part of the label and deserving of focused attention, and Joan Greer, University of Alberta associate professor of the history of art, design, and visual culture. The curators, along with the exhibition and catalog designer Susan Colberg, worked closely with a small team of colleagues that included Regula Qureshi, Jon McCollum, and Blair Brennan from the University of Alberta; and Atesh Sonneborn from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. The curators began their exploration of the collection through their personal attractions to certain covers; but this process soon expanded, developing into broader consideration of the history of American visual culture. In the exhibition catalog, the curators note, “This resource is far vaster and more culturally significant than we first supposed. The historical value of the graphic design and artwork, for example, both on the covers and to a smaller extent in the liner notes, is enormous. We are just beginning to understand the position the early work holds vis-à-vis the wider framework of post-World War II American Modernism.”

Joan Greer elaborates,

I was struck by the incredible diversity of the album covers. I especially liked the raw, expressionist idiom found in some of the covers as well as the seemingly unschooled, even whimsical playfulness found in others. I liked the fact that there was an edge to the design and visuals that matched the radical content of some of the records. I was also struck by the methods employed by Moses Asch in producing the records, the wonderfully contradictory utopian-pragmatism that got things done; done quickly, done inexpensively, and done with integrity.

Margaret Asch, too, notes the importance of the particular relationships and understandings that undergirded the label’s design and production processes,

Through researching the cover art and artists and designers, and from reading many of the liner notes and correspondence, it is clear that deep connections existed—intellectually, artistically, culturally and politically—between Moses Asch and some of Folkways’ recording artists and the visual artists whose works appear on the covers. Just as Folkways was a label for progressive musicians, Folkways cover art was a significant venue for progressive artists (for example, Ben Shahn, Lucienne Bloch and Antonio Frasconi). Asch trusted and respected the people who worked for Folkways and this was reciprocated. Both David Gahr and Ronald Clyne emphasized their appreciation and affection for him and for the freedom he gave them as artists and the respect he held for their work.

Greer and Asch, along with their interdisciplinary team, eventually selected 209 from more than 2,000 covers for the exhibition, organizing them by production methods, stylistic approach, album genres and categories as defined by the wide-ranging Folkways catalog, and the individual artists and designers who created the work.

Margaret Asch reflects,

The process of viewing and re-viewing the entire Folkways cover collection helped bring forward not only some stunning individual covers, but patterns started to emerge. I started to see what a designer like Ronald Clyne was trying to achieve (clarity and simplicity) and to appreciate his aesthetic (minimalist)… given the production challenges that existed for the Folkways designers (limited to two colours), some of the covers created by Irwin Rosenhouse are unbelievable. This Land is My Land is a good example of this and his freehand work on albums like Niloh Service is unparalleled. I also find the many photographic covers particularly moving. They show musicians so honestly and respectfully, whether it’s the work of professional photographers such as David Gahr or John Cohen or others not known for their photography, such as Béla Bartók and ethnologist Anne Chapman. It occurred to me at some point in the curatorial process that without these covers we might have no visual record of who many of these extraordinary people were.

The 2005 exhibition coincided with the centenary of Moses Asch’s birth. It was a milestone that illuminated, in the words of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings Director Daniel Sheehy, the “look” that invites the “listen.” It evoked the breadth and diversity of audible and especially musical creation, and celebrated Folkways contributions to visual design. What’s more, in the context of the exhibition, the “look” also invited more active responses. While gallery visitors admired the formal beauty of the art work, they were also engaged through the often personal and aural memories that these album covers triggered—an experience that inspired some people to spontaneously break into song while onsite.

The exhibition was the inaugural research project of folkwaysAlive!, a partnership between Smithsonian Folkways Recording and the University of Alberta. folkwaysAlive! showcased the complete set of Folkways recordings donated by Moses and Frances Asch to the University of Alberta in 1985 and uses them as a basis for exploring and supporting Canada’s diverse musical-cultural heritage and living musical traditions. Through this partnership, the University shares in the legacy of respecting and celebrating people’s voices and connects directly to Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and its stewardship of the Folkways mission worldwide. This partnership has produced a Smithsonian Folklife Festival program, Alberta at the Smithsonian, in 2006; two Smithsonian Folkways albums—Alberta: Wild Roses, Northern Lights and Classic Canadian Songs from Smithsonian Folkways (2006); and internships for University of Alberta students. It also created album and exhibition design classes and a preservation program with Smithsonian conservators and archivists, which contributed to the conservation of the original artwork of Folkways album covers.

Enter the Look of the Listen

1This article was adapted from personal correspondence with Margaret Asch and Joan Greer (April 2012), as well as from the catalog for the Seeing the World of Sound: The Cover Art of Folkways Records exhibition (2005). Both the virtual and gallery exhibitions are the result of collaboration among the family of Folkways Records’ founder Moses Asch, the University of Alberta’s Department of Art and Design, and folkwaysAlive! (a partnership between Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and the University of Alberta).