Stream 35 Hours of Classic Blues, Folk, & Bluegrass Recordings from Smithsonian Folkways: 837 Tracks Featuring Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie & More

Image of Woody Guthrie by Al Aumuller, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Mar­shall McLuhan’s chest­nut “the medi­um is the mes­sage” con­tains some of the most impor­tant the­o­ry about mass media to have emerged in the past cen­tu­ry. In its hon­or, we might pro­pose anoth­er slogan—less con­cep­tu­al­ly tidy and alliterative—that brings to mind the argu­ments of crit­i­cal the­o­rists like Theodor Adorno: “the econ­o­my is the culture”—the eco­nom­ic mech­a­nisms that gov­ern the “cul­ture indus­try,” as Adorno would say, deter­mine the kinds of pro­duc­tions that sat­u­rate our shared envi­ron­ment. In a pure­ly cor­po­rate cap­i­tal­ist mod­el, we con­sume culture—that which is mar­ket­ed most aggres­sive­ly and dis­trib­uted most plentifully—and often dis­card it just as quick­ly. In an econ­o­my that doesn’t make prof­it the ful­crum of its every move, things go oth­er­wise. The lines between con­sumers, cre­ators, and com­mu­ni­ties become blurred in weird and won­der­ful ways.

This can hap­pen in decen­tral­ized envi­ron­ments like the wilds of the ear­ly inter­net. And it can hap­pen in insti­tu­tions that code it into their design. The Smith­son­ian is one of those insti­tu­tions. The pub­lic col­lec­tions in its vast net­work of muse­ums has remained, out­side of spe­cial exhibits and films, free and “open access” for every­one. And one of their key cul­tur­al con­tri­bu­tions, the Smith­son­ian Cen­ter for Folk­life and Cul­tur­al Her­itage, has devot­ed itself since its found­ing in the late six­ties to “cul­ture of, by, and for the peo­ple.”

Even if you’ve nev­er tak­en the time to delve into their cura­to­r­i­al efforts (and you should), you’ll know their work through Folk­ways Record­ings, the record label cre­at­ed in  by Moses Asch—founder of Folk­ways Records in 1949. After he passed away in 1986, Asch’s fam­i­ly donat­ed over 2,000 records, his entire discog­ra­phy, to the Smith­son­ian, with the pro­vi­so that they always remain in print, whether or not they made a buck.

This has meant that schol­ars and fans of folk from all over the world have always been able to find the work of Pete Seeger, The Carter Fam­i­ly, Woody Guthrie, and Lead Bel­ly, to name but a few of the label’s “stars.” There are many more: Bill Mon­roe, Doc Wat­son, Eliz­a­beth Cot­ten, Rev­erend Gary Davis…. So many names in the pan­theon of folk giants Robert Crumb immor­tal­ized in his col­or­ful, and unusu­al­ly taste­ful, Heroes of Blues, Jazz, and Coun­try. But Folk­ways has pre­served much more besides. Kentucky’s Old Reg­u­lar Bap­tist Church’s a capel­la hymns, Kil­by Snow’s auto­harp, Snooks English’s New Orleans street singing, Alice Ger­rard and Hazel Dick­ens’ 60s inter­pre­ta­tions of tra­di­tion­al blue­grass…. Music that appealed to small but cul­tur­al­ly rich com­mu­ni­ties in its day, and that may have dis­ap­peared along with those com­mu­ni­ties in the scrum of cul­tur­al his­to­ry, dom­i­nat­ed as it is by mass enter­tain­ments.

The small, region­al cre­ations, some tee­ter­ing on genius, some haunt­ing in their art­less­ness, are crit­i­cal doc­u­ments of old Amer­i­ca, the hollers, deserts, streets, swamps, low coun­try, back coun­try, moun­tains, val­leys….  Hear it all in the Spo­ti­fy playlist above (or access it here), 837 tracks of Folk­ways record­ings. Smith­son­ian Folk­ways is per­haps best known for its North Amer­i­can artists, but it has released record­ings from all over the world. Rather than cre­at­ing com­modi­ties, the insti­tu­tion func­tions as a repos­i­to­ry of glob­al cul­tur­al mem­o­ry, col­lect­ing and pre­serv­ing “people’s music.” Since Asch’s endow­ment, Folk­ways has cre­at­ed an addi­tion­al six labels under its umbrel­la and released over 300 new record­ings. In 2003, they part­nered with the Amer­i­can Folk­life Cen­ter for the “Save Our Sounds” project, which aims to pre­serve record­ings like those made by Thomas Edi­son on wax cylin­ders. Folk­ways opens a win­dow on an alter­nate world where cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion is not a per­pet­u­al strug­gle for rat­ings, reviews, and sales dom­i­nance.

It’s not entire­ly a utopi­an vision. There is the dan­ger of a pater­nal­iz­ing approach. Cura­tors like Asch, Har­ry Smith, John and Alan Lomax, and hun­dreds more seri­ous enthu­si­asts and ethno­g­ra­phers have their own agen­das, inter­ests, bias­es, and blind spots. What we under­stand now as tra­di­tion­al Delta blues, for exam­ple, is a prod­uct of selec­tion bias—it excludes many artists and vari­eties that didn’t catch on with col­lec­tors. Still Folk­ways reme­dies much of this short­com­ing by includ­ing work from a broad spec­trum of unknown com­posers, inter­preters, and per­form­ers. There may be no form of mod­ern folk music today that hasn’t been craft­ed and mold­ed by the music indus­try, which might mean, by def­i­n­i­tion, that there is no mod­ern folk music. For such a thing to exist—the “people’s music”—perhaps more demo­c­ra­t­ic economies and insti­tu­tions must pre­vail.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear 17,000+ Tra­di­tion­al Folk & Blues Songs Curat­ed by the Great Musi­col­o­gist Alan Lomax

Alan Lomax’s Music Archive Hous­es Over 17,400 Folk Record­ings From 1946 to the 1990s

Leg­endary Folk­lorist Alan Lomax: ‘The Land Where the Blues Began’

Woody Guthrie at 100: Cel­e­brate His Amaz­ing Life with a BBC Film

Hear Zora Neale Hurston Sing the Bawdy Prison Blues Song “Uncle Bud” (1940)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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