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The Legacy of Moses Asch and Folkways Records

A Dig Deeper Article by the Production Dramaturgy team for Indecent

Folkways Records founder Moses Asch in his office. Photo by Diana Davies, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

Born on December 2nd, 1905, in Poland, Moses Asch, the son of Sholem Asch, embarked on a remarkable journey in the world of sound. From his early fascination with radio electronics to his pioneering record labels, Asch's dedication to recording the world's music and sounds left an indelible mark. Folkways Records, founded in 1948, aimed to document "people's music" globally, from Indonesian folk tunes to James Joyce's poetry readings. Asch's commitment to keeping every album in print, regardless of sales, resulted in a vast collection of over 2,100 records, spanning folk, blues, jazz, and more.

In 1987, following Moses Asch's wishes, Folkways Records found a permanent home at the Smithsonian Institution, ensuring that these recordings would remain available indefinitely. Asch's legacy lives on, enriching our understanding of music and culture, eventually transforming into Smithsonian Folkways—a widely acknowledged global archive of recorded sound. Prior to his passing, Asch also presented a duplicate of this collection to the University of Alberta, where his son Michael held a position as a professor in anthropology. Referred to as the Moses and Frances Asch Collection of Folkways Records, it is currently housed at the Sound Studies Institute on campus. The entire collection has undergone thorough digitization, providing unrestricted online access to all University of Alberta students through the library.

The collection includes a wealth of materials, from audio recordings and correspondence to artwork and writings. Notable figures such as Woody Guthrie, John Cage, Langston Hughes, and others contributed to Folkways Records. The original album cover art by renowned artists like Ben Shahn and David Stone Martin is also part of this collection. It is a true testament to the power of music and sound in preserving and celebrating diverse cultures.

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