'Worlds Of Sound' A Tribute To Folkways Sixty years ago, Moses Asch set out to record "all the sound of the world." He established Folkways Records — "the little label that could" — and in the decades that followed, recorded everything from folk singers, to jazz greats, to sounds of the natural world.
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'Worlds Of Sound' A Tribute To Folkways

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'Worlds Of Sound' A Tribute To Folkways

'Worlds Of Sound' A Tribute To Folkways

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In 1940, a young radio engineer met Albert Einstein, who was interested in his work and encouraged him to record and document all the sounds of the world to make an encyclopedia of sound. And as unlikely as it might seem, that's exactly what Moses Asch set out to do.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) When I'm gone (unintelligible) does grieve. When I'm gone (unintelligible) does grieve. When I'm gone (unintelligible) does grieve, and I told her not to grieve after me. I'm just got my army cold.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing)

Mr. GOEBEL REEVES: (Singing) Go to sleep you weary hobo. Let the towns drift slowly by. Listen to the steel rails humming. That's a hobo's lullaby.

(Soundbite of train)

CONAN: Based in a tiny, overcrowded office and studio in Manhattan Folkways under Moses Asch, produced almost 2,200 records about one week for more than 35 years. Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, Pete Seeger and Marilou Williams, Music of the Bahamas and Bali, The sounds of a civil rights movement and of North American frogs. Moe Asch's records helped fuel the folk music revival, the blues rediscoveries, and the evolution of blue grass. He captured the music of the world's peoples and documented the history of jazz. Later in the program, a secret order to conduct secret raids on Al Qaeda in as many as 20 countries. But first, we want to hear your stories. Do you remember the first Folkways record you heard? What's your Folkways moment?

Our phone number, 800-989-8255, Email us talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website at npr.org/talkofthenation. Richard Carlin is the author of "Worlds of Sound: The Story of Smithsonian Folkways," he joins us today from our bureau in New York. Richard Carlin, nice to have with us today.

Mr. RICHARD CARLIN (Author, "Worlds of Sound: The Story of Smithsonian Folkways"): Thank you.

CONAN: And I should say we're going to have some music later. It wouldn't be a show about Folkways Records, you have some music on the program. But I wanted - was there a Folkways moment for you, Richard Carlin?

Mr. CARLIN: Well, I think there were several - It started I guess when I was 12 years old when I first toured Elizabeth Cotten in concert. She came to the town where I lived. Actually, accompanied by Mike Seeger, who I think is going to be on the show a little later.

CONAN: You think correctly.

Mr. CARLIN: And I actually went to New York City on the bus to buy a copy of her record, because I couldn't get it at my hometown, and went up to the Folkways' offices, which at that time were just about the size of a closet. Walked in and there was the gruff old man there who, for some reason or another, I immediately recognized as Moses Asch. I guess I had read about him or heard about him. And he told me I had to go to Sam Goody to buy a record. He wouldn't sell me a record but that memory stuck with me, and from then on, I was Folkways' accolade I guess you could say.

CONAN: Later, you came back from Britain with recordings of concertina players, and got Moe Asch to release a record.

Mr. CARLIN: Well again, you know, the great thing about Folkways was their address was always right there on the label. So, you didn't have to know him, you could just send the tape in and that's what I did. And about six months after I sent it in, I got tired of waiting. So again, went up to the office, took the bus in, and said where's my tapes? And Moe kind of looked at me like I was crazy. But then he said no, no no. This is something I want to put out. So, from then on, for about five or six years, he put everything out that I brought to him. And it was really a great learning experience.

CONAN: Obviously, all of those hundreds and hundreds - thousands of records he produced few of them himself. He, well, he produced a lot of them himself but he had to have a lot of help too. And part of the fascinating part of your book is all of the different collaborators who worked with him and worked with him to bring out these sequences of records. Everything from Sam Charters, who did so much in terms of the blues revival, we'll be talking with Mike Seeger later about the blue grass. Change in publicizing blue grass music. But also eccentrics, not unlike Moe Asch himself, who were interested in things like the sounds of frogs and railroad engines.

Mr. CARLIN: Yeah. He was highly tolerant of eccentric people. He really was. He felt that everyone should have their voice heard, and was very sympathetic to those that he felt were shut out of traditional channels. So, people like Harry Smith who edited the anthology of American folk music. Vinton(ph) White, who's the man who chased the steam engines. At sometimes waiting until two or three in the morning by the side of a track to record one as it passed by.

