Smithsonian Folkways: 70 Years of Peerless Sounds

Mose "Moe" Asch
Val Wilmer/Redferns/Getty Images

Asch in New York in 1962. The record executive/audio engineer founded Folkways Records in 1948 and ran it until his death in 1986.

In 1846, the Smithsonian Institution was founded for one purpose, laid down by donor James Smithson in his last will and testament: for “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Huib Schippers, director and curator of the establishment’s nonprofit record label, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, likes to translate that as simply “battling stupidity.”

Established in 1948 in New York and acquired by the Smithsonian Institution in 1987, Folkways celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. The Washington, D.C.-based label has both an expansive and eclectic catalog of material: from 1955’s Sounds of Medicine (a collection of recordings of the human body) to 1958’s Sounds of North American Frogs, as well as audiotapes from the Red Scare in the 1950s, when Sen. Joseph McCarthy claimed that the U.S. government had been infiltrated by Communists. “We’re trying to become the national museum of sound,” says Schippers, 59, who aims to eventually expand its archives from 60,000 to 100,000 tracks.

Founder Moses “Moe” Asch set out to create an encyclopedia of melodies while eschewing commercial success -- he famously turned Bob Dylan away in 1961 -- and requiring that all of the label’s releases be available forever, regardless of sales. Folkways’ roster features folk icon/activist Pete Seeger, blues legends Lightnin’ Hopkins and Lead Belly, and children’s songsmiths Ella Jenkins and Elizabeth Mitchell. Among its most critically lauded releases are 1952’s Anthology of American Folk Music, which spearheaded folk revivals led by Dylan and Dave Van Ronk, and the 2012 box set Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection.

Folkways is also unique among record labels for its commitment to education, with downloadable, music-based lesson plans covering topics from Egypt’s Bedouin culture to the folk music of Turkey. “The Smithsonian is about the dissemination of knowledge,” says Schippers, whose own teaching background includes opening Amsterdam’s first school for Indian classical music. “We’ve always been the label that gives voice to the underrepresented and the unheard, and that’s as relevant now as it was when Moe Asch started Folkways.”

In conjunction with the imprint’s anniversary, Schippers reflects on Folkways’ legacy and explains why the label will always be peerless.

Has the rise of streaming affected how Folkways carries out its mission of “supporting cultural diversity and increased understanding among peoples through the documentation, preservation and dissemination of sound”?
For 70 years, this left-leaning label has effectively worked on the capitalist model that we acquire sounds, we produce albums and we sell them. From LPs to cassettes to CDs to downloads, we will typically make about 70 cents per track. With streaming, we make 0.04 cents per track. This is why we have to look carefully at how much income we can continue making from actual music sales, and how much we have to get from associated work like education, philanthropy and working with foundations and other partners.

My job is to make this transition. I started two years ago, and another three or four years from now we’ll have a business model that’s sustainable without compromising our integrity. CD and vinyl still work -- particularly box sets. We will be bringing out four new ones next year. They generate more profit than streams. Vinyl is a growing business, but it’s also only 2 percent of sales, so it’s not going to make us rich. But we’re very happy with the initial sales of the vinyl rereleases that we’ve just brought out.

What qualities do you look for in artists that make them a good fit for Folkways?
One of the challenges I face as the director of Folkways is that what Moe Asch used to do -- bring out music that nobody had ever heard of -- doesn't exist anymore. You go to YouTube and type in “Wagogo music from Tanzania” and get 600 hits. What I’m looking for now is not so much people that copy whatever has been done a hundred times, but people that take it to the next stage. The label has a history of Americana folk music, and there’s a number of fantastic ensembles [like the Down Hill Strugglers] that do folk in the same style as the 1950s.

Singers and multi-instrumentalists Anna & Elizabeth go to the Library of Congress and listen to old recordings, to archives in Vermont and dig up old songs, and to the houses where these songs were composed. But they turn that into soundscapes clearly recognizable as tradition while adding new elements, like electronics, to their sound.

What is your selection process like?
There’s an online form where anybody can say, “I’ve got a great idea for a Folkways album.” Then it goes through the curatorial group here, and we decide whether we can do it or not. Other things come in dialogue with other parts of the Smithsonian. We have the African-American Legacy series with the National Museum of African-American History and Culture; a Latino series with the Latino Center; and a series on Central Asia, which was funded by the Aga Khan Foundation.

We’ve just commissioned lead singer Rhiannon Giddens of [the Grammy Award-winning old-time string band] Carolina Chocolate Drops. Nonesuch Records very graciously lent her to us to do an album, which is going to be called Songs of Our Native Daughters. She went into a studio with three other African-American female banjo players, and in eight to 12 days they created an album. It goes through your soul, in terms of going back to just before slavery, the abolition of slavery and just after, while reflecting on what has and hasn't changed in 150 years.

We’re also working with the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. They’re celebrating a 50th anniversary next year, so we’re putting together a box set with the 50 best recordings, with a 200-page book with photos and essays. Whatever we bring out will be available in perpetuity, which is what no other label in the world can promise.

Sonya Pencheva/Courtesy of Ralph Rinzler Archives and Collections/Smithsonian Institution
The Ralph Rinzler archives at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. 

How do you strike a balance between challenging listeners and making Folkways’ offerings accessible to a new audience?
If I listen to four country songs on Spotify, it will give me 24 hours of country music, because they’ll say, “Well, obviously, Schippers likes country music.” Algorithms have gone so far now that they are hindering people from being musically adventurous, and I don’t think we should underestimate how many intelligent, adventurous listeners there are. We’re really catering to that particular market.

We’re doing a thing with [avant-garde artist] Laurie Anderson based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, with Tibetan musicians and Jesse Smith, the daughter of Patti Smith. It’s within the tradition of spoken word and Timothy Leary on LSD trips, but it’s a completely and utterly compelling soundscape. It’s those things that are viable for us to do, and make us different from other labels.

The 2003 initiative Save Our Sounds aimed to save deteriorating wax cylinders and acetate discs from the early 20th century. Are there endangered species of music you’re racing against time to preserve?
The archives of Ralph Rinzler [the late folk singer and co-founder of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival] are very dedicated to preserving sounds. If we find music that we think is interesting, we’ll restore sounds and bring them out again. And by the time we’ve released them, theoretically they are secured for eternity.

Do you anticipate that Folkways will attract a new, younger audience with upcoming releases like the Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap?
Our demographic tends to be [age] 50-plus people, although we are -beginning to get a new wave of people in their 20s and 30s. The Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap has more to do with a curatorial idea -- that it started as music of the people in the South Bronx in the early ’70s, and it happened to develop into probably the largest musical cultural influence in the world over the past decades, probably over the last hundred years. These are sounds of protest, but these are also the sounds of misogyny, so we try to make a very honest assessment of everything.

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 25 issue of Billboard.