“All Music Is Folk Music”

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings may soon be coming to a computer near you

Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger, 1986. Photo: Josef SCHWARZ via Wikimedia

In 1948, Moses Asch founded Folkways Records in New York City, and for the next four decades, till his death in 1986, he and his legendary label introduced the listening public to an unprecedented expanse of musical sounds and oral traditions from cultures throughout the world. The catalog featured American artists and genres (think bluegrass and blues, cowboy songs and cowboy poetry, mountain ballads and plains music, Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Ella Jenkins), along with an extraordinary gathering of artists and genres from Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and Europe. In 1987, the Smithsonian acquired the 2,168 recordings of Folkways Records from the Asch family, and the collection became the basis of a new label, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. The label sustains Asch's vision of the ideal recording studio as more or less the size of Earth itself. (For more information about Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, visit www.folkways.si.edu.)

Smithsonian Folkways has produced new recordings, acquired others from sources here and abroad, and assembled fresh compilations of archival materials. As a result, the collection has grown to some 3,000 albums, containing 33,000 individual tracks. The recordings need to be tended and preserved, and in that sense they're as bound by physical constraints as any other collection of museum artifacts. But what matters most about them—their contents—escapes the limitations that normally require artifacts to be kept guarded on-site. Each of the 33,000 tracks can be its own traveling exhibition and make its way anywhere in the world.

The entire collection is always available, either on ready-made CDs or on discs and cassette tapes that Smithsonian Folkways Recordings will produce on demand. Some 20,000 such custom-made recordings were sold in 2003, in addition to 230,000 CDs of items in the catalog. And along with every purchase comes the documentation that explains not just the sounds but their circumstances—their who, what, when and why. You listen against the history of a cgenre or an instrument or an artist, enter a realm of sound and settle in, till what at first may be foreign in time becomes familiar.

Later this year, our Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage will launch Smithsonian Global Sound, a digital download site. At computer keyboards around the world, users will be able to call up tens of thousands of tracks—from the Folkways archive and from archives in India, South Africa and Central Asia—and search the collections by musical genre, instrument, geographic area and culture. And again, in accordance with the educational role of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, they'll be able to download not just the music but the documentation (text and photographs) that completes the experience of the music.

Louis Armstrong once observed that "all music is folk music; I ain't never heard no horse sing a song," which is as good a way as any of saying that making music is a human activity. Music is sometimes said to be a universal language, but that's a sentiment in need of qualification. In fact, it is many languages, many cultures and traditions, each with its own vocabulary, grammar and idiom, and each best heard through the ears of those to whom it is native. There's music that’s immediately appealing, and music that's initially, and maybe permanently, off-putting. Folkways Recordings offers audiences access to their own musical heritage, even as it also encourages them to hear the rest of the world as others hear it. The mission of the label is to give anyone the ears and the sensibility of a native. That sober declaration of purpose acknowledges the depth and variety of the Folkways collection, but it doesn't do justice to something no less important: the great good time that's to be had by exploring what is, in effect, a universal museum of sound. The pleasure to be found there is as generous as Satchmo's famous smile.

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