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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

Musical Traces


Introduction ~ The idea is quite simple.

I read a book by Will Hodgkinson that outlined a trip to collect music around the British Isles, in true Cecil Sharpe manner. With modern digital recorder in hand, off he went, but I think he missed a trick or two and yet, I don’t have the time necessary to prove my theory. I can’t get in the car and just go prove that I could do it better, so I gave up on the idea of being the next best thing to Alan or John Lomax, or Moses Asch.

Then I asked myself the questions…. how would I have to do this in order to make it work? I’d need to do it from my virtual armchair. Could you be a recorder of Folk music, or rather people’s music from all over the world without leaving the confines of your own living room? Then it struck me. What if I started with someone I knew, asked them to record a song, or give me something they’d already done, with a little blurb about who they were and what they’d done, and then send me to the next link in the chain by helping me to contact, or contacting on my behalf someone else who made music.With the network provided by the Worldwide Web this would be possible for the first time since people began to make music on horses jawbones… it seemed like an interesting idea to me.

This process it occurred to me would lead me to somewhere I could never expect, to places I wouldn’t take myself. If I offered the blurb and the music (as a download) then others could follow the ‘Musical Traces’, hence the name of this blog.

So – That’s what I’m going to do, collect music without ever leaving my house… without wearing out shoe leather I’ll be a modern day Alan Lomax. No I won’t be documenting, no I won’t be transcribing, like he did, or archiving, or leaving music to dry up in a museum vault, but I will be collecting, and hopefully you will be hearing. It will all be Folk music that you hear, because whatever the music, it will be music of the people, made by the people.

The podcast/download space for the tunes is here – http://musical-traces.podOmatic.com and the RSS feed is here – http://musical-traces.podOmatic.com/rss2.xml

Mike Murphy January 2010