Nineteen ninety-eight is the 100th anniversary of Paul Robeson's birth. But have you tried finding a Paul Robeson CD in a record store? I did, and the clerks kept telling me, "We may have something near Sinatra." They didn't.
"The Americans do not care about preserving their culture," Albert Einstein told Moses Asch more than fifty years ago. "It will be a Polish Jew like yourself who will do it."
Asch, the immigrant son of novelist Sholem Asch and a lifelong devotee of socialism and multiculturalism, after the former and before the latter was fashionable, founded Folkways Records on May Day, 1948. He had told Einstein he wanted to forge a company that would "describe the human race, the sound it makes, what it creates." Folkways released 2,168 albums--about one a week--during Asch's lifetime. Every one was kept in print. Without Moe Asch, Americans might never have heard some of the most daring and powerful songs of Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and Big Bill Broonzy.
But Asch's success was the exception that proved the rule. Working out of cramped, chaotic offices on West 46th Street, he seldom made any money and even more seldomly paid any of his artists. Together with the vagrant, drug-addled, bohemian record collector Harry Smith, in 1952 he released the now legendary Anthology of American Folk Music, filled with backwoods bluegrass and country blues. Believing himself to be embarking on a sacred mission (fired by numerous peyote buttons), Smith did not even bother getting permission from the rightful owners of the songs, much less the artists or their estates.
Asch and Smith were obsessed with the political possibilities of cultural syncretism. Harry Smith's Anthology, which finally won two Grammys last year for its beautifully packaged CD version, included any number of strange factoids about the musicians in question, but never a word about race.
While the Anthology's sales were small, its influence was enormous. (The New York Times dismissed its eighty-four songs as "flat and undistinguished." Flat and undistinguished? Look who's talking.) More than any other single document, Smith's Anthology helped inspire the folk explosion of the early sixties, which in turn gave rock and roll its social and intellectual edge. When Bob Dylan made history by "going electric" at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, thereby horrifying his audience but redirecting the slow train of American popular culture, the song he chose was "Maggie's Farm," itself a homage to the Bently Boys' "Down on Penny's Farm," No. 25 on the Anthology.
Following Asch's death in 1986 the Folkways catalogue moved to the Smithsonian Institution, where archivist Tony Seeger (Pete's nephew) oversees all 2,168 records, with more to come. We are now getting new/old releases from Seeger, Guthrie and Leadbelly, as well as the 1957 classic Sounds of North American Frogs (call 800-410-9815 or go to www.si.edu/folkways for a catalogue).
Folkways is the good news. The bad news is that America today provides less and less room for such eccentrics and the profit-shy music they preserve. …