Smithsonian Folkways

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Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
Smithsonian Folkways logo.png
Founder Smithsonian Institution
Genre Folk, World, Children's, Jazz, Blues, and more
Country of originUnited States
Location Washington, D.C.
Official website

Smithsonian Folkways is the nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution. It is a part of the Smithsonian's Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, located at Capital Gallery in downtown Washington, D.C. The label was founded in 1987 after the family of Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records, donated the entire Folkways Records label to the Smithsonian. The donation was made on the condition that the Institution continue Asch's policy that each of the more than 2,000 albums of Folkways Records remain in print forever, regardless of sales. Since then, the label has expanded on Asch's vision of documenting the sounds of the world, adding six other record labels to the collection, as well as releasing over 300 new recordings. Some well-known artists have contributed to the Smithsonian Folkways collection, including Pete Seeger, Ella Jenkins, Woody Guthrie, and Lead Belly. Famous songs include "This Land Is Your Land", "Goodnight, Irene", and "Midnight Special." Due to the unique nature of its recordings, which include an extensive collection of traditional American music, children's music, and international music, Smithsonian Folkways has become an important collection to the musical community, especially to ethnomusicologists, who utilize the recordings of "people's music" from all over the world.

Smithsonian Institution group of museums and research centers administered by the United States government

The Smithsonian Institution, established on August 10, 1846 "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge," is a group of museums and research centers administered by the Government of the United States. The institution is named after its founding donor, British scientist James Smithson. Originally organized as the "United States National Museum," that name ceased to exist as an administrative entity in 1967.

Washington, D.C. Capital of the United States

Washington, D.C., formally the District of Columbia and commonly referred to as Washington or D.C., is the capital of the United States. Founded after the American Revolution as the seat of government of the newly independent country, Washington was named after George Washington, first President of the United States and Founding Father. As the seat of the United States federal government and several international organizations, Washington is an important world political capital. The city is also one of the most visited cities in the world, with more than 20 million tourists annually.

Moses Asch, often known as Moe Asch, was a Polish-American recording engineer and record executive. He founded Asch Records, which then changed its name to Folkways Records when the label transitioned from 78 RPM recordings to LP records. Asch ran the Folkways label from 1948 until his death in 1986. Folkways was very influential in bringing folk music into the American cultural mainstream. Some of America's greatest folk songs were originally recorded for Asch, including "This Land Is Your Land" by Woody Guthrie and "Goodnight Irene" by Lead Belly. Asch sold many commercial recordings to Verve Records; after his death, Asch's archive of ethnic recordings was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution, and released as Smithsonian Folkways Records.



The Smithsonian Folkways Recordings label arose when the Smithsonian acquired a vast collection of recordings from Folkways Records, maintained by Moses Asch. The original 2,168 titles produced by Folkways Records now make up the bulk of the label's collection. [1]

Folkways Records

In 1905, Moses "Moe" Asch was born in Poland. His father, Sholem Asch, a successful author, made enough money to move the family to Paris in 1912. In 1914, Sholem left Paris for work in New York City and, a year later, sent for his family. The experience at Ellis Island was traumatic for 10-year-old Moe, and, based on his own account, memory was seared into his mind. Sholem believed in educating his fellow man through his literature, and Moe showed that same passion through his chosen career of audio engineering. [2]

Sholem Asch Polish-American novelist, dramatist, essayist

Sholem Asch, also written Shalom Ash, was a Polish-Jewish novelist, dramatist, and essayist in the Yiddish language who settled in the United States.

Ellis Island island in New York Harbor in the United States of America

Ellis Island, in Upper New York Bay, was the gateway for over 12 million immigrants to the U.S. as the United States' busiest immigrant inspection station for over 60 years from 1892 until 1954. Ellis Island was opened January 1, 1892. The island was greatly expanded with land reclamation between 1892 and 1934. Before that, the much smaller original island was the site of Fort Gibson and later a naval magazine. The island was made part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965 and has hosted a museum of immigration since 1990.

