Folkways Records: Moses Asch and His Encyclopedia of Sound – A review


Folkways Records: Moses Asch and Tony Olmsted’s yawningly un-brilliant book

It’s hard being honest, risky, troubling and you can’t help but be disappointed with yourself for being such a negative old bitch, but there you have it, there’s nothing quite like the ‘truth’ subjective though it will I hope be.

If you are interested in Folk music, then Folkways records is a name you will know and be interested to know more of. With its distinctive unforgiving Lps, bound beautifully, with odd yet engaging cover art, illustrating the musical brilliance of everything and everyone from Native American Indians to New York Jews and Woody Guthrie to Bahamian Gospel groups. All the brainchild of Moses Asch; a name as much part of the American Folk revival as Lomax or Dylan.

It follows that if you are interested in Folkways then you will be interested in an account of the man who created the label and the label itself. It follows that you might buy this book in that case. Unfortunately it doesn’t follow that you will get enjoyment, knowledge, or anything remotely at all worthwhile from this missed opportunity of a book.

Frankly it reads like a poorly proof read thesis by a second-rate musicology student.

Tony Olmsted with access to the Smithsonian’s archive on Asch has done little more than present the end of year accounts of Folkways, there are few stories to enjoy, little of interest to anyone but a bank manager. Someone wishing to go back in time having learnt from Asch’s business mistakes might use the information contained to start a Folk label in 40s and 50s New York; but seriously this book would be of more use to an accountant than someone interested in music.

Olmsted hasn’t got a clue how to write, how to engage or how to tell a story. I expect that 10 or so years after writing this book he’s changed professions and is now a health and safety officer with ‘special understanding of the risk of paper cuts in the workplace’ and has published an in-depth study of this risk and it’s ‘relationship to the stationary cupboard of mid-west America’.

Missed Opportunity

There are 8 typographical errors before the 40th page, and that will no doubt be as many as I find in this book, because it’s going to be where I stop reading it.

Yawn . . . .

Folkways Records: Moses Asch and His Encyclopedia of Sound

~ by bigmikeydread on February 14, 2012.

3 Responses to “Folkways Records: Moses Asch and His Encyclopedia of Sound – A review”

  1. I was all excited when I saw the title of this thread but that’s pretty disapointing about the book! I didn’t even know that Asch was responsible for the Folkways label, I’m more familiar with his work in the ’40s recording the likes of Lord Beginner, Lord Invader, Mac Beth the Great and Felix & His Internationals (among others) for his New York DISC label.

  2. Hi Gibbo, the book talks a bit about the Asch and Disc labels, like you I yearn for a few tunes on Disc 78rpm…

  3. Shame about this but the podcasts are brilliant.
    I particularly like the bit in the one title ‘music and the winds of change’ when a shoe shiner beats out a song with his cloth!

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