These stories expand on the work of iconic Folkways artists included in The Folkways 75 playlist, curated in celebration of 75 years of Folkways Records. Listen and read more here.
1. Emerging Artist Lucinda Williams
In the tangled history of country, rock, folk, and blues, Lucinda Williams’ place is irrefutable. Song after jagged song, her music yearns and grieves and refuses and ponders the conditions of her moment. Although now she is widely embraced for her lyricism, alloyed musicality, and candor, labels were actually slow to record her. They all wanted someone who was less genre-bending and easier to market. Always prioritizing the long arc of human creativity against trends, Moses Asch was the first to open his doors. Folkways Records released Williams’ first two albums in a two-year span.
"I Lost It"
Lucinda Williams (1980)
Her first album, Ramblin' On My Mind, released in 1979, is a collection of elegant and raw covers of blues and country music songs. The second, Happy Woman Blues (poetic, freewheeling, and wise; her first album of originals), was released in 1980. Two songs from Happy Woman Blues, “Lafayette” and “You Don’t Have to Hustle Me,” were published concurrently in Broadside Magazine. A 45rpm single with the songs “Happy Woman Blues” and “I Lost It” was released in 1981.
We’re lucky that this rare Lucinda Williams 45 even exists. Moses Asch usually preferred to release collections of songs on LP. He probably made an exception because he heard jukebox hits in the magnetic energy of her early recordings. Just shy of 30 years after Folkways Records released the Anthology of American Folk Music, the label pressed a rare single from the second ground-laying album of one of the most iconic songwriters of the 20th and 21st centuries.
In her autobiography, Lucinda Williams writes: “Folkways was to folk music what Blue Note was to jazz – iconic and respected. It was a very big deal for me to be recognized by Mo [sic] and Folkways.”
2. Indonesian Guitar Music
The Music of Indonesia Series, released by Smithsonian Folkways from 1991 to 1999, is a dazzling showcase of local creativity. Twenty albums bring together musicians from regions across the archipelago, interpreting local music idioms in intricate and dynamic ways.
Across these albums, artists draw from social experiences and regional and international styles to preserve, redefine, and create traditional styles anew. Albums that focus on localized music, like Night Music of Western Sumatra (Vol. 6), present the ways that regional life is intertwined with traditional performance. Devoted solely to music from the Minangkabau of the province of Sumatera Barat (West Sumatra), saluang, rabab Pariaman, and dendang Pauah are narrative and non-narrative songs that bring communities together during intimate social events. Genres that operate on national and international levels can also have this effect. Volume 2 of the series, Indonesian Popular Music (Vol. 2), features recordings of the popular dance music dangdut. A sonic amalgam drawn from Indian film music, Middle Eastern pop, disco, reggae, Western hard rock, and regional Indonesian music, dangdut is embraced widely in Indonesia even as it’s still affiliated with the working-class Indonesians who originally created and embraced it.
Grup Bamba Puang (1999)
A reprise of the nineteen albums leading up to it, the final CD in the series moves across genres and regions to be dedicated to the guitar. These guitars are acoustic and electric, Hawaiian, and homemade, and each bends to the perspective of its player. Broad-reaching and gorgeous in intimacy, style, and scope, the album showcases the inventiveness and versatility of artists adapting an instrument and making it new.
“Kemayoran” was performed by Grup Bamba Puang, who were based in Desa Bonde, Kecamatan Campalagian, Kabupaten Polewali-Mamasa in South Sulawesi. A seasoned performer by the time of this recording, Suhaeni sings harmony with Raham while Moh. Firdaus, her husband, accompanies her on guitar. All three musicians in Grup Bamba Puang are Mandar: a Muslim group living on the west coast of the South Sulawesi peninsula. “Kemayoran” is in the Mandar repertoire of sayang-sayang (or kembang-kembag, “flowers”), a genre of singing with guitar accompaniment that’s often performed at weddings and other domestic celebrations. In “Kemayoran,” Suhaeni and Raham alternate vocals and string independent verses together over Moh. Firdaus’ loping, looping melody. Its verses lament the singer’s misfortunes as an outcast.