CONAN: The picture you described of him waiting there in the middle of the night in Nebraska or Wyoming for the train to go by with his wife patiently knitting while she was there with him.

Mr. CARLIN: Yes. And Harold Courlander, of course one of the first great what we call today ethnomusicologist, who recorded in Haiti, he actually had to get a special permit to record Haitian drums because it was at that time against the law for natives to play that music. So, it's just a number of visionary people.

CONAN: Tony Schwartz, who of course famous for making "The Daisy Spot" during the Goldwater Johnson Campaign of 1964

Mr. CARLIN: And remarkably - yes. And remarkably, Tony was agoraphobic, and yet he's famous for documenting "The World of New York City in Sound."

CONAN: New York 19, New York. Yes, indeed. Let's see, we got some callers in on the conversation at 800-989-8255, email us talk@npr.org. We're talking with Richard Carlin, the author of "Worlds of Sound: The Story of Smithsonian Folkways." And let's see if we can begin with Gordon. Gordon with us from Columbus in Ohio.

GORDON (Caller): Oh, hi. I was 19. I went to college in 1960. And so, the middle of my freshman year, I came home and I had gone to the school down south. And my friend had gone - my best friend had gone to Shorthorn(ph). He sent me down to his living room. First he played the first Jim Bios(ph) album but then got into Folkways. Pete Seeger, Pete Seeger's "Love Songs for Friends and Foes." And I was a total convert to folk music, then dropped rock and roll, rhythm and blues cold. And for many years listen to a lot of Folkways, Ledbetter, Gene Ritchie bunch of those and, you know, eventually when the Beetles came along actually got interested in rock and roll again.

CONAN: Some of that rock and roll wasn't too bad. But I think Gordon tells a familiar story, and when he refers to Ledbetter of course, Huddie Leadbetter, also known as Lead Belly.

GORDON: Yeah.

Mr. CARLIN: Right. I mean Moe not only did he put the records out, but he kept them in print. And what that meant was that Woody Guthrie for example, who Moe recorded extensively in the 40s and early 50s was unable to perform. He was beginning to suffer from the first stages of Huntington's chorea, the terrible disease that took his life. But Moe kept those records in print. And so, that really Woody Guthrie wouldn't have been heard if it weren't for Moe and a young man in Hibbing, Minnesota named Bob Dylan wouldn't have been influenced to come to New York to find him. So, and also when you looked in the actual archives and see the royalty statements, it's not like these records were selling thousands of copies. I think Woody Guthrie's initial albums sold in the tens. And so it just simply was Moe's feeling that this music deserved to be heard even if it was unpopular. Certainly the same thing was true for Pete Seeger who as black listed.

CONAN: You know, fascinating connection that of course Huddie Ledbetter song "Goodnight Irene" became a number one hit for the Weavers including Pete Seeger six months after Huddie Ledbetter's death and then of course that group had to breakup under the influence of the Red Scares.

Mr. CARLIN: Right. Right. And Pete tells a wonderful story of how he could be just walking in New York City. Think of a song, run up to the Folkways Studio, take out his banjo, recorded it, and 10 minutes later be back on the street walking again. And it was that kind of open studio and open not only in terms of the door being opened, but open to all kinds of people. I mean, you have to understand at that time it was unusual for African-American folk singers, other noncommercial artist to be able to even get in the door of a record label. And it was doubly unusual for them to be able to go into a studio and record whatever they wanted. Moe never interfered. Mary Lou Williams famously said, if you just burped, Moe would record it.

CONAN: Of course, you wouldn't get the royalty payments for your burp either.

Mr. CARLIN: Well, yeah, yeah, that's true. I don't know.

CONAN: Gordon, thanks very much for the phone call.

GORDON: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go now to Eddie. Eddie, is with us from Rock Island, Illinois.

EDDIE (Caller): Hello. Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

EDDIE: Hi. I remember the first time I ever heard a Folkways record and it was - I'm still in college at Augustana College, I'm senior now, but it was freshman year fall term. I was sitting there doing nothing, and I had just discovered a recent like for ethnomusicology and looking through the catalog in the music library there was the entire collection of Folkways records, and I just start listening to them and for almost an entire year that's all I did whenever I was working, was just listen to Folkways records.

CONAN: And it's something of an education isn't it?

