Director of Smithsonian Folkways Huib Schippers describes his mission statement simply. “We make sure the history of American sound is not getting lost,” he explains. “A lot of the visionary founders from the 1940s and 1950s are approaching the end of their working life cycles and it’s left to their children.”
One such label is Stinson Records. Initially founded in 1939, Stinson hit a cultural apex during World War II when it teamed up with Asch Records and regularly recorded and released a litany of songs that make up the foundation of American music, the most notable courtesy of folk icons like Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly. While Stinson hasn’t issued a release since the 1990s, the label’s deep catalog and resulting masters have been split up over the intervening decades. But in May, after a process that’s taken approximately 30 years, Smithsonian Folkways — the nonprofit record label owned by the Smithsonian Institute — announced it had acquired the entire Stinson catalog with an eye towards preserving it in perpetuity.
“When I first came to the Smithsonian, I heard all this talk about ‘perpetuity’ and I thought, ‘Yeah, sure,” says Schippers, who’s been the director of Smithsonian Folkways for the past three years. “But it’s true. We like to say we’re in the forever business. We have the equipment to do that and have an expertise that very few other people have when it comes to keeping material safe so it will never disappear.”
While the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. might be the first thing that comes to mind from the famous Smithsonian moniker, the Smithsonian Institution is actually an expansive, government-funded research and educational organization that is comprised of nearly 20 museums and dozens of research centers across the nation. Founded in 1846 and known colloquially as the nation’s attic, one component of the operation is Smithsonian Folkways, which is focused on acquiring record labels that might otherwise be lost to history.
“When you’re talking about masters, they need to be in a controlled environment with a certain temperature and humidity that doesn’t vary,” says Folkways archivist Jeff Place of the delicate dance that surrounds music preservation. “You need to do everything you can to protect old tapes. In some instances the audio can just disappear if it’s not stored properly.”
It’s a process that’s under renewed scrutiny in the wake of the recent bombshell New York Times Magazine report that outlined how an untold number of masters owned by Universal Music burnt in a 2008 warehouse fire on their Burbank, Calif. backlot. “The original recording is what really matters,” adds Place. “Even if you have a copy from that, you already lost some stuff you won’t get back.”
With that in mind, Place began the process of acquiring Stinson’s catalog of recordings back in the 1980s. “We wound up working it out,” he says of the three-decade long process between Folkways and Stinson’s heirs that wrapped up in May with a private ceremony at the Smithsonian. “What was important was to get this music back into the world so people can actually experience it again. There’s some amazing stuff on the label.”
That includes a host of recordings from artists from like Guthrie, Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, Art Tatum and Burl Ives. Aside from folk, Stinson also released recordings of the father of modern day Flamenco, Carlos Montoya, and the jazz saxophonists Sidney Bechet and Coleman Hawkins. “[Record executive] Moe Asch had a little studio in New York and people would come by and record all the time,” Place explains concerning what he refers to as the crown jewel of the Stinson archive. “Many different artists would always be hanging around there. So on any given day, you might find incredible collaborations between people like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger just riffing for hours on whatever they knew. The recordings are spirited and fun.”
It’s also the first time in 75 years that the entirety of the catalog will be in one single place. “They were previously all divided up,” says Place of the recordings which have been collecting dust in storage across the country, which had been caught between Stinson and Folkways predecessor Asch Records stemming from a short-lived partnership between the two labels in the 1940s. Once they’re at the Smithsonian, music fans can rest easy that in the coming months they’ll be backed up and digitized and made available to the public, even down to including their iconic album art and liner notes. “The Smithsonian has a reputation for preserving things,” adds Place, noting their atmosphere-controlled archives even include fire suppression systems outfitted with sprinklers designed not to rain on and ruin their physical masters.
Still, Schippers notes that their quest to preserve recordings as America’s musical past gets more distant is an ongoing challenge. “When you think about having a lasting legacy, Smithsonian Folkways is an obvious route,” he says. “This decade and the next one are going to be crucial in safeguarding America’s phonographic history and Stinson was an important part of that.”