Smithsonian Folkways Recordings is one of the most eclectic labels in the world, having released everything from the utterly foundational 84-track Anthology of American Folk Music to the perhaps less influential Sounds of North American Frogs.
The June 7 episode of the Smithsonian podcast Sidedoor, “Recording the World,” celebrates the 75th anniversary of the label that grew out of recording engineer-turned-record executive Moses “Moe” Asch’s quest to document the sounds of the world, of which music is only one category. (Folkways Records, née Asch Records, was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution in 1987, the year after Asch’s death at the age of 80.)
Asch’s unusual ambition was paired with a business strategy that would strike most music executives as naive if not downright self-destructive. “No-hit wonder” is how Sidedoor host Lizzie Peabody sums up his break-even approach. Asch was out to make a living, not make a killing. He was committed to keeping the music (and poetry, and zoological sounds, and “Maine humor,” just to give a sense of the sheer variety on offer) that he documented in print and available to curious listeners. With the notable exception of any song Asch sensed was in danger of accidentally becoming… popular.
“He vowed never to try a hit record,” the exec’s son Michael Asch tells Peabody. “Every time he got close to a hit, he found someone who could buy the masters from him, and they could [have] the hit. But he got rid of it from his catalog.”
Having previously founded several other labels that failed amid ever-shifting public taste, the anti-mogul figured that if he steered clear of the peaks, he could dodge the valleys, too.
“Capitalism is a wonderful, wonderful system,” Michael quotes his father as having said. “So long as you don’t believe in the profit motive.” Asch marketed to educators rather than to individual consumers, which he found to be reliable if not particularly profitable.
Asch also made Folkways a home for the expression of the marginalized. While many of his recordings were simply too esoteric to interest more commercially minded labels, others were by creators who were actively persecuted. Victims of the Red Scare in the 1950s, civil rights activists in the ’60s, pioneers in the movement for LGBTQ+ equality in the ’70s and ’80s—for these communities and others, Asch’s door was open when those of other labels were shut tight.
True to his curiosity-first ethos, Asch always included detailed liner notes for all of his releases—for which he paid the authors rock-bottom rates, but, again, promised to keep each title in print, when the standard practice, Peabody says, was for labels to get rid of titles that couldn’t be relied on to fly off the shelves.
Jeff Place, a curator and archivist for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, tells Peabody that the 2,200 albums released between 1948 and Asch’s death in 1986 represent an average of around one new release every week. After being hired on as one of the first Folkways employees after the Smithsonian takeover, Place had the fascinating but daunting job of going through the 2,200 released albums, 4,000 reel-to-reel recordings, and innumerable boxes of documents and ephemera that made up Asch’s archive at the time of his death. “The guy wasn’t really well organized,” Place says.
One of the terms of the label’s sale to the Smithsonian Institution was that all 2,200 titles had to remain available in perpetuity, as they had during Asch’s life. The 1987 sale, which came with 170,000 vinyl LPs sitting in a warehouse, arrived at a moment when compact discs were ascendant and demand for music on wax was approaching its lowest. Vinyl’s 21st-century resurgence was still decades away, but it might not have surprised Asch. He always believed that if you hold onto something long enough, someone will eventually want it again.
Elsewhere in the Smithsonian Pod-a-Verse
With Barbie due to make her big-screen live-action debut in a month, the crew at the Smithsonian’s AirSpace podcast takes the opportunity to examine the iconic doll’s extensive career as an astronaut. In an episode entitled “It’s a Barbie World, and We’re All Living in It,” hosts Emily Martin and Matt Shindell note that the first astronaut Barbie doll was issued in 1965 (under the name “Miss Astronaut”), more than a decade before NASA admitted the first women to its training corps in real life. Long before Barbie toys were flown aboard the International Space Station (ISS) last year, kids were encouraged to dream big through a series of dolls whose spacesuits were sometimes relatively realistic adaptations of the actual thing—and sometimes pure fantasy.
In 1965, Miss Astronaut had an ensemble clearly based on Mercury-era spacesuits. But Martin is especially enamored of the more fanciful 1985 doll whose spangly purple jumpsuit converts into a miniskirt for evening wear. “We girls can do anything… like Barbie,” went the advertising jingle that promoted the toy. Notably, this 1985 doll was the first astronaut Barbie to be issued in both African American and white versions. The next astronaut Barbie, issued in 1994 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Apollo 11, was given an Apollo-era uniform rather than a contemporary blue flight suit.
Martin and Shindell speak with Bill Greening, who both designs Barbie toys for Mattel and serves as the Barbie brand historian, about the toy’s legacy of encouraging children to dream big.
Today, you can find Barbie dolls modeled on real pioneering women who’ve had critical roles in the exploration of space, like Katherine Johnson, Sally Ride and European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti. Cristoforetti has been repeatedly photographed aboard the ISS wearing “Star Trek” uniforms, suggesting tantalizing crossover possibilities. After all, “Star Trek” Barbie and Ken dolls have been available for decades.