EDDIE: Yeah. It's really is and it's something that I found was kind of lacking(ph). It's just - I put myself in their shoes and just thinking about that idea of everyone's voice needs to be heard, everyone - I mean, just think about how much effort goes into a song. And how much of like a person's spirit goes into that when they're playing or when they're composing their - anything like that. There really is - one of the saddest things I think could happen is for a someone's music to not be documented or not be listen to again, because if it's that much of an emotional output for them and it's really does show something about the person and the culture and everything about that.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Eddie. Appreciate it. And again, Eddie is not alone and it speaks to the importance, Richard Carlin, we call it your book is about the Smithsonian Folkways. Shortly after his death the entire catalog of Folkways Record was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution here in Washington D.C.

Mr. CARLIN: Right.

CONAN: And is kept alive and is kept to - it's not a dead collection, it's a beating collection.

Mr. CARLIN: Well, I think one of the most important things that Tony Seeger the first director of the collection did was he decided to digitize every track that was commercially released and this was, you know, somewhat before the iPod revolution. And it really means that a college student now can go and listen to any of the tracks the 10s of thousands of tracks that are there. And Dan Sheehy the current director who we heard at the beginning of the program has extended what Folkways does particularly in partnering with people. You know, it used to be that the idea of ethnomusicologist was you went to some strange corner of the world and recorded the people there, but now it's much more you go and teach the people there to record themselves too, so that the word can be spread.

CONAN: We're talking about the legacy of Moe Asch and Folkways Record. Tell us your Folkways moment, 800-989-8255. You can also zap us an email, the address is talk@npr.org. More with Richard Carlin in a moment and Mike Seeger will join us to play us a song or two. Just stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking with Richard Carlin today about his new book "Worlds of Sound: The Story of Smithsonian Folkways" in it he tells the history and the legacy of the recording company launched by Moses Asch. Do you remember the first folkways record you heard? Tell us here Folkways moment, 800-989-8255, email us talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website at npr.org and just click on Talk of the Nation. And let's see if we can go now to Paul. Paul is with us from East Hampton in New York.

PAUL (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Hi.

PAUL: Delighted you took my call. Well, I was a 19-year-old theater school student at Montreal and I was working my way through school as a CBC Staff Announcer in Montreal. In fact, I was likely senior to - for the late Peter Jennings who remained a good friend. And the station managers, there oh we got 15 minutes on Sunday morning at 12:15, you want to do a - you want to do a folk music program? I said what are you talking about? So,(unintelligible) and the first place I went to was Folkways in Montreal where Sam Gesser and…

CONAN: All right.

PAUL: Probably an equally tiny office. And I can still see those Folkways Records, sort of the dark brown black cardboard backing on it, sort of brown those brown labels - I can actually smell them still.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PAUL: You know, that was - it was my first exposure of to folk music and...

CONAN: I should probably identify Paul as Paul Hecht, Peter Jennings went on the news business. You went into the acting business.

PAUL: I did and I'm still in the acting business you may hear me every now and then on "Selected Shorts" if you get it. Yeah, I just did some business and - but still love that, still love that blue grass and I remember playing Lead Belly and all those kinds of I remember it was exactly the time that Bob Boone who took (unintelligible) of horrors. And but, those Folkways Records in that office will stay with me all the time. So, it's great - it's great that you're honoring him and playing and you better enjoy listening to the rest of the program.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call, Paul.

Mr. CARLIN: Thank you.

CONAN: And there was a separate Canadian operation, but obviously connected to Folkways Records.

Mr. CARLIN: Well, Sam - yeah, Sam Gesser was an interesting fellow and he tells a classic Moe Asch story actually because he came to Moe as a young man, he had somehow gotten a hold of a Lead Belly record. This was very early in like 1951, and he said to Moe hey, how come you don't have records of Canadian music?' And Moe replied as only Moe could. What are you going to do about it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARLIN: And so, you know, so that's Sam Gesser became his agent, and I think produced over 200 albums, people like John (unintelligible) and Allen Mills, but also all kinds of Canadian folk music. And again, it was Moe's ability to enlist others in his mission. Usually for little or no payment. But simply because they believed in the cause, that really helped Folkways grow.

CONAN: We mentioned Mike Seeger earlier. He joins us today from the studios and member station WVTF Radio IQ in Roanoke, Virginia. We were down there for electoral purposes about a month ago. Mike Seeger, it's a great honor to have you on the program today.

