Moses Asch wasn’t one for organization.
Jeff Place learned this first-hand sitting in a room with countless shelves and boxes in 1988, as he first tried to make sense of Asch’s musical legacy. The fabled producer recorded 2,168 records of music from all over the world on his own Folkways Records imprint between 1949 and 1987, all of which were then custody of the Smithsonian Institution.
“I have no idea how he found anything,” says Place, who started as archivist of the newly-minted Smithsonian Folkways label 30 years ago. “I remember we took a box with old catalogs, a shoe, a bunch of LIFE Magazines, and letters from various people. And at the bottom of the box was a pile of Woody Guthrie lyrics.”
With Folkways, Asch left behind a hugely significant body of work that quite literally runs the musical gamut. Alongside records from revered figures like Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Leadbelly are recordings of office sounds, work hymns, children’s music, poetry, and spoken word. Asch used the music he recorded as a means for carrying out a greater mission: The goal wasn’t just to entertain, but also to document and educate people about music and cultures from around the world.
The Smithsonian hasn’t just preserved the Folkways collection since Asch’s death, it’s expanded upon it. Today, Smithsonian Folkways boasts more than 3,000 recordings and 43,000 songs. A non-profit label run by a small-but-dedicated group of staffers and volunteers, it has persevered not just through budget cuts, but through drastic changes to the record industry landscape.
“I wasn’t sure it could be done,” says Tony Seeger, Pete’s nephew who served as the label’s first director and curator. “But thanks to the really hard work and the generosity of people, it’s stayed active. It’s really quite impressive, and it’s something to celebrate.”
Asch was looking for an entity to take over Folkways in 1984 when he ran the idea by Ralph Rinzler, then the artistic director of the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival. The two operations made a compatible pair, but administrators at the Smithsonian initially were nervous about taking on the acquisition.
“There were a lot of unknowns,” Seeger says. “No one at the Smithsonian had any experience with the record industry. They had never paid for any music collection before, although they bought other collections. They weren’t sure that they had the money, and they had concerns, probably legitimate, about how they could make it work.”
Ultimately, the release of a Folkways tribute album on Columbia Records helped ease the Smithsonian’s financial concerns. Folkways: A Vision Shared – A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly featured covers from U2, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Emmylou Harris, among others. Proceeds from the Grammy-winning tribute helped fund the Folkways acquisition.
With funding in place, Smithsonian Folkways launched in 1987 as a division of the Smithsonian’s Center For Folklife and Cultural Heritage. The label’s budget allowed for the hiring of two positions. Place, an obsessive record collector by self-definition, was tipped off to the archivist job before the Smithsonian formally advertised for it. Having recently earned his master’s degree in library science and sound archives at the University of Maryland, he applied for the job and was hired.
Seeger, meanwhile, was hired as the label’s curator from Indiana University, where he served as director of the university’s Archives of Traditional Music. Together, their first mission was to sort through and organize the original Folkways collection, most of the recordings of which existed on delicate, instantaneous glass discs.
“I got a contract from Ralph to have the whole collection evaluated album by album,” Seeger says. “We sort of bundled them together. I sent 20 recordings of African music to a specialist and paid him $5 for each review. We had them look at each album, listen to it, and tell me if it was any good. Were the notes outdated? Were the photographs captioned right?”
Organizing the records and songs into a database took three to four years, Place estimates. But he took to the seismic scope of the task, putting his years of previous practice as a record store clerk and buyer to good use.
“I was a kid in a candy store,” he said. “I love organizing stuff like that, and here was this really righteous collection.”
Asch died in 1986 before the acquisition was finalized, but he left behind an important-yet-tricky stipulation: Each of the label’s original recordings had to be kept available in print forever. This posed significant logistical challenges, as most of the label’s recordings are not great sellers and are not carried in stores.
So the label created a system for making CDs available to the public strictly on the basis of demand.
“If people want one, we make one,” says Dan Sheehy, who succeeded Seeger as director and curator from 2000 to 2015. “We finally got to a place where someone in Boise can, at 3 a.m., order a custom CD. We’ll come in in the morning and the CD will already be made with the disc art on there, and another machine will have the sleeve. We just wrap them up and send them out.”
Today, the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections includes not only Smithsonian Folkways, but a host of other philosophically-aligned labels that have since come under the Smithsonian’s wing, including Cook Records, Paredon Records, and the magazine/record label Fast Folk Musical Magazine. Beyond these acquired collections, Smithsonian Folkways also has released 375 new recordings and projects.
Recent releases include the latest from the East L.A. chicano rock outfit Quetzal and Rahim AlHaj’s Letters From Iraq. Place, meanwhile, is at work on producing a six-CD box set in celebration of Pete Seeger’s centennial anniversary, complete with a 250-page book of notes. The label hopes to release the set next year.
“I think Dan coined the phrase ‘the greatest music you’ve never heard,’” Huib Schippers, the label’s current curator and director, says of the label’s expansive reach.
Folkways holds special significance for many of the artists that record for the label. Ella Jenkins has consistently recorded for Folkways since 1957. Arlo Guthrie also has a strong connection to the label, both through his father’s work and that of his daughter and son-in-law, Sarah Lee and Johnny Irion, who recorded an album of children’s music for the label in 2009.
Schippers, who assumed the curator job last July, says the label gets between 200 and 300 proposals for projects each year, about 20 of which are followed through to production. As a non-profit, the label has to balance Folkways’ anthropological musical mission with remaining financially viable.
“My favorite number was zero,” Sheehy said. “I’d tell people all the time, ‘Just help me get to zero.’ If we go over zero, we can use [the extra money] to fund the mission, and that’s a beautiful thing. But if we go under zero, that’s a problem.”
Folkways relies on a handful of releases each year that sell well enough to help it produce projects that, while less profitable, still add value to the Rinzler collection. In Folkways terms, a good seller is one that moves between 2,500 and 10,000 units, Schippers said. A recent Big Bill Broonzy release sold more than 18,000 copies, making it the biggest selling release in Smithsonian Folkways history.
“The financial and legal people are all completely engaged with the mission, and the mission people realize we have to make money,” he said. “So there’s a real understanding of the delicate balance.”
But that fiscal tightrope acts as an important motivator for the label’s staff, who are consistently on the lookout for grants and other means of bringing in money.
The label also launched a subscription-based membership program in November to help bring in revenue. For $20 a month, members get $1,000 worth of downloads, artistic prints, and discounts on CD and vinyl purchases. Advanced subscriptions offer the same perks and more for an annual fee of $1,000 or a one-time donation of $2,400.
The program has netted about 150 members since its launch, and Schippers said he hopes membership will hit 1,000 subscribers by year’s end. Money from the subscriptions will help fund future recordings, while there is also talk of starting an endowment for the label.
The subscriptions will also help fund other educational ventures, such as Folkways Magazine and specialized lesson plans that are used in classrooms across the world.
“Ideally if things work out the way we want, we can start getting this stuff into schools so kids can listen to it without having to pay,” Place says.
Many Folkways employees have been with the label and the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage since the acquisition, and some, such as Place, see retirement coming around the bend. But those closest to the label say the foundation has been set for the Folkways mission to carry on into the future, thanks to workers, volunteers, and a dedicated fan base of supporters.
“This is about more than music,” says Sheehy, who still works on projects for Folkways under the title of curator emeritus. “There’s more to it than that, and that’s what keeps music alive.”