In the mid-1920s, Asch studied radio engineering in Germany, a center for the new science. When he returned to the United States, he worked for various electronic firms before opening his own radio repair business, Radio Labs, during the Great Depression. In this business, Moe built equipment for radio stations and installed recorders for air use. [3] Asch wrote in a 1961 article, "Forming one of the first independent record companies it was natural for me to want to record folk music and people's expression of their wants, needs and experiences." [4]

Great Depression 20th-century worldwide economic depression

The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression that took place mostly during the 1930s, beginning in the United States. The timing of the Great Depression varied across nations; in most countries it started in 1929 and lasted until the late-1930s. It was the longest, deepest, and most widespread depression of the 20th century. In the 21st century, the Great Depression is commonly used as an example of how intensely the world's economy can decline.

In 1940, Sholem invited his son with him to New Jersey to meet physicist and humanitarian Albert Einstein, who encouraged Moe to record and document the sounds of the world, which Asch took to be his life calling. Soon after that meeting, in early 1940, Asch founded Asch Records with a small staff and studio located in downtown Manhattan, New York. He allowed any artist to come and record at no charge, in contrast to bigger studios that charged artists fees for using recording equipment. Because of his open-door policy, Asch attracted many young and/or unique "would-be" artists. Due to the American Federation of Musicians' 1942 strike against major record labels, small labels such as Asch's filled the void in sales for distributors. The label grew and became more successful through deals with other producers, including Norman Granz. This partnership proved successful, leading to the concept of recording live concerts. These recordings came close to Asch's vision of documenting "real" sound, and, because there were no studio fees, were less expensive to produce. Around this time, Asch began another record label, Disc Records, though this fell through in a short time. Asch received recordings from Granz of an up-and-coming pianist named Nat Cole, which he decided to issue on a record in fall 1946. He invested a large amount of money in publicity and advertising, for the first time attempting to break into the pop charts. Due to a snowstorm, shipping was delayed past the holiday rush, causing Asch Records to fall into bankruptcy. As one of the terms of his bankruptcy, Asch was barred from starting another label. To get around this, in July 1948, Marian Distler, Asch's longtime assistant, became the president of a new label, Folkways Records and Service Corporation. Asch was hired as her "consultant," and Folkways Records was created. It was at this time that Asch created his plan for keeping all of the Folkways records in print, regardless of demand. In this way, he figured that demand, though small, would continue for decades. He famously remarked, "Just because the letter J is less popular than the letter S, you don't take it out of the dictionary." [5]

Albert Einstein German-born physicist and developer of the theory of relativity

Albert Einstein was a German-born theoretical physicist who developed the theory of relativity, one of the two pillars of modern physics. His work is also known for its influence on the philosophy of science. He is best known to the general public for his mass–energy equivalence formula E = mc2, which has been dubbed "the world's most famous equation". He received the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics "for his services to theoretical physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect", a pivotal step in the development of quantum theory.

American Federation of Musicians

The American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada (AFM/AFofM) is a 501(c)(5) labor union representing professional instrumental musicians in the United States and Canada. The AFM, which has its headquarters in New York City, is led by president Raymond M. Hair, Jr. Founded in Cincinnati in 1896 as the successor to the "National League of Musicians," the AFM is the largest organization in the world to represent professional musicians. They negotiate fair agreements, protect ownership of recorded music, secure benefits such as health care and pension, and lobby legislators. In the US, it is the American Federation of Musicians (AFM)—and in Canada, the Canadian Federation of Musicians/Fédération canadienne des musiciens (CFM/FCM). The AFM is affiliated with AFL–CIO, the largest federation of Unions in the United States; and the Canadian Labour Congress, the federation of unions in Canada.

On August 1, 1942, the American Federation of Musicians, at the instigation of union president James Petrillo, began a strike against the major American recording companies because of disagreements over royalty payments. Beginning at midnight, July 31 1942, no union musician could make commercial recordings for any commercial record company. That meant that a union musician was allowed to participate on radio programs and other kinds of musical entertainment, but not in a recording session. The 1942–44 musicians' strike remains the longest strike in entertainment history.

