Smithsonian Folkways

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Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
Smithsonian Folkways logo.png
Founder Smithsonian Institution
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.



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]

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]

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]

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]

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 Folk-Legacy Records, Stinson Records, 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]


In addition to its vast catalogue of historical recordings, Smithsonian Folkways has recently begun signing and releasing material from living artists. Current artists with albums on Smithsonian Folkways include Dom Flemons, folk trio Lula Wiles, Kaia Kater, Mariachi los Camperos, Los Texmaniacs, Our Native Daughters (artists Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell, and Amythyst Kiah), Anna & Elizabeth, and Elizabeth Mitchell (musician). They are releasing an album in September from American composer and musician Laurie Anderson, Tibetan musician Tenzin Choegyal, and activist and composer Jesse Paris Smith.


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."

Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection

In 2015 Smithsonian Folkways released Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection , a 5 CD, 140-page, large-format book featuring 5 hours of music including his classics “The Midnight Special,” “Irene,” “The Bourgeois Blues,” and 16 previously unreleased tracks.

The Social Power of Music

In February 2019, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings released The Social Power of Music, a 4 CD anthology and 124-page book exploring the power of music to bring people together, through various musical and social movements from across the United States and the world. The collection includes tracks from The Freedom Singers, Suni Paz, Clifton Chenier, and many others.

Jazz Fest: The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

In May 2019, Smithsonian Folkways released Jazz Fest: The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, a 5 disc, 136-page book and box set featuring 50 live tracks recorded live at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in celebration of the festival's 50th anniversary. The collection includes music from Allen Toussaint, Professor Longhair, Dr. John, and The Neville Brothers.

Pete Seeger: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection

Also in May 2019, Smithsonian Folkways released Pete Seeger: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection in celebration of what would have been Pete Seeger's one hundredth birthday. The anthology contains classic recordings, 20 previously unreleased tracks, historic live performances, and special collaborations from Pete Seeger's career, as well as 6 discs and a large-format, 200-page book.

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

Related Research Articles

<i>Anthology of American Folk Music</i> 1952 compilation album by Various Artists

The Anthology of American Folk Music is a six-album compilation released in 1952 by Folkways Records, comprising eighty-four American folk, blues and country music recordings that were originally issued from 1926 to 1933. Experimental film maker Harry Smith compiled the music from his personal collection of 78 rpm records. The album is famous due to its role as a touchstone for the American folk music revival in the 1950s and 1960s. The Anthology was released for compact disc by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings on August 19, 1997.

New Lost City Ramblers

The New Lost City Ramblers, or NLCR, was an American contemporary old-time string band that formed in New York City in 1958 during the folk revival. Mike Seeger, John Cohen and Tom Paley were its founding members. Tracy Schwarz replaced Paley, who left the group in 1962. Seeger died of cancer in 2009, Paley died in 2017, and Cohen died in 2019. NLCR participated in the old-time music revival, and directly influenced many later musicians.

Mike Seeger American folk musician and folklorist

Mike Seeger was an American folk musician and folklorist. He was a distinctive singer and an accomplished musician who played autoharp, banjo, fiddle, dulcimer, guitar, mouth harp, mandolin, dobro, jaw harp, and pan pipes. Seeger, a half-brother of Pete Seeger, produced more than 30 documentary recordings, and performed in more than 40 other recordings. He desired to make known the caretakers of culture that inspired and taught him.

John Cohen was an American musician, photographer and film maker who performed and documented the traditional music of the rural South and played a major role in the American folk music revival. In the 1950s and 60s, Cohen was a founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers, a New York-based string band. Cohen made several expedition to Peru to film and record the traditional culture of the Q'ero, an indigenous people. Cohen was also a professor of visual arts at SUNY Purchase College for 25 years.

The Center for Folklife & Cultural Heritage (CFCH) is one of three cultural centers within the Smithsonian Institution in the United States. Its motto is "culture of, by, and for the people", and it aims to encourage understanding and cultural sustainability through research, education, and community engagement. The CFCH contains (numerically) the largest collection in the Smithsonian, but is not fully open to the public. Its budget comes primarily from grants, trust monies, federal government appropriations, and gifts, with a small percentage coming from the main Smithsonian budget.

