Founded by Moses "Moe" Asch in 1948, Folkways Records evolved into perhaps the most important independent record label in the history of American popular culture. Determined to document the authentic musical traditions of the world, Asch assembled an eclectic catalogue of more than 2,200 titles that featured such artists as Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Coleman Hawkins, Mary Lou Williams, and John Cage. In addition to assembling an impressive collection of children's and world artists, Folk-ways played a prominent role in shaping the canon of American folk music, exerted tremendous influence on left-wing culture, and, in part, inspired the folk revival of the 1960s.
Born in 1905 in Warsaw, Poland, in 1914 the nine-year-old Moses Asch emigrated with his family to New York City, where his father, the renowned Yiddish novelist Sholem Asch, sought to forge relationships with other Jewish intellectuals. In 1923, Sholem sent his son to Germany to study electronics, and when Moe returned to New York in 1926, he opened a radio repair shop and pursued a career as a sound engineer. Eager to gain his father's approval, he then sought a more literary occupation. During his sojourn in Germany, he had read John Lomax's Cowboy Songs (1910), which sparked his interest in American folklore and convinced him that folk music constituted the literature of the "common" people. In 1939, he established Asch Records to document their voices, recording traditional Yiddish folk songs and cantorials. Asch's repertoire expanded in 1941 when he released a collection of children's songs performed by Leadbelly, the former Lomax protégé who would become central to the label's success.
The release of Leadbelly's material as well as The Cavalcade of the American Negro (1941) underscored Asch's commitment to preserving the cultural heritage of African Americans. These racial politics were indicative of his general leftist sympathies. Reared in a family of socialists, he enthusiastically embraced the Popular Front, a loose affiliation of left-wing and liberal artists and intellectuals who, at the suggestion of the Communist Party International, committed themselves to the defeat of European fascism and the promotion of racial and economic equality. Although Asch was wary of communism, in 1944 he opened his studio, now under the banner of Disc Records, to the leftist American Folksong Movement. Seeger and his Almanac Singers, Cisco Houston, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, and Woody Guthrie gathered to record traditional tunes and politically-inflected songs. Folkways was particularly supportive of Guthrie's career and, between 1944 and 1945, Asch recorded nearly 140 Guthrie selections and meticulously archived the musician's voluminous notebooks, letters, and drawings.
Disc Records ended in bankruptcy, but when Asch and his assistant, Marian Distler, launched Folkways in 1948, he refused to make efforts to sign commercially successful artists. Marquee performers, he worried, would compromise the label's integrity among academics as well as his attempts to chronicle the lives of "real" folk. As a result, he continued to record music that appealed to small but well-defined audiences: white leftists, jazz aficionados, librarians, and teachers. In its fledgling years, Folkways rereleased Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads (which RCA originally recorded in 1940), expanded its jazz catalogue, and, under the direction of ethnomusicologist Harold Courlander, promoted the Ethnic Series.
In 1952, Asch hired Harry Smith to assemble the Anthology of American Folk Music, a compendium that introduced a new generation, notably Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, to the genre. This seminal album became a cultural touchstone for the many white students who, inspired by the success of the Weavers and the Kingston Trio, sought to celebrate folk musicians and their traditions. Under Asch's auspices, Mike Seeger, Pete's half-brother, reclaimed and recorded Southern traditions, while Ralph Rinzler documented such virtuosos as Clarence Ashley and Arthel "Doc" Watson. A burgeoning interest in folk music opened a new market to Asch, impelling him to rerelease older materials and to issue new recordings by such legends as Sam "Lightnin"' Hopkins and Big Joe Williams.
This renaissance gained momentum when, in the early 1960s, Dylan and Joan Baez began to write and perform topical songs that both reflected and shaped the politics of the Ban the Bomb and Civil Rights Movements. Interested in the New Left's use of the folk idiom, Folkways created the Broadside label to document songs written for the radical underground publication of the same name. Replete with Dylan compositions, the Broadside Ballads featured a host of folksingers, including Seeger, Phil Ochs, and Dylan himself, performing under the pseudonym Blind Boy Grunt. Folkways captured other sounds of the decade by employing Guy and Candie Carawan to record the music and speeches of the Civil Rights Movement.
A sizable catalogue, a vault of vintage recordings, and a handful of new projects sustained Folkways through the 1970s, but as the 1980s approached, Asch focused on finding a way to preserve his life's work. Moe Asch died in 1986 and, in 1987 the Smithsonian Institution acquired his collection and reorganized the company under the rubric Smithsonian-Folkways. To fund the venture, the Smithsonian enlisted a coterie of popular musicians to cover material for an album entitled, A Vision Shared: A Tribute to Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie (1988). The artists who participated in this effort attest to the enduring legacy that Folkways and its most recognizable legends passed to American popular music. Dylan, Springsteen, Willie Nelson, Little Richard, John Cougar Mellencamp, and Emmylou Harris were among those who identified Leadbelly and Guthrie as their cultural forebears. The Smithsonian agreed to keep each of Asch's original titles in print and has continued to issue previously unre-leased materials from his archives.
Goldsmith, Peter. Making People's Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records. Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Press, 1998.