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For almost 70 years, Folkways Records has been documenting music from around the globe. As such, diving into their hefty back catalog can be daunting. Where does one even begin to unfold Folkways’ rich musical history? We asked a few people closest to the legendary label to cherry pick a few of their favorite recordings. It’s a start.
Talking Union with the Almanac Singers and other Union Songs with Pete Seeger and Chorus (1955)
In 1952, when I was about seven, I was playing the 78 RPM album of the Almanac Singers’ Talking Union on a warm spring day. My father stormed into the room, slammed the window shut, and said “Don’t every play those records with the windows open.” It was the height of the McCarthy investigations and I learned quickly that music is dangerous, both for those who perform it and for those whose positions it threatens. By reissuing it in 1955 with some additional songs, Folkways Records was standing up for freedom of speech in a time when that freedom was under severe threat. —Tony Seeger
Sing out with Pete! (1961)
This is a compendium of concerts Pete Seeger gave in various venues in the ’50s and ’60s. The album brings me back to the Christmas concerts I went to as a youngster that affirmed the worthiness of our community during the days of the McCarthy era. —Michael Asch, Moses Asch’s son, curator of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings: Sounds To Grow On
Mark Spoelstra Recorded at Club 47 (1963)
When I was a kid, I bought an Elektra Records sampler at the grocery store for a buck. It turned me on to some amazing music. One of my favorites was folk singer Mark Spoelstra. He played a wonderful 12-string guitar and spent time busking on the streets of Greenwich Village with a very young, just-in- town Bob Dylan. This was recorded at the great Cambridge, Massachusetts, club Club 47. I got to know Mark before he passed. —Jeff Place
Llegaron Los Camperos!: Nati Cano’s Mariachi Los Camperos (2005)
This Grammy-nominated recording begins with the classic opening theme of the internationally renowned, Los Angeles-based mariachi ensemble led by NEA National Heritage Fellow Nati Cano. It overflows with both tradition and innovation, offering unflagging extroverted emotion, Mexican mariachi style. —Dan Sheehy
Lightning Hopkins, The Gold Star Sessions Vol. 1 (Arhoolie Records, 1990)
Among the inexhaustible wealth of Americana on Folkways and Arhoolie, the early work of Lightning Hopkins has a special place in my ears and heart. I fondly remember sitting in Musiques du Monde, the record shop I ran in Amsterdam in the late ’80s and early ’90s, immersing myself in the unpolished perfection of this music for the soul. What these Gold Star recordings made in the late 1940s lack in technical perfection, they compensate for with honesty and directness. —Huib Schippers
Classical Music of Iran: The Dastgah Systems (1991)
This was my introduction to the Dastgah system of Iranian classical music. The playing is beautiful, and it confirmed my love for music from the belt stretching from Iran to India. Part of the importance of recordings is the power of the music to amaze, delight, and start people on their own journeys of musical discovery. —Tony Seeger
The Foc’sle Singers – Foc’sle Songs and Chanties (1959)
A boisterous bunch of sea songs and chanties by a one-day-long group made up of the New York folk singers Dave Van Ronk, Paul Clayton, Roger Abrahams, Bob Yellin, and Bob Brill. Van Ronk once told me, being the serious project it was, they spent the day at Gerde’s Folk City drinking numerous pitchers of beer while rehearsing. They then ambled over to Moe Asch’s Folkways and let go. —Jeff Place
We Shall Overcome: Songs of the Freedom Riders and the Sit-Ins (1961)
This record brings to us all the courage, resolve, and determination of those who stood at the forefront of the civil rights movement. —Michael Asch
Rahim AlHaj, Letters From Iraq (2017)
Folkways has always been about giving voice to the underrepresented, highlighting the humanity behind major events and shedding new light on existing issues, all while using great music as its primary conduit. Letters from Iraq features eight heartrending compositions inspired by actual letters from the war-torn Middle East for oud and string quintet. It features Rahim Alhaj, an Iraqi refugee who keeps talking about building bridges rather than walls between people and cultures. —Huib Schippers
Ayombe! The Heart of Colombia’s Musica Vallenata (2008)
The Heart of Colombia’s Musica Vallenata shines a spotlight on the living, pioneering roots musicians who shaped one of Latin America’s most beloved folk musics. While the music went “big time” with its own category and popularity throughout Latin America and beyond, its grassroots creators stayed true to their roots, embracing the more traditional style with even greater passion. Great music to move to! —Dan Sheehy