Smithsonian Global Sound (SGS) is the digital archive project of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (SCFCH), launched in 2005 by Smithsonian Folkways, the nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution. Its stated mission is to preserve and disseminate a wide range of the world's music. By making the archives of Smithsonian Folkways and its partner organizations available for online purchase and downloading, Smithsonian Global Sound brings the promotion and preservation of local traditions into the global digital age.

Woody Guthrie discography

American singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie's published recordings are culled from a series of recording sessions in the 1940s and 1950s. At the time they were recorded they were not set down for a particular album, so are found over several albums not necessarily in chronological order. The more detailed section on recording sessions lists the song by recording date.

<i>The Asch Recordings</i> 1997 compilation album by Woody Guthrie

The Asch Recordings, recorded between 1944 and 1949, are a series of albums featuring some of the most famous recordings of US folk musician Woody Guthrie. The recordings were recorded by Moses "Moe" Asch in New York City. The songs recorded by Asch comprise the bulk of Guthrie's original material and several traditional songs. They were issued on a variety of labels over the years under the labels Asch, Asch-Stinson, Asch-Signature-Stinson, Disc, Folkways and Smithsonian Folkways. The tracks for Guthrie's Songs to Grow on for Mother and Child and Nursery Days were from these sessions.

Richard Kurin

Richard Kurin, an American cultural anthropologist, museum official and author, is the Acting Provost and Under Secretary for Museums and Research at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a key member of the senior team managing the world's largest museum and research complex with 6,500 employees and a $1.4 billion annual budget, caring for more than 139 million specimens, artifacts and artworks, working in 145 countries around the globe, hosting some 30 million visitors a year, and reaching hundreds of millions online and through the Smithsonian's educational programs and media outreach. Kurin is particularly responsible for all of the national museums, scholarly and scientific research centers, and programs spanning science, history, art and culture.

Union Boys Musical artist

The Union Boys was an American folk music group, formed impromptu in 1944, to record several songs on an album called Songs for Victory: Music for Political Action. Its "all-star leftist" members were Josh White, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, Tom Glazer.

Folkways Records was a record label founded by Moses Asch that documented folk, world, and children's music. It was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution in 1987 and is now part of Smithsonian Folkways.

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.

Suni Paz Argentine singer, songwriter, musician and educator

Suni Paz is an Argentinian singer, songwriter, guitarist, poet, folklorist, translator, and teacher, who has recorded and has been published extensively. Paz is part of the progressive Latin American music movement known as nueva canción.

Folkways: The Original Vision was released in 1989 and is the first album created by Folkways Records under new acquisition by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage following the death of the record label's founder, Moses Asch. Funds were raised for the acquisition of the label to be established as a non-profit entity in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution by the collaborative recording A Vision Shared: A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly by artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and U2. Folkways: The Original Vision was digitally remastered and re-released in 2005 by Folkways Records.

Struggle is an album released by Folkways Records as a vinyl LP in 1976 and as a CD in 1990. It contains recordings by folk artist Woody Guthrie, accompanied on some of the tracks by Cisco Houston and Sonny Terry. Songs on this album are commonly referred to as protest music, songs that are associated with a movement for social change.

My Dusty Road is a 4 CD box set of Woody Guthrie music containing 54 tracks and a book. It is a collection of the newly discovered Stinson master discs. It was released by Rounder Records in 2009.

Stinson Records was an American record label formed by Herbert Harris and Irving Prosky in 1939, initially to market, in the US, recordings made in the Soviet Union. Between the 1940s and 1960s, it mainly issued recordings of American folk and blues musicians, including Woody Guthrie and Josh White.

<i>Trouble in Mind</i> (Big Bill Broonzy album) 2000 studio album by Big Bill Broonzy

Trouble in Mind is an album by American blues musician Big Bill Broonzy. It was released on February 22, 2000 by Smithsonian Folkways. The album consists of traditional folk, blues, and spiritual songs featuring Broonzy accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and a guest appearance by Pete Seeger. Suffering from cancer, Broonzy realized his time was limited and hence recorded extensively between 1956 and 1957. While most of the work draws from the album Big Bill Broonzy Sings Country Blues (1957), arranged by Moses Asch and Charles Edward Smith, Trouble in Mind is also sourced from concert broadcasts and interviews recorded late in Broonzy's career.

Jeff Place is the Grammy-award-winning Archivist and Curator at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. He and Anthony Seeger were the first two full-time employees hired in 1987 when the Smithsonian acquired Folkways Records from the estate of Folkways founder Moses Asch.


  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.