We're working on a new version of PRX. Want a sneak peek?

Piece image

Smithsonian Folkways

From: Arndt Peltner
Length: 01:57:53

An amazing treasure chest of music, sounds and spoken word of the 20th century from around the world

Bookcarlin_small

Music with a Mission

The sounds of the world in the heart of Washington DC

By Arndt Peltner

America is known as the melting pot, drawing people from all over the world. Nowhere else is this more mirrored in such a small space than in the archives of the record label Smithsonian Folkways.

Not far from the Capitol in Washington DC is 600 Maryland Avenue. It is a building that looks as if it could be an insurance company or a brokerage house. Instead, the second floor is home to one of the most prestigious, diverse and important record companies in the United States, if not the world, Smithsonian Folkways.

The label was founded in 1948 by Moses Asch; he wanted to document "people's music," spoken word, instruction, and sounds from around the world. Since Asch initiated this bold idea, Folkways has released more than 2,500 titles. Of these, two-thirds have sold fewer than 100 copies a year and many have sold fewer than 500 copies in total. This label and its thinkers, shapers and supporters, though, have never been in business for big bucks or number one hit singles on the Billboard charts. Folkways is about documenting a rich diversity of music, sounds and historical events in America and around the world.

A temperature-controlled room is the heart of the label and its vast archive. Folkways is known for their Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Lead Belly releases, but here in this room lies the soul of more than 60 years of Folkways Recordings. Much of it is music that is largely unknown today, such as field recordings from the Southern US, Angolan freedom songs and Mongolian throat singing, Berkeley teach-ins during the Vietnam era and Bertolt Brecht before the Committee on Un-American Activities; this label’s catalogue is all over the place.

Rows and rows of shelves display reel to reels, cassettes, vinyl, master tapes, and acid tape recordings. It is not organized by immigrant group or country of origin, but pulling out the tapes and records and reading the little notes attached to them is akin to swimming in a pool of sounds of the 20th century, especially those of immigrants who came to this country.

Finding German related releases in the vast musical archive of Folkways is not the easiest undertaking though; it is even a challenge for Folkways Associate Director, Atesh Sonneborn. Germans have deep roots in America, but their shared sense of identity and culture here has been hindered by two world wars and Germany’s role in them. While cultural events and backgrounds are celebrated, they are not always cherished and preserved. Therefore, there is still no specific release of the music of German immigrants to the United States on Folkways. Nevertheless, Sonneborn locates dozens and dozens of recordings with a German spin. For example, Eric Bentley recorded the songs of Hanns Eisler and Bertolt Brecht and, therefore, these important songs were re-introduced to an American audience in the turbulent decade of the 60s. German can also be heard unexpectedly on many albums, such as “Folk Music from Nova Scotia” and “Folksongs of Saskatchewan” and on “Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Songs”. Pulling out records is like a treasure hunt. Of course there are drinking songs such as, “From the Hofbräuhaus to the Reeperbahn.” But there is also a release by folk musican Rolf Cahn; born in 1924 in Germany, his Jewish family had to flee the Nazis. He became influential in the Folk music scenes in Berkeley, California and Santa Fe, New Mexico. There are also German Folk songs in a release from 1954, sung by internationally acclaimed artist Martha Schlamme, who was also forced to flee from the Nazis. Several albums feature German songs by Ernst Wolff, who was born in Baden-Baden and had to leave his home country in 1933.

Atesh Sonneborn pulls another vinyl boxset off of the shelves. Folkways released the works of ethnomusicologists Curt Sachs and Erich von Hornbostel, who developed a system of musical instrument classification. Both musical experts had to flee Nazi-Germany, and now their work is preserved on Smithsonian Folkways. The release, “The Demonstration Collection of E.M. von Hornbostel and the Berlin Phonogramme-Archive,” is historically invaluable collaboration of several archives from 1962 that brought together music from 120 cylinder copies of wax cylinder recordings. Together they constitute the collection of Erich Moritz von Hornbostel, which he hadcompiled for the “Phonogramm-Archiv” of the Psychological Institute of the University of Berlin. Up until the Second World War, this was the world’s most famous and comprehensive collection of recordings of folk music, tribal music and Oriental art music. This release is surely not a bestseller and the sound quality is poor compared to today’s standards, but it does have a truly historical value, in terms of the recording technology and its cultural importance.

Over time, Moses Asch’s basic idea for this record label has transformed. Smithsonian Folkways has evolved into a label that, without a specific goal or approach, preserves the music and sounds of the past for future generations. One year after Moses Asch’s death in 1986, the Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington D.C. acquired Folkways Recordings. An important part of the deal was that all recordings had to be available to the public. Through a grant, the entire collection has been digitalized which makes the idea of accessibility possible. Whenever a customer orders a release on the website, even if it is the first time, five copies of the album will be printed: one for the customer, one to stay with the label, and three for future customers of the same release. This is not really a money making concept, but a beautiful way to keep the diversity of music and its roots alive.

