The Folkways Records & Service Co. was founded by Moses Asch and Marian Distler in 1948 in New York City. Asch sought to record and document sounds and music from everywhere in the world. From 1948 until Asch's death in 1986, Folkways Records released 2,168 albums. In 1964, Asch helped MGM Records start Verve Folkways Records which evolved in 1967 into Verve Forecast Records. The albums are very diverse in content including traditional and contemporary music from around the world; spoken word, poetry, and multi-lingual instructional recordings; and field recordings of communities, individuals, and natural sounds. It was also an early proponent of the singers and songwriters, such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Leadbelly, who formed the center of the American folk music revival.
The label became very influential on a generation of folk singers because of its release of a great number of old-time recordings by re-discovered performers from the 1920s and 1930s like Dock Boggs and Clarence Ashley, as well as contemporary performers like the New Lost City Ramblers. The Anthology of American Folk Music originally appeared on the Folkways label. Folkways was also one of the earliest companies to release albums of world music, including the Music of the World's Peoples collection edited by Henry Cowell. They also released many spoken word albums, and other unusual repertoire. The albums always came with a pull-out leaflet containing extensive sleeve notes.
The Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington, D.C. acquired Asch's Folkways recordings and business files after his death in 1986. This acquisition was initiated by Ralph Rinzler, of the Smithsonian, before Asch's death and completed by the Asch Family to ensure the sounds and artists would be preserved for future generations. As a result, it was agreed to continue Asch's policy that all of the 2,168 titles would stay in print indefinitely regardless of market sales. The Smithsonian Folkways website uses the internet to make the recordings available as streaming samples, DRM-free digital downloads in MP3 and lossless FLAC format, and on CDs via mail order.
Asch also donated a complete set of the Folkways recordings to the University of Alberta; FolkwaysAlive, a joint initiative between the University and the Smithsonian, is involved in digitization and archiving of the collection as well as maintaining a research center and sponsoring student research scholarships and an annual concert series.
Since acquiring Folkways, the Smithsonian has expanded Asch's collection by adding several other record labels, including Cook, Monitor, Fast Folk, Dyer-Bennet, and Paredon. They have also released over 300 new recordings.
The mission statement of Smithsonian Folkways states that their mission "is the legacy of Moses Asch, who founded Folkways Records in 1948 to document 'people's music.'" They "are dedicated to supporting cultural diversity and increased understanding among peoples through the documentation, preservation, and dissemination of sound", and that "musical and cultural diversity contributes to the vitality and quality of life throughout the world." By making these recordings available, they intend "strengthen people's engagement with their own cultural heritage and to enhance their awareness and appreciation of the cultural heritage of others."
Smithsonian Folkways has also produced or co-produced a number of radio series based on the Folkways collections. "The Folkways Collection" and "Sounds to Grow On" are co-produced with CKUA radio; "Tapestry of the Times" was co-produced by WYPR radio; and "Sound Sessions" was produced by the Smithsonian and broadcast on WAMU radio. "Sounds to Grow On" is hosted by Michael Asch, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Alberta and the son of Moses Asch.
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