Mr. MIKE SEEGER (Musician, Folk Music): Well, thanks for asking. I'm down here in Roanoke now.

CONAN: Pretty fancy digs for public radio, huh?

Mr. SEEGER: Oh, it's wonderful. It's a great studio, and I'm in the control - one control room here.

CONAN: Well, Mike Seeger of course also a longtime Smithsonian Folkways artist. One of the founding members of The New Lost City Ramblers. Can you play us a tune?

Mr. SEEGER: Sure. Richard mentioned Elizabeth Cotten, and it just happens that I thought I'd like to play a song that she is well-known for and a couple of instrumentals that she played too.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SEEGER: (Singing) Freight train, freight train run so fast, freight train, freight train run so fast. Please don't tell what train I'm on. So, they won't know what route I'm gone. And a little bit of Wilson. I've got no honey, baby now. Ain't got no honey baby now.

CONAN: Mike Seeger playing some of the songs of Elizabeth Cotten from Roanoke, Virginia at WVTF Radio IQ. Mike, I should point out your latest record "Early Southern Guitar Styles" was released last year. But, what was it like working for Moe Asch and just tell us a little bit more about his personality?

Mr. SEEGER: Well, as Richard said he was gruff, but he was also real friendly. And I only heard about Moe Asch from my folks in the early 50s, a little bit in regards to my brother recording for Folkways. And he wrote me a two-sentence letter asking me to - if I'd be interested to record some Scruggs-style banjo players in the South in 1956 and he said, I could offer you $100 towards your expenses. So, I recorded a whole LP of 15 banjo players including some of the people who influenced or might have influenced Earl Scruggs and people who learned from Earl Scruggs for about a $100, a whole LP in 1956.

CONAN: And it's pretty fair to say that a whole lot of banjo players have listen to that record ever since.

Mr. SEEGER: I guess so. And then, it wasn't too long until I got the idea. Well, heck, Elizabeth Cotten is a wonderful musician. I think somebody liked to hear her. So, I'd go down and visit her and Moe would just say, oh, yeah, I'd like to put that out and so forth and so on. And then The New Lost City Ramblers of course in 1958. He would love to - he just loved to give people musicians, voice and the control of their recordings.

CONAN: Richard Carlin, you described in your book how those recordings really changed what we came to know as Blue Grass Music because they enabled it to move out of smoky bars and into college campuses and onto a different kinds of venues, onto the concert stage where it never had been before.

Mr. CARLIN: Well, I think people like Mike Seeger, I mean, it's such an honor to be on this program with him because he really was instrumental through the Ramblers in his own solo work. And also, his work as a folklorist rediscovering Dock Boggs and recording Sam McGee and with his brother Kirk and Arthur Smith and all these records that came out on Folkways. There was a small group of people that would wait breathlessly as they were for them to come out and this music did become tremendously popular in a small way as we like to say on college campuses, places like Overland and Swarthmore or University of Michigan, University of Chicago. And it was thanks to these oddly packaged records that sometimes the hole wasn't centered quite right in, and sometimes the liner notes were hard to read. But it was - they were really mind-opening and mind-expanding for so many people and again, it was - no, I was just going to say, again it was Moe's ability to attract people like Mike, even though he could be gruff and irascible to do this work.

CONAN: Mike, you were trying to say?

Mr. SEEGER: Well, to me, his covers were - he often got first-rate artists to design the covers. And he had really informative notes to go with nearly all of his LPs. I think those things were really important in the development of recorded music and sound.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Danny who's listening in Kansas. "If you record a man," he writes, "you will document him for one night. If you teach him to record himself, you will have to listen to that forever."

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller on the line. This is Terry(ph). Terry with us from Sag Harbor in Maine.

TERRY (Caller): No, that's Sag Harbor, New York.

CONAN: Excuse me. Sag Harbor in New York, I apologize.

TERRY: No, not a problem. I love your program.

CONAN: Thank you.

TERRY: Thank you. Anyhow, the first Moses Asch recording I ever saw before I heard it was "See-through Red." I don't know why they made a transparent LP. But, are you familiar with that?

Mr. CARLIN: Well, Moe would - had a lot of - because he'd been in the business so long, he was able to keep his records in print often by printing at the end of the day. And sometimes they'd been printing children's records, so some Folkways records were on yellow vinyl or red vinyl or - Moe didn't care as long as the record was there.

