Folkways : Sounds that Preserve and Define Culture

I am in my local record shop (Record Reserve in Northport, NY) one day and the owner, Tim, says to me, “You’re a history teacher, maybe you will like this.” The album was American Indian Dances on the Folkways label. An album and label I never heard of at the time. While being a student, teacher and lover of history, I could not wait to come home and give this album a spin. That evening, I began to investigate the contents of the album. The jacket was on a hard card stock- type of material with a beautiful, what looked like to be a hand draft image. In the jacket was shiny black wax with a dark blue label and silver lettering. Folkways Records 117 W. 46 st N.Y.C. I sat back and thought to myself, this is history, it’s simple, it’s hand crafted; it is everything I love about a tactile presentation.

In another sleeve lay the insert, something I personally love just as much as the sounds that protrude from the deep grooves of the record. The insert is a tri-fold document that contains this simple, typed font, with black and white illustrations that coincides with the music on the album. The insert consists of more than liner notes. Like the main theme of Folkways, it creates a sense of history and culture. It explains the nuisances of the album. It qualifies everything that Folkways is. The entire package is so simple and so perfect. The presentation shows what early American craftsmanship was really like. I finally put the album on the Marantz 6100 and out came the sounds of the Navajo, Sioux, and Apache. My favorite piece was ‘Sun Dance (Sioux);’ a practice by many Plains Native Americans for the healing. Moreover, the song and dance was actually banned in the United States until the early 1970s, yet Folkways had it released in 1958. Clearly showing the overarching goal of the label; To preserve and celebrate ALL cultures worldwide. The sound quality was archaic and flat, but perfect. Why? Because it was real! If there was one word to describe the releases by Folkways, it is real

All music is Folk music, as all music is made by folks. That notion was from Moses Asch, the founder of Folkways. I have been stirring for weeks on how to streamline a column to show my love for the most traditional, “rootsy,” colorful yet extremely underrated record label ever to come out of the United States. 

Folkways was the brainchild of the late Moses Asch. Asch started the label in 1948 and was encouraged by Albert Einstein to follow this vision of cultural preservation. Asch wanted to create a library that would preserve the sounds of all cultures from around the world. His label is the voice of global indigenous groups, industry, nature, history, traditional Country and Blues (Lead Belly) and most of all, sounds from “real people.” There is no glam, riches or “celebrity” with Folkways. It is roots, tradition and culture. Folkways helped influential artists of the Folk Revival find a home. Artists like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and The New Lost City Ramblers would pave the way for Bob Dylan, The Byrd’s, the Grateful Dead and Bruce Springsteen (naming my favorites here, but the list in much longer).  Furthermore, Folkways was more than a record label for early folk artists.  It is the roots of popular music today.

The case study of Folkways’ influence are The Grateful Dead and their roots in Folkways. Jerry Garcia was the Bluegrass/Appalachia component to the fusion that was the Grateful Dead-a melting pot of Blues, R&B, Bluegrass, Appalachia and Rock and Roll- thank you Jerry! “The direction I went into music was Folkways Records, field recordings, that sort of thing, and old-time blues and old-time country music, and I got very serious about it for a long time.” – founding member Jerry Garcia (1972 interview, from the book Garcia: A Signpost to New Space). Songs like ‘Sitting on Top of the World,’ ‘Morning Dew and Cold Rain and Snow’ were all traditional Folk songs that would be recorded by Folkways artists dating back to the late 1940s. One of Jerry’s most influential Folkways artists was Elizabeth Cotton.  Songs like ‘Sugaree,’ ‘Going Down the Road feeling Bad’ and ‘Freight Train’ were all done by both Elizabeth Cotton and Jerry Garcia (whether he was with the Dead or his solo work). Picking acoustic guitar, soft voices and imperfections makes the bridge from the early Folk work of Cotton to the stadium seat of Giants Stadium with the Grateful Dead. While the Grateful Dead became extremely popular and Jerry Garcia is mythicized in our culture, the roots of Elizabeth Cotton and other Folkways artists were always still pronounced in their renditions.