Folkways Records released over 2,000 recordings between the years 1949 and 1987, spanning many genres, including jazz, folk, classical, avant-garde, and world music. Over the years of Folkways Records, Asch recorded some of the biggest names in music, including Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, Dizzy Gillespie, John Cage, and Charles Ives. Reissues of the early blues and folk recordings from Folkways, such as Harry Smith's well-known Anthology of American Folk Music , fueled several generations of folk revivals, inspiring young musicians such as Dave van Ronk, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Bob Dylan. [6]

Folk music musical and poetic creativity of the people

Folk music includes traditional folk music and the genre that evolved from it during the 20th-century folk revival. Some types of folk music may be called world music. Traditional folk music has been defined in several ways: as music transmitted orally, music with unknown composers, or music performed by custom over a long period of time. It has been contrasted with commercial and classical styles. The term originated in the 19th century, but folk music extends beyond that.

Classical music broad tradition of Western art music

Classical music is art music produced or rooted in the traditions of Western culture, including both liturgical (religious) and secular music. While a more precise term is also used to refer to the period from 1750 to 1820, this article is about the broad span of time from before the 6th century AD to the present day, which includes the Classical period and various other periods. The central norms of this tradition became codified between 1550 and 1900, which is known as the common-practice period. The major time divisions of Western art music are as follows:

Avant-garde music is music that is considered to be at the forefront of experimentation or innovation in its field, with the term "avant-garde" implying a critique of existing aesthetic conventions, rejection of the status quo in favor of unique or original elements, and the idea of deliberately challenging or alienating audiences.

Smithsonian Institution

In 1984, looking for someone to continue the Folkways Records collection after him, Asch found Ralph Rinzler, who was then artistic director of the Smithsonian's annual Folklife Festival. Asch saw that the Smithsonian had the power to keep the collection alive and keep the sounds of the world in the people's hands. [7] Asch stipulated one main condition: that every recording was to remain "in print" forever, regardless of its sales. It was the way that he began the label, and he felt that the people deserved to have the sounds of the world preserved. There was opposition to the transfer, with some members of the Smithsonian citing the Folkways collection's "uneven quality" and "balance of repertory." Despite these criticisms, Rinzler persevered, and negotiations with Asch continued. Asch died in 1986 before the deal was completed, but his family finished the passing of the Folkways Records to the Smithsonian in 1987. [8]

Additional acquisitions

The collection became known as the Moses and Frances Asch Collection, part of the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections housed in the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. The recordings on other labels, including Paredon Records, Cook, Collector, Dyer-Bennet, Fast Folk, Monitor, M.O.R.E. The Mickey Hart Collection, Arhoolie Records, and Bobby Susser Songs For Children have since been added to the collection. [9]


After the creation of the collection in the Smithsonian Archives, only two full-time positions were funded. Rinzler recruited Anthony Seeger, well known in the ethnomusicology community as director of the Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University, as director, and a full-time archivist, Jeff Place. The Smithsonian also stipulated a condition regarding the transfer: if they accepted the label, it would have to support itself through its sales. Seeger and Place had no experience running a record label, but took on the project. Though they could not retain all of Asch's business practices, they managed to preserve the essence of Folkways Records while creating the new label, Smithsonian Folkways. The label now relies on a small team of full-time staff, part-time staff, interns, and volunteers to continue the mission of Smithsonian Folkways. [10] [11]



Smithsonian Folkways is engaged in several projects dedicated to increasing the awareness and use of their recordings, as well as the preservation of them.

Digital distribution

As part of their mission in spreading the sounds of the world, Smithsonian Folkways has made the recordings of their archives available digitally in various ways, in addition to retail distribution of CDs (some titles Manufactured on Demand) and LPs.

Smithsonian Global Sound

In February 2005, Smithsonian Folkways launched Smithsonian Global Sound, an online MP3 music store, similar to programs such as Apple's iTunes. The entire collection was made available online, at the cost of $0.99 per track. Smithsonian Folkways pays royalties to all the artists (and if the artists cannot be found, the money is put in escrow). [12] The purpose of the brand name Smithsonian Global Sound has been altered to provide the entire collection online for streaming for subscribing institutions, such as universities, via the Smithsonian Global Sound for Libraries service, a co-production with Alexander Street Press.

