Making People's Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records

Making People's Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records

by Peter David Goldsmith
     
 

As the founder of Folkways Records in 1948 and its director for nearly forty years, Moe Asch was committed to preserving the entire range of the world's musical and oral traditions. By his death in 1986 he had amassed a catalog of almost 2,200 recordings that had expanded the definition of American folk music and introduced listeners to sounds from every corner of the… See more details below

Overview

As the founder of Folkways Records in 1948 and its director for nearly forty years, Moe Asch was committed to preserving the entire range of the world's musical and oral traditions. By his death in 1986 he had amassed a catalog of almost 2,200 recordings that had expanded the definition of American folk music and introduced listeners to sounds from every corner of the world. Asch is best remembered for recording such folk and blues singers as Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Cisco Houston, Ella Jenkins, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and Pete Seeger. But he also pioneered the release of music from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Caribbean and documented the full range of African American culture, from jazz and poetry to children's songs. Peter D. Goldsmith uses Asch's career as a lens through which to view folk music, leftist politics, and the recording industry during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Like his father, the prominent Yiddish novelist Sholem Asch, Moe Asch was temperamental, iconoclastic, and financially unreliable. But Making People's Music, published to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Folkways Records, shows that his inclusive spirit and breadth of vision prevailed in the extraordinary cultural wealth of his recorded legacy.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Folkways Records founder Moe Asch's significance as a curator of America's folk music can hardly be overstated. As this thoroughly researched biography reveals, Asch initially saw himself as a businessman, not a folklorist. It just so happened his success as the latter is what made him a name long before he saw any real reward for his efforts. That Asch, a would-be inventor, ranks among archivists Sam Charters (who initially worked for Asch) and John and Alan Lomax in importance is a consequence of two folk giants who recorded for his Folkways label early on; the volumes of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly recordings preserved by Folkways remains Asch's legacy. If Guthrie and Asch were to wrangle on occasion, Goldsmith points out, their mutual respect was as foreign to the music business of that period as it would be today. The same can be said of the relationship between the loud Asch and the quiet eccentric Harry Smith, compiler of the labels' six-volume Anthology of American Folk Music, recently reissued to much ado. Music fans in search of the next big thing will have little use for Asch. But folkies, young and old alike, who waited for Smith's set on CD, or were thankful for a reissue of Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence or Southern Child ballads, owe much to the Yiddish writer Sholem Asch's son. His legacy may often have been born of another's art, but it was no less a piece with his own aesthetic vision. (May)
Kirkus Reviews
An exhaustive, illuminating life of Folkways Records founder Moe Asch, whose American and international folk-music releases laid the ground for the folk revival of the 1950s and '60s and the world-music explosion of recent years. Goldsmith (Anthropology/Dartmouth) details splendidly Aschþs background. Born in 1905 in Warsaw, he was the son of Sholem Asch, the eminent Yiddish writer, who moved his family to New York to escape WWI. The senior Aschþs peripheral association with leftist political causes, disregard of Jewish orthodoxies, marital infidelity, and neglect of his children were all passed on to Moe Asch, who studied broadcasting technology and gradually drifted into recording at the end of the 1930s. At first, he recorded and released only Jewish cantorial songs, but in 1941 he met, was bowled over by, and began recording the folk-blues singer Leadbelly. Asch was soon recording other jazz, blues, and folk performers, including Art Tatum, James P. Johnson, a very young Pete Seeger, and the erratically brilliant Woody Guthrie. In addition to recording new music, Asch issued out-of-print American records from previous decades, as well as ambitious field recordings from the American South, Europe, Africa, and beyond. Folkways, which Asch ran until his death in 1986, made available much of the folk-song library that a new generation of civil-rights activists and singers drew on in the '60s. Artists like Seeger were deeply committed to progressive politics, and Goldsmith analyzes well how folk was claimed by the political left (Asch himself generally promoted political causes only implicitly). Asch is portrayed here as þfrequently uncomfortable in the presence ofothersþan emotionally stunted, socially isolated person,þ thus thereþs inevitably a cloak of vagueness over his motivations as both man and businessman that detracts from reader interest. But as an examination of how Folkways successfully mined obscure veins of vernacular music for four decades, this is a valuable study. (24 b&w photos, not seen)

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781560988120
Publisher:
Smithsonian Institution Press
Publication date:
04/17/1998
Edition description:
New Edition
Pages:
468
Product dimensions:
6.45(w) x 9.37(h) x 1.53(d)

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