TERRY: Still used them. Leadbelly, Pete Seeger and who else? Woody Guthrie.

Mr. CARLIN: Yeah.

TERRY: And all four of them were singing, "Get Along Home, Cindy, Cindy."

(Soundbite of laughter)

TERRY: I can still hear it. And that was 1961, and fast forward 30 years to 1991, and I got to sing on the stage of Carnegie Hall with Pete Seeger for the hundredth birthday of Carnegie Hall. And it was one of my - this I've never met - I never did meet Moses Asch, but Pete has a lot of similar qualities like he inspires people to do incredible stuff for nothing, like Mike Seeger before was talking about the $100 album that he made. But one of my favorite stories about Pete, I was standing on 43rd Street, and we were both waiting for a bus, and a woman came up and was just totally flustered, and she was telling Pete how he changed her life and she blurted out the most inappropriate question I've ever heard asked to Pete and she said, what would you say you were - you would say your success in show business is?

(Soundbite of laughter)

TERRY: And Pete, without skipping a beat, said, well, sincerity and spontaneity. And if you could fake those two things, you've got it made in show business.

CONAN: Terry, thanks very much for the phone call. And...

TERRY: Let me finish. So I said to Pete - the woman walked away, I said, Pete, did you just make that up? He said, no. I stole it from George Burns.

CONAN: Terry, thanks very much.

TERRY: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about Folkways - Smithsonian Folkways Records. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And Mike Seeger, you got one more song for us.

Mr. SEEGER: All right. Just tell me when you'd like it.

CONAN: Right about now.

Mr. SEEGER: Oh, OK. I'll grab the banjo here. I just wanted to say one more thing that I think it's remarkable that the spirit of Folkways has gone on within Smithsonian - Smithsonian Folkways and that every single recording that was ever on Folkways is available online, and you can audition them before you hear them - before you - if you want to download them for 99 cents. I think that's remarkable. Is there another record company that's done that?

CONAN: I don't think for 99 cents, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SEEGER: Here's one of the very first pieces that I recorded for that banjo Scruggs style and three-finger back in '56. Junie Scruggs, Earl's brother, came in from work one evening and I asked him if he would record a couple of pieces for this LP, and he played "Cripple Creek," one of the most durable old-time banjo tunes.

(Soundbite of the song "Cripple Creek")

Mr. SEEGER: (Singing) Oh, me, oh, my. Gonna wait on Cripple Creek till I die.

CONAN: Mike Seeger with us from WVTF Radio IQ in Roanoke, Virginia. I wanted to read some of the emails we've gotten. This is from Carl. I don't remember how I found this album, but I was in high school in the early 1960s when I first heard Dave Van Ronk on Folkways. I still have that album, and I still find Van Ronk as one of the high points of folk music of that or any other era. Shortly after that, I found two albums by Mimi and Richard Farina. These are unforgettable. I still listen to all my Folkways recordings. This from Susana in Grass Valley, California. "I remember the wonderful recordings they did of Native American music too at the New York City library across from the Museum of Modern Art. I used to take the LPs home and listen."

And this is from Karen in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "I grew up in rural Southern Mississippi, not in a culturally-deprived household but certainly limited by what was around us. Our library was the book mobile. My oldest sister lived in Chicago, and in the nearly 1950s, I spent a summer there. From the library, we got records. I was so amazed and interestingly enough, one, I was introduced to then was Miriam Makeba. I'm not sure which were Folkways, but I'm pretty sure some were." Karen Poppit(ph) from Tulsa, Oklahoma, listening on KWGS. And Richard Carlin, the legacy of Folkways Records with the Smithsonian Institution, we just have a few seconds left, but it's going to live forever now.

Mr. CARLIN: Well, let's hope so. And I think nowadays, with everyone having access to iPods and other recording devices, there's no reason why one can't be recording and documenting their worlds. And I think that would be the real legacy that would make Moe very happy.

CONAN: Richard Carlin's book is "Worlds of Sound: The Story of Smithsonian Folkways." We thank him for his time today. He was in our bureau in New York. And thanks again to Mike Seeger who was with us from WVTF and Radio IQ in Roanoke, Virginia. Coming up when we continue, secret orders and secret commando raids in the countries not at war with the United States. We'll get the details from the New York Times, Mark Mazetti. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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