 

To hear the full audio, sign up for a free PRX account or log in.

Piece Description

Music with a Mission

The sounds of the world in the heart of Washington DC

By Arndt Peltner

America is known as the melting pot, drawing people from all over the world. Nowhere else is this more mirrored in such a small space than in the archives of the record label Smithsonian Folkways.

Not far from the Capitol in Washington DC is 600 Maryland Avenue. It is a building that looks as if it could be an insurance company or a brokerage house. Instead, the second floor is home to one of the most prestigious, diverse and important record companies in the United States, if not the world, Smithsonian Folkways.

The label was founded in 1948 by Moses Asch; he wanted to document "people's music," spoken word, instruction, and sounds from around the world. Since Asch initiated this bold idea, Folkways has released more than 2,500 titles. Of these, two-thirds have sold fewer than 100 copies a year and many have sold fewer than 500 copies in total. This label and its thinkers, shapers and supporters, though, have never been in business for big bucks or number one hit singles on the Billboard charts. Folkways is about documenting a rich diversity of music, sounds and historical events in America and around the world.

A temperature-controlled room is the heart of the label and its vast archive. Folkways is known for their Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Lead Belly releases, but here in this room lies the soul of more than 60 years of Folkways Recordings. Much of it is music that is largely unknown today, such as field recordings from the Southern US, Angolan freedom songs and Mongolian throat singing, Berkeley teach-ins during the Vietnam era and Bertolt Brecht before the Committee on Un-American Activities; this label’s catalogue is all over the place.

Rows and rows of shelves display reel to reels, cassettes, vinyl, master tapes, and acid tape recordings. It is not organized by immigrant group or country of origin, but pulling out the tapes and records and reading the little notes attached to them is akin to swimming in a pool of sounds of the 20th century, especially those of immigrants who came to this country.

Finding German related releases in the vast musical archive of Folkways is not the easiest undertaking though; it is even a challenge for Folkways Associate Director, Atesh Sonneborn. Germans have deep roots in America, but their shared sense of identity and culture here has been hindered by two world wars and Germany’s role in them. While cultural events and backgrounds are celebrated, they are not always cherished and preserved. Therefore, there is still no specific release of the music of German immigrants to the United States on Folkways. Nevertheless, Sonneborn locates dozens and dozens of recordings with a German spin. For example, Eric Bentley recorded the songs of Hanns Eisler and Bertolt Brecht and, therefore, these important songs were re-introduced to an American audience in the turbulent decade of the 60s. German can also be heard unexpectedly on many albums, such as “Folk Music from Nova Scotia” and “Folksongs of Saskatchewan” and on “Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Songs”. Pulling out records is like a treasure hunt. Of course there are drinking songs such as, “From the Hofbräuhaus to the Reeperbahn.” But there is also a release by folk musican Rolf Cahn; born in 1924 in Germany, his Jewish family had to flee the Nazis. He became influential in the Folk music scenes in Berkeley, California and Santa Fe, New Mexico. There are also German Folk songs in a release from 1954, sung by internationally acclaimed artist Martha Schlamme, who was also forced to flee from the Nazis. Several albums feature German songs by Ernst Wolff, who was born in Baden-Baden and had to leave his home country in 1933.

Atesh Sonneborn pulls another vinyl boxset off of the shelves. Folkways released the works of ethnomusicologists Curt Sachs and Erich von Hornbostel, who developed a system of musical instrument classification. Both musical experts had to flee Nazi-Germany, and now their work is preserved on Smithsonian Folkways. The release, “The Demonstration Collection of E.M. von Hornbostel and the Berlin Phonogramme-Archive,” is historically invaluable collaboration of several archives from 1962 that brought together music from 120 cylinder copies of wax cylinder recordings. Together they constitute the collection of Erich Moritz von Hornbostel, which he hadcompiled for the “Phonogramm-Archiv” of the Psychological Institute of the University of Berlin. Up until the Second World War, this was the world’s most famous and comprehensive collection of recordings of folk music, tribal music and Oriental art music. This release is surely not a bestseller and the sound quality is poor compared to today’s standards, but it does have a truly historical value, in terms of the recording technology and its cultural importance.

Over time, Moses Asch’s basic idea for this record label has transformed. Smithsonian Folkways has evolved into a label that, without a specific goal or approach, preserves the music and sounds of the past for future generations. One year after Moses Asch’s death in 1986, the Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington D.C. acquired Folkways Recordings. An important part of the deal was that all recordings had to be available to the public. Through a grant, the entire collection has been digitalized which makes the idea of accessibility possible. Whenever a customer orders a release on the website, even if it is the first time, five copies of the album will be printed: one for the customer, one to stay with the label, and three for future customers of the same release. This is not really a money making concept, but a beautiful way to keep the diversity of music and its roots alive.