Folkways Records

  January 02, 2022   Read time 3 min
Folkways Records
Among the record companies that issued and promoted a wide range of folk recordingsin the United States, Folkways Records was the most prolific. Moses “Moe” Asch (1905–1986), a recording engineer, began recording in 1939 on the Asch label, and from 1943 to 1945 joined with Herbert Harris to form the Asch/Stinson label, specializing in folk and jazz
They released records by Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Josh White, Sonny Terry, Burl Ives, Coleman Hawkins, and Mary Lou Williams. Asch next launched the Disc label, which, following bankruptcy, became Folkways Records in 1948. Moe Asch had an expansive view of his new company, which would eventually issue more than 2,000 albums, including music and spoken word recordings from throughout the world, none of which would ever be deleted from the catalog.
Folkways’ scope was indeed large. Some performers, such as Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, and Ella Jenkins, appeared onnumerousrecords,while others onlyonce.Anorigins of jazz series was launched in 1950, quickly joined by a five-volume Music of the World’s People, Seeger’s extensive American Ballads series, and Harry Smith’s influential three-volume Anthology of American Folk Music (1952). The Anthology’s collection of 84 scarce recordings of black and white rural southern music from the 1920s and 1930s influenced a new generation of folk music enthusiasts. Among the latter were John Cohen, Tom Paley, and Mike Seeger, who formed the New Lost City Ramblers and began recording for Asch in 1958, a relationship that would last for many years. The Ramblers kicked off a northern revival of southern roots and string-band music that would be fueled by Folkways release of numerous traditional performers, including Clarence “Tom” Ashley, Doc Watson, Jean Ritchie, Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten, and such compilation albums as Mountain Music of Kentucky, Mountain Music Bluegrass Style, and The Country Blues. Throughout the 1960s Folkways issued a steady stream of albums,such as Drums of the Yoruba of Nigeria, 2,000 Years of Music, and numerous Broadside albums including a range of contemporary singer/songwriters, such as Bob Dylan, Eric Andersen, Peter LaFarge, Janis Ian, and Phil Ochs.
As the folk music revival reached its peak in the mid-1960s, Asch broadened his reach by briefly joining with Verve Records, a subsidiary of MGM, to reach a wider market. Some of the artists on the Verve/Folkways label were Lead Belly, Cisco Houston, Pete Seeger, Dock Boggs, and Lightnin’ Hopkins. While Asch was not much of a political activist, he issued numerous radical/protest albums, including the reissue of the Almanac Singers’ Talking Union, Pete Seeger’s various topical albums, and a host of civil rights compilations by Guy Carawan, including The Nashville Sit-In Story, We Shall Overcome: Songs of the “Freedom Riders” and the “Sit-Ins,” and The Story of Greenwood, Mississippi.
Throughout the 1970s the Folkways output declined, as Asch struggled to continue the label, often with lesser names and sometimes odd titles, such as The English Concertina, Irish Music from Cleveland, The World Music Theatre of Jon Appleton, and Jeff Ampolsk’s God, Guns and Guts. In 1984 an ailing Asch began negotiations to sell the company to the Smithsonian Institution, a transaction completed shortly after his death in 1986. Always existing on a financial shoestring, Moe Asch had managed to create a lasting monument to the world of recorded music and sound. He had issued some of the most influential folk performers and albums, all of which are still available from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, which has also issued a steady stream of new compilations, such as The Best of Broadside, 1962–1988: Anthems of the American Underground from the Pages of Broadside Magazine (2000).

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