Smithsonian Folkways now offers the entire Folkways collection for digital download through its website, at $0.99 for most songs and $9.99 for most albums, available in both MP3 and FLAC format. In addition, Smithsonian Folkways distributes digitally via outlets such as iTunes and eMusic. [13]

Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology

In 2011 Smithsonian Folkways released a new Jazz anthology to update their previous release, the 1973 Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. The anthology includes 111 tracks on six discs, held within a 200-page compilation of historical essays, musical analyses, and contemporary photographs of the musicians. [14]

Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection

In 2012 Smithsonian Folkways released Woody At 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection , a 150-page large-format book with 3 CDs containing 57 tracks, including Woody Guthrie's most important recordings such as the complete version of "This Land Is Your Land," "Pretty Boy Floyd," "I Ain't Got No Home in This World Anymore," and "Riding in My Car."


folkwaysAlive! was a partnership between Smithsonian Folkways and the University of Alberta established in 2002–2003 by professors Regula Qureshi and Michael Frishkopf with support from then VP Research Gary Kachanoski, aiming to create a "national centre of musical and cultural excellence." Originally conceived as a part of the Canadian Centre for Ethnomusicology, folkwaysAlive! subsequently operated independently within the University of Alberta's Faculty of Arts. The mission was to create a research center for the music of the cultures of Alberta and western Canada, as well as cultures from around the world. The center invited local and visiting musicians and artists to present lectures and workshops. The partnership concluded December 31, 2016. As a consequence, folkwaysAlive! no longer exists at the University of Alberta, but has been superseded by a more broadly-conceived entity, the Sound Studies Initiative.

Save Our Sounds

In 2003, Smithsonian Folkways, in conjunction with the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, began a project called "Save Our Sounds" that aims at preserving the sounds vital to our nation's history which are deteriorating, such as Thomas Edison's recordings made on wax cylinders and others done on acetate discs in the early 20th century. [15] The Save America's Treasures program initiated by the White House Millennium Council awarded a matching grant of $750,000 for the project. The goal of the project is to expose the nation to the need for sound preservation, and to protect the most important and "priceless" records from the combined collections. [16]


Smithsonian Folkways and its collection of labels have earned a variety of awards and honors including 7 Grammy Awards, one Latin Grammy award, 10 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Awards, and 19 Independent Music Awards. [17]

See also

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  1. "Moses and Frances Asch Collection". Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Retrieved 2013-01-02.
  2. Carlin, Richard (2008). Worlds of Sound, pp.2–3. New York:HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN   978-0-06-156355-3.
  3. Carlin, Richard (2008). Worlds of Sound, p.3. New York:HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN   978-0-06-156355-3.
  4. Asch, Moses (Feb/March 1961). "Folk Music – A Personal Statement". Sing Out!
  5. Carlin, Richard (2008). Worlds of Sound, pp.4–11. New York:HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN   978-0-06-156355-3.
  6. Rogovoy, Seth (Summer 2002). "Moe Asch: Collector of Culture". Pakn Treger, pp.8–10.
  7. Burdick, Alan (01 July 2001). "Now Hear This: historic sound recordings at Smithsonian Folkways Records". Harpers Magazine .
  8. Carlin, Richard (2008). Worlds of Sound, pp.252–255. New York:HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN   978-0-06-156355-3.
  9. "Archives". Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Retrieved 25 February 2019.
  10. Carlin, Richard (2008). Worlds of Sound, p.255. New York:HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN   978-0-06-156355-3
  11. "Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage". Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Retrieved 25 February 2019.
  12. Trescott, Jacqueline (April 1, 2005). "Smithsonian Folkways to Open MP3 Music Store". Washington Post, p.C01.
  13. (May 25, 2006). "Gigs & Bytes:Downloading Woody". Pollstar.
  14. Burgess, Richard. "Producer's Note," liner note essay. Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology, 2010, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
  15. January 27, 2003. "What's that Sound?: Could be anything at the Library of Congress". The Holland Sentinel, p.A12.
  16. “Save Our Sounds:America’s Recorded Sound Heritage Project”. Library of Congress. Retrieved 2010-05-14.
  17. "Awards". Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. Retrieved 25 February 2019.