As a youngster, Moses Asch told Albert Einstein that he wanted to be a mathematician. Reportedly, the physicist instead recommended a career in recording, from which a profitable and creative living could be made documenting the culture. The story has an apocryphal ring, but it aptly describes the mission of Folkways Records and Service Corporation, the record label Asch formed in 1940 and presided over until his death in 1986. Richard Carlin's Worlds of Sound tells the story of Folkways, a label dedicated to documenting the songs and sounds of the everyday world.
Under Asch's quirky leadership, Folkways forever changed the music industry and the culture at large. In its catalog are groundbreaking works by Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Lightnin' Hopkins, The New Lost City Ramblers, Brownie McGhee and Lucinda Williams. But Folkways didn't stop with American folk artists—or humans, for that matter. Anything that made a sound was fair game. In addition to jazz, blues, classical, spoken word and children's recordings, the collection includes esoteric field recordings with titles like Creole Songs of Haiti, Sounds of North American Frogs and Street and Gangland Rhythms, Beats and Improvisations by Six Boys in Trouble. The latter, released in 1959, presaged hip-hop by 20 years.
Worlds of Sound takes a broad look at this legacy, as well as Asch's unique business model, which paved the way for current independent record labels like Rounder and Merge. Combining lively description and anecdotes with documentary photos, audio references and Folkways' unmistakable minimalist cover art, Carlin—a New Jersey journalist who has written extensively about country and traditional music—traces the career of a music mogul who understood that music should come first, even before the artist.
Asch swore off hit-making early in his career, choosing instead to focus on limited markets like New York's burgeoning folk scene. By only recording acts willing to exchange financial reward for artistic freedom, he was able to run small pressings for a tiny investment. The result generated less demand than pop records did, but it but had a much longer shelf life. Carlin notes that "and Service Corporation" was more than a fancy tag on the Folkways Records name. It was a mission: to provide a service by documenting the sounds of the world.
For Asch, "service" was a two-way street. According to Carlin, he used the Folkways mission as justification for lousy advances, nonexistent royalties and spotty distribution. In effect, Folkways was a walkup operation. Anyone with a guitar or banjo could drop by its Midtown Manhattan office and lay down a few tracks. In exchange, Asch would peel a few bills off his bankroll to help the often-starving artist keep the heat on. Though some, including Guthrie and Hopkins, leveled charges of musical piracy, the prospect of unfettered artistic freedom was, for most Folkways musicians, worth the price of Asch's gruff personality and sketchy payment history.
Carlin traces Folkways' egalitarian mission to Asch's experiences as a young immigrant. His father, Sholem Asch, was a successful writer who instilled in his son the notion that art could instruct and uplift. Upon moving to New York, Asch found himself in an intellectual and artistic community that equated class-free (if not democratic) living with the creation of great art—ideas that would bring him under the scrutiny of communist witch hunters during the early '60s.
Asch's recordings and business practices were often controversial. Titles like Gay and Straight Together; Listen, Whitey!; and Feelings of Love Not Yet Expressed were challenging to mid-20th century listeners—and would have been more so had they not suffered from such poor distribution. Likewise, Asch's penchant for re-releasing tracks without permission drew the ire of major record labels. (In this matter, Asch was right. Recordings made prior to Feb. 15, 1972, are in the public domain and thus aren't covered by federal copyright law.)
Such issues created problems when the Smithsonian Institution bought Folkways in 1987, shortly after Asch's death. How would the conservative Institute continue Folkways' legacy without changing Asch's scattershot approach? The answer came in the Smithsonian's commitment to make the entire Folkways catalog available, just as it had been while Asch was alive. The label continues to release new titles—recent recordings include From Now On by Cajun fiddler Michael Doucet and Nobel Voices for Disarmament: 1901-2001. Currently, more than 40,000 Folkways tracks are available for digital download.
Worlds of Sound doesn't advance any new arguments regarding Folkways' place in the world, but it does provide hints for those wanting to dig deeper. In closing, Carlin writes that the technological revolution "has the potential to put cultural power back in the hands of the creators—the ultimate goal of the original vision of Moses Asch and Folkways Records." As with the Folkways catalog, Carlin leaves it to others to determine whether that democratic notion results in artistic utopia or merely a glut of unwanted materials.
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