Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



US record label formed by Moses Asch (b Warsaw, Poland, '15; d 19 Oct. '86) with Marion Distler. Asch accompanied his father (Yiddish writer Sholem Asch, e.g. The Nazarene) on lecture tours '20s; became interested in folk songs and later in Paris discovered John Lomax's Cowboy Ballads. His literary background informed his tastes; he told Jim Capaldi in a Folkscene interview '78, 'I'm not interested in music per se, but the literature of it, the words. The music is mostly public domain.' Entr‚e into music was through his work as an electronic engineer, building studio equipment for radio stations; he realized there were opportunities for recording material for broadcast, and the narrative nature of folk music would be ideal for radio. He began recording '35, formed Asch Records '39; first release was the Bagelman Sisters' Jewish Folk Songs; recorded cantorial and Ukrainian music for ethnic stations. He met Pete Seeger '42, the beginning of an illustrious musical partnership. The label went broke; he tried again with Disc Records (Asch and Disc issued the earliest Norman Granz JATP concerts from '44--6); Folkways was formed '47 and stayed the course, becoming an American institution.

The new company recorded Cuban, Native American and square dance music as well as jazz, but primarily folk music; early recordings by Leadbelly made the label nationally famous, and the six-LP set Anthology Of American Folk Music '52 (on three-CDs '97) was dubbed by Harry Smith from his collection of 78s dating from '27--30, from blues to cajun and banjo- flailing, keeping tracks by the Carter Family, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Lemon Jefferson etc in print while they were being ignored elsewhere. It inspired a whole generation; Dave Van Ronk wrote, 'We all knew every word of every song on it, including the ones we hated', and Griel Marcus argues in his Invisible Republic that the set acted as a template for Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes. (Smith, b 29 May '23, Portland OR, d 27 Nov. '91, Chelsea Hotel NYC, never had a job and never paid any rent, but as a collector, artist and film-maker provided an American index: see Rani Singh's Selected Interviews And Lectures Of Harry Smith '97, published by Cityful Press, Seattle.) Asch did not have to bother to track down owners and pay royalties for example for the tracks on Smith's set because the record companies at that time didn't give a damn. He did not involve himself in politics, seeing his role as a 'documenter', but this did not prevent him falling foul of McCarthyism, in which totalitarian climate broadcasters censored themselves rather than incur the wrath of the right- wing witch hunt. In the same Folkscene interview Asch said, 'We were never allowed on the air in those days. I was listed in the Red Channels book with about a hundred mentions of me. It never affected me because my people bought my records ... I didn't give a damn. I issued what I wanted.' Artists knew their rewards would be in heaven; Asch kept costs down and prices high so he could experiment: there were over 200 songs by Woody Guthrie, 60 LPs by Pete Seeger (some licensed to Topic in UK), many other folk and traditional country acts; reissues incl. the Almanac Singers' Talking Union tracks (from Keynote: see entries for Keynote and Seeger); with Asch, RBF and Broadside subsidiaries Asch kept 1,500--2,000 LPs in print for decades incl. 10]im[ LPs long after they had become unfashionable, and incl. language instruction, instrument tutors and music appreciation courses, science, political speeches etc. A Verve/Folkways deal got wider distribution for some items late '60s. Asch also co-founded Oak Publications (with Irwin Silber, publisher/editor of Sing Out! magazine). Towards the end of his life Asch negotiated with the Smithsonian Institution's Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies, and such was the importance and status of his brainchild that Folkways was taken over by the Smithsonian '87, a happy ending if ever there was one. A new Smithsonian/Folkways label has taken Asch's standards forward, e.g. with interactive CD Crossroads '96, a musical journey through US Southern states with music, lyrics, biographies on videos accessible on computer. The tiniest selection of this great label's catalogue might include the work of John Cage and David Tudor, Shirley Collins, Elizabeth Cotten, Henry Cowell, Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, Langston Hughes, Leadbelly, Ewan MacColl, Bill Monroe, New Lost City Ramblers, Phil Ochs, Jean Ritchie, all the Seegers, Joseph Spence, Dave Van Ronk, Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley, Lucinda Williams and Mary Lou Williams, while series such as Music Of Indonesia and the African-American gospel masterwork Wade In The Water remain pinnacles of achievement.