3. The Country Gentlemen's Truck Stop 8-Track
The Country Gentlemen were a groundbreaking bluegrass band coming from the Washington, D.C. area. They were initially fronted by Charlie Waller (guitar) and John Duffey (mandolin) and had numerous lineup changes over the years.
Stationed at the periphery of the folk song revival, The Country Gentlemen incorporated elements of folk, pop, and rock and roll and performed songs by newer writers like Bob Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot. By widening the repertoire of what was acceptable in traditional bluegrass circles, The Gents played an important role in the genre’s history.
"Red Rocking Chair"
The Country Gentlemen (1961)
Moses Asch, whose priority was usually to put out LPs, released a handful of 8-track tapes in the 1970s. One of those rare tapes was The Country Gentlemen’s second album, The Country Gentlemen Sing and Play Folk Songs and Bluegrass, which helped earn the band their reputation as the originators of progressive bluegrass. The rest of the small selection of 8-track content on Folkways Records was of country and bluegrass titles. It seems to have been a marketing decision: there was a niche market in the South at specialty locations for 8-tracks, places like roadside restaurants and truck stops, where drivers could pick up their favorite album on 8-track and pop it in their truck. Asch probably figured that in those places, these titles had a good chance to sell.
4. Woody Guthrie's Art for Kids
Renowned as a brilliant musician and bardic author of thousands of songs, Woody Guthrie was also a passionate labor activist, writer, and artist. He drew political cartoons in his early years in California. He was a novelist, painted in oil and watercolor, and created numerous pen and ink drawings. In 1946, Guthrie began to compose children’s songs, often with the help of his young daughter Cathy. As his new oeuvre grew, Guthrie urged Moses Asch to do a children’s series.
From these conversations came “Songs to Grow On”: a group of titles that Asch released on each of his record labels (Disc, Asch, and Cub, an imprint dedicated entirely to children’s music). Every time Asch started a label, these songs for children were some of the first recordings he’d put back into print. While the series wasn’t all Guthrie, he contributed lots of songs, including now-classics like “Don’t You Push Me Down” and “Riding in my car (Car song).” Each sings the silly sweetness of being young. Guthrie’s “Songs to Grow On” were some of his most beloved recordings.
"Riding in My Car (Car Song)"
Woody Guthrie (1951)
Guthrie liked to have a hand in the whole process. He urged Moses Asch to use a series of watercolors based on his children’s songs in the album packaging for “Songs to Grow On.” (In fact, he seems to have attempted to make one piece of art for every children’s song he wrote in that era!) Asch never used them on the covers. It wasn’t until Smithsonian Folkways reissued the LPs on CD in the 1990s (as Nursery Days and Songs to Grow On for Mother and Child) that Guthrie's imagery made it to the front page. The original watercolor paintings are in the Smithsonian archives.
5. David Nzomo Shares Kenyan Traditions
While he was a student at Columbia University in the 1960s and ʼ70s, David Nzomo embarked on a mission to record the traditional Kenyan songs of his childhood. Over the course of roughly a decade, Nzomo recorded six albums with Folkways Records that highlight a range of music including songs for work, dance, protest, and worship. “They’re all songs, traditional songs, and I should capture them so that they don’t disappear,” Nzomo said in a 2014 interview with the label.
"Utonii na Wui"
David Nzomo (1976)
On his final album for Folkways, Gospel Songs from Kenya: Kikamba Hymns (1976), Nzomo recorded eight gospel songs in Swahili, many of which are adaptations of traditional English church hymns. One song, however, was composed by Nzomo himself. “Utonii na Wui (Power and Wisdom)” presents Nzomo’s original lyrics while sustaining the intimacy and delicacy of his sound. Throughout the piece and the album, Nzomo’s incantatory acoustic guitar nudges his layered harmonies forward. The only noticeable difference between "Utonii na Wui” and the surrounding gospel songs is that here the words are his. In breaking from his own “tradition” of sharing traditional Kenyan songs, Nzomo showcased his lyrical craftsmanship and compositional skill. He also revealed the deep relationship in his work between tradition and invention.
When Nzomo spoke with Folkways about his recordings with the label, he stressed his desire to ensure that these songs were remembered. He describes the purpose of his records: “To teach them, or to entertain them, or to give them a good pastime, and also remind them of some of the traditions that may eventually be covered up by modernity.”