Friday, August 25, 2006

Einstein's theory of American Culture

Play it: Moses Asch's Hands (Smithsonian Folkways Records)

There's been a recent wave of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings finding their way into the Rhapsody library this week. One thing they have in common is Moses "Moe" Asch, founder of Folkway Records and one of the most important non-musicians in American popular music.

Asch was the son of leftist intellectual and Yiddish novelist Sholem Asch, who was also an acquaintance of Albert Einstein. Both the elder Asch and Einstein worked together trying to rescue European Jews from the Third Reich. A young Moe owned an early portable recording machine and spent time recording Einstin's messages for later radio broadcast in Europe. According to Moe, Einstein helped steer him into recording folk music. When Moe told Einstein he intended to study mathmatics, Einstein steered him into recording the sound of America, thinking 'who better to do it then a Polish jew':
[Einstein said] it's very important for the 20th Century to have someone like [Moe] who understood the intellect and who understood the changes of the 20th Century and who understood folk and dissemination.
- Moe Asch
Moe first started out recording Jewish artists, most notably the Bagelman Sisters (later known as Barry Sisters.) He started his branching out fo the Jewish market by seeking one Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, helping him remake himself after his failed recordings where the previous label forced him to play blues instead of folk. Lead Belly had also locked heads with John Lomax on their tour around the country which had him in his prison clothes. Asch found him in New York playing folk music (which he liked playing more then the blues) and recorded him, letting him play what he liked.

Because Asch approached these recordings as more cultural and educational then entertainment, he took the approach of releasing nearly anything and everything, w/o regard to whether it was marketable or not. As a result, he avoided working with royalties in deals with artists, and instead paying upfront for the songs. which some look at as exploitive, but Asch was operating the label, essentially, as a non-profit. Any money that came in went right back into more recording.

Even a singer of the working man, Pete Seeger, understood this. "Good heavens, he's losing money by any normal standards. You find any other company willing to record these things, your welcome to go there." Seeger did and moved on to Columbia Records for a spell in the 60s, but when that well went dry, he was back with Asch. By the end, Seeger had recorded on and off with Asch for 40 years.

The pairing of Woody Guthrie with Moe Asch was one that worked very well, and Moe was often considered a full collaborater on Guthries 'projects.' Not only were their political leanings in line with each other, but Guthrie's mother-in-law (Aliza Greenblatt) was a Yiddish poet. Between Guthrie's lyrical music and Asch's prodding (and microphone,) their recordings represent an important part of America's culture.

Another interesting Moe Asch story is that of record collector Harry Smith, who initially had offered his prize 78rpm vinyl to Asch for release on Folkways. Asch, as the story goes, instead encouraged Smith that he should compile tracks together for a history of folk, which he did - becoming The Anthology of American Folk Music, which was released on Asch's Folkways label. this has been a beacon of light for many musicians, inluding, most notably, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.

Another unique thing that Asch did with his label was to never let an album go out of print - to Moe recordings of music were culture that anyone should be able to access. I have to think that Moe would appreciate the state of the internet and oppose the RIAA's attempts to throttle music's accessibility. When he died in 1986, Asch left the entire catalogue to the Smithsonian, with orders to keep everything in print and available. As testament to that, you can still buy Sounds of North American Frogs to this day.

Ribbit.

More:
Moe Asch: Collector of Culture (pdf from The National Yiddish Book Center)

Previously:
Righteous implements for troubled times (Springsteen's We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions)
If you're going to sell out (Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews)

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1 comment:

drake leLane said...

Moses Asch's Hands (Folkways Records)*

* "Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy" - Pete Seeger
* "We're in the Same Boat, Brother" - Leadbelly
* "Do-Re-Mi" - Woody Guthrie
* "Sweet Lorraine" - James P. Johnson
* "Better Day" - Sonny Terry And Brownie Mcghee
* "Libra" - Mary Lou Williams
* "This Train" - Big Bill Broonzy
* "Juice Headed Baby" - Lonnie Johnson
* "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" - Langston Hughes
* "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?" - The New Lost City Ramblers
* "Hesitation Blues" - Dave Van Ronk
* "Walking In Jerusalem (Just Like John)" - The Country Gentlemen
* "The Devil And The Farmer's Wife" - Texas Gladden
* "Hard Traveling" - Woody Guthrie
* "The Cuckoo Bird" - Hobart Smith
* "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" - Pete Seeger
* "Ma Rainey" - Sterling A. Brown
* "Exultation" - Henry Cowell

*A sampling of recordings that Moe Asch is credited for directly producing/engineering