While Jerry has passed, his legacy still lives on. Fellow Grateful Dead comrade, Mickey Hart, has taking the reins in the roots of the Grateful Dead. Hart is still not only keeping the Dead “alive” with Bob Weir and his partner in crime, the other rhythm devil, Bill Kreutzmann, but he is also a tremendous advocate for Smithsonian Folkways (after Asch passed in the 1986 Smithsonian took it over….very apropos in my opinion) in keeping Moses Asch’s vision alive.

Folkways’ artists not only have influenced others, but have also strived to preserve culture, as mentioned above. One avenue Asch took was to preserve field recordings of Native Americans. I mentioned above how Indian Dances was my first Folkways album purchased. While that was my first, my favorite is Healing Songs of the American Indian. A collection of field recordings done by ethnographer and anthropologist Frances Densmore. She had a vision to preserve American Indian culture through sound. She had the foreshadowing of the destruction of their culture and Folkways has preserved some of her work through their releases. Densmore grew up in Minnesota and by the time of her death in 1957, she compiled 3,500 sound recordings and transcribed 2,500 of them for her lectures and publications. John Troutman, author and historian argues that “Densmore’s recording legacy is seen by many Native and non-Native people alike, as a remarkably rich and vitally important archive.”

Frances Densmore’s goal to preserve the music of American Indians and not promote it for American musical used during the Indianness Movement of the early 20th century came to fruition with Folkways Records. The Folkways Collection includes over 2,000 releases of music of the world. This includes an American Indian Series that includes Healing Songs of the American Indians, which was compiled by the recordings of Frances Densmore. In addition, the label has released many other American Indian inspired releases including; The Songs of Hiawatha as well as The Songs and Dances of Great Lakes Indians.  

-Folkways Album Cover Art courtesy of the Smithsonian. Frances Densmore (left) using an Edison phonograph to have Mountain Chief of the Montana Black Feet interpret the recording.  Note the full American Indian garb, head dress, bow and arrows and lance

The history and culture of Folkways is present in the amazing music and influences, Field Recordings, Spoken Word and countless other recordings, Folkways album art and liner notes. The use of color as well as black and white images are tastefully used so that the listener is captivated by its depth and simplicity. The liner notes, like the artwork, are also a warm and soothing representation of Moses Asch’s goal of an encyclopedia of sound. Think of it as “normal” liner notes that includes historical and cultures attributes to content of the album itself.

  Folkways is deeply rooted in Americana. Everyone, no matter race, color, gender or creed, can make some connection to the Folkways label. It is that good! Below is an interview I conducted with a gentlemen name Parke from California. He is a member of the Folkways group I began on Facebook and is expert on the subject of Folkways and their catalog. His knowledge and passion for the label is contagious. It was an absolute pleasure chatting with him. Included in the interview are some “fun facts” regarding the label. So to conclude, go to the Folk section of your favorite indie record shop, and somewhere between Judy Collins and Peter Paul & Mary you are bound to find a Folkways record.

How did you get interested in the Folkways Label?

My interest in Folkways stemmed from my passion for traditional American folk music, starting with the revival performers of the Great Folk Music Scare of the early 60’s. I finally figured out that their music was not learned from traditional performers, but from records, and many of those were Folkways releases. I fell in love with the mad vision of Moses Asch and his desire to record everything in the world. The 2168 records are an incredible national treasure that is deservingly maintained today by the Smithsonian.

Do you remember your first purchase? Mine was American Indian Dances…I was hooked.

I can’t remember my first Folkways purchase. At first, in high school and college, I was just buying folk records, and Folkways would have included but the label itself wasn’t that important. But my sophomore year of college, I remember finding a sealed copy of Mormon Folk Songs (FP36, 1952) sung by LM Hilton (of the hotelier family.) I had never seen a 10” 33 RPM record before and became intrigued with the format. So I started accumulating all the 10” Folkways I could find, and then branched out to 78s, 12” 33s, and yes, Mo even released a few 45s. For a while there were a number of record stores that would let me know when a Folkways came in and I would buy them, rather indiscriminately. I have just over 500.   

What was your most recent Folkways purchase?

The last two Folkways I purchased were from a record store in Beacon NY.  Karen James “Through Streets Broad and Narrow” (1962, FG3547.)  James was a folk revivalist, lovely voice, and this was her 2nd Folkways release.  In the liner notes, she credits the earlier Folkways records that were her source material.  I also bought “World Tour with Folk Songs” by Stephen Addiss and Bill Crofut (1962, FA2405.)  This delightfully features songs the duo performed and learned traveling Asia as ambassadors of the State Department, singing in 19 languages to a half a million people, most of whom had never heard of Greenwich Village. 

What do you feel is the most important Folkways album? Which Folkways albums are on your “grail” list?

No Folkways release has had more impact than the 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music compiled by Harry Smith and released in three two-record sets (FP251, FP252, FP253). My most prized possession is a complete matched set of the original release (in the red linen folios with Smith’s illustrated cover) in pristine condition, including a 3 page hand-typed catalogue of the entire Folkways collection at the time — 30 or 40 records.  Smith’s idiosyncratic compilation became a significant source for the folk music boom. There are so many Folkways records I do not have that I would love to find. Sounds of the SatellitesMushroom Ceremonies of the Mazatec Indians, Sara Fabio Webster’s Alchemy of the Blues.

Who is your favorite Folkways Artists?

There are many artists who released a record or two on Folkways, often early in their career, who I do not regard as “Folkways artists.” Shirley Collins, Michael Hurley, Lucinda Williams, Dave Van Ronk. Then there were performers who recorded earlier for other labels that Asch re-released as Folkways. Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly. But a group that recorded almost exclusively for Folkways that is among my favorites is the New Lost City Ramblers. Brilliant musicians, serious scholars of traditional music but with a sharp sense of humor.

Here are a few closing interesting tidbits of Folkways lore:

–         2168 records, total sales of approximately 500,000. Meaning the average sale was 230 copies. No wonder they are so hard to find!

–        The Golden Record on the Voyager space probe, meant to introduce extraterrestrial life to Earthlings, contains three Folkways recordings.

–        As a young boy, Moses Asch described his dream of someday having a record company that documented all of the sounds of the Earth to his father’s friend Albert Einstein. Einstein encouraged him to pursue that passion. Thanks, Al!

–        Dave Van Ronk claimed that Sounds of a Tropical American Rainforest (that Folkways was commissioned to create for an American Museum of Natural History exhibit) was faked by friends making bird sounds in his shower, along with field recordings of Central Park frogs. Van Ronk also wrote of storming into Asch’s office to demand royalties from his Folkways release. Asch tried to placate him by offering him his brown overcoat, which Van Ronk did not want. That scene is recreated in the Coen Brothers brilliant film, Inside Llewyn Davis.

–        Asch never let a record go out of print, saying “Would you delete the letter q from the dictionary just because it was not used as often?”   

–        Robert Zimmerman wrote that he came to New York hoping to record for Folkways – which rejected him. Just another Woody Guthrie wannabe. After Columbia signed Dylan in 1961, Asch recorded him as “Blind Boy Grunt” (to avoid contractual disputes) for his Folkways/Broadside release (vol. 1, 1963). Dylan/Grunt performed three of his lesser known topical songs, and a group called the New World Singers added a truly forgettable rendition of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ – its first commercial recording.   

–        Other than the Smithsonian, the only other complete collection of Folkways releases is at University of Alberta Edmonton, where Asch’s son, Michael Asch, was a professor of Anthropology. 

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Published by Mike Zagari

Mike Zagari grew up in New Jersey, USA, and music has always been a staple in his life.  Mike’s first musical obsession was Bruce Springsteen (still is), and his love of Rock 'N Roll and all genres only grew from there. Mike teaches 11th grade US History and uses vinyl as an avenue for teaching as well as historical expression. It should be noted that some students think he’s cool, but most think he might have lost his mind! But in the end, Rock ‘n Roll is history, and history is Rock ‘n Roll! Mike lives on Long Island, NY with his wife and three children.

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