Moses Asch, Harry Smith, and the Anthology of American Folk Music

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A dreamer and an eccentric, working together, turned the American music industry on its ear. They issued a revolutionary recorded anthology.

In the first half of the twentieth century, so-called Tin Pan Alley composers, who mostly lived in New York, produced the bulk of America’s popular music. Their sophisticated, urban music did not satisfy all the musical needs of the entire country. The singing and fiddling of rural musicians made no impression on the country’s city and town dwellers until the appearance of the Anthology of American Folk Music. Moses Asch, the dreamer, had made it his life’s goal to compile an encyclopedia of sound through his Folkways Records. Harry Smith, the eccentric, had amassed a huge collection of folk music recordings and needed money.

Asch and Folkways Records

Asch opened his first recording company in 1940. It and his second company both failed, but he achieved success with the establishment of Folkways Records in 1948. Unlike almost any other record producer in the country, he did not chase huge profits and had no interest in finding and promoting popular stars. Instead, believing that all voices deserve to be heard and all sounds are equally valuable, he wanted to preserve recordings of everything the more commercially-minded companies ignored.

The Folkways catalog grew to more than 2000 albums by Asch’s death in 1986. It issued recordings of music from all over the world, spoken word recordings (political speeches, among other things) in various languages, sounds of various machines, and natural sounds (from land, sea, and even outer space.) Asch arranged for the Smithsonian Institution to take over the company at his death, thus ensuring that each album would always be available for sale.

From the beginning, Asch recorded and sold blues, bluegrass, and other kinds of American folk music. His personal relationships with the artists he recorded helped him shape his vision. Harry Smith, who moved to New York in 1950, tried to sell his substantial record collection to Asch. Instead, Asch asked Smith to select some recordings for an anthology. Smith chose 84 songs, which Asch released in three volumes of two LPs in 1952.

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Harry Smith and his record collection

Smith had begun to study anthropology at the University of Washington in 1943. After completing five semesters, he visited Berkeley, California for a weekend. While there, he was introduced to San Francisco’s intellectual and artistic community, Woody Guthrie’s music, and marijuana. He dropped out of college and became something of a San Francisco hippie well before that term was ever coined. Professionally, he became a highly regarded maker of experimental films. He also began collecting records. Most record collectors of the time gravitated either toward classical music or jazz. Smith instead concentrated on “hillbilly” and “race” records, terms he despised as much as he loved the music.

By the time he moved to New York, he had acquired thousands of 78s. Meanwhile, Guthrie and others had traveled the country performing folk music for years. Alan Lomax, working for the Library of Congress, had produced many field recordings of folk musicians who had never recorded commercially and brought them to public attention. In other words, the recording industry had developed categories of “hillbilly” and “race” records, and both traveling artists and scholars had worked hard to present the music to a wide audience.

Smith compiled the anthology according to very different views of how to package and sell folk music. In his then rather subversive view, the rigid separation of the races was something not to acknowledge, but demolish. He carefully selected music that showed black and white musicians influencing each other.

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The notes he wrote for the Anthology of American Folk Music provide important historical information about the recording industry in general. It also displays both his scholarship and his eccentricity. In addition to his notes on each selection, he points out that folk music was first issued on wax cylinders, the earliest format for commercial recording. The perfection of the disc in 1888, being less expensive, opened the market to a larger audience.

It was not until 1927, though, that the development of electronic recording resulted in really accurate sound reproduction. Therefore, Smith did not consider any earlier recordings for the anthology. He likewise explained that he chose not to include recordings made after 1932, when the Great Depression jolted record sales and especially reduced the production of folk recordings.

Within these limitations, Smith served up a world of folk music stranger and more exciting than anything Guthrie, Lomax, and others had ever made public. It’s not too much to claim that America’s attitude toward folk music was very different before and after Harry Smith. Young people especially seized on this new music. Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music directly inspired the “folk music revival” of the 1950s. That, in turn, helped launch the rock revolution and break Tin Pan Alley’s domination of American popular music.

Meanwhile, because the Smithsonian Institution acquired the entire Folkways catalog, the Anthology of American Folk Music is still available. The Smithsonian reissued it on CD in 1997, with pitch correction and elimination of surface noise. In this form it won two Grammy awards.

Harry Smith Archives
Smith’s foreword and some of his annotations can be found in Judith Tick (ed.) Music in the USA: A Documentary Companion (Oxford University Press, 2008, ISBN 9780195139884), pp. 502-05.

This post originally appeared in Factoidz

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