Once upon a time, in the hoary, misty days before iTunes, music was sold by the album, a round thing lugged home from a record store and played by means of a contraption that turned the round thing around and around.
The sound produced by means of that rotational magic —"Fuzzy warbles," in the words of Alex, the sinister center of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange —was often mass-produced, the realm of cigar- (or spliff-) chomping suits and their pampered acts.
But it could also be of exquisitely narrow interest, the long tail being very long in those days, music made in basements and cupboards by enthusiasts and weirdos. If the album were the offbeat sort of thing that only the compulsive cognoscenti were likely to sport in their collections — Japanese koto music of the early 15th century, blues shouts of northwestern Kentucky, sounds made by ailing steam engines — well, then Moses Asch probably had something to do with it.
The hero of Richard Carlin's lively book Worlds of Sound, Moses — son of the great Yiddish-language writer Sholem Asch — was possessed by an idea: "to document every possible human musical expression (and many nonhuman sounds, too)." His Folkways Records and Services Corp., founded in 1948, was his vehicle for realizing that idea.
Folkways had tangled origins. Asch had gone bankrupt earlier that year, laid low by a Nat King Cole record that should have been a hit but that was instead kept from stores by a freak snowstorm. According to the terms of the bankruptcy, Asch was barred from starting a new label, so Folkways was, on paper, owned by a former assistant who promptly hired Asch as a consultant.
Asch called himself the label's production director, but if he consulted with anyone, it was himself. For much of its golden age, Folkways was a one-man show, Asch taking charge of everything from engineering recordings in a closet to typing liner notes and, rumor has it, stuffing unsold inventory into the bins of record stores across Manhattan.
And what a golden age it was. Asch's early releases numbered some of the greatest jazz artists ever to perform, some, such as the Eureka Brass Band, unknown outside of New Orleans, others, such as the ragtime pianist James P. Johnson, overlooked pioneers of the idiom.
He recorded Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Lead Belly, who had enjoyed some success in the 1930s but would become a folk standard only after his death. "Typical of the way he treated artists whom he admired," writes Carlin, "Asch often advanced Lead Belly small amounts of money — $20 here, $50 there — with little attempt to reconcile these 'advances' against income made from recordings."
Asch brought Woody Guthrie into parlors and schoolrooms throughout the land that, Guthrie insisted, was yours and mine, and he stood up to the Red Scare and the censors. Just so, he kept Pete Seeger's work alive when no one else would record him, Seeger having been hauled up before the House Un-American Activities Committee for having strummed his banjo with seditious intent.
But more, Asch brought into being the magnificent, world-changing, centrifugal Anthology of American Folk Music, the brainchild of protohippie Harry Smith, who came calling one day with a bunch of old 78 rpm records to sell.
Asch, Carlin writes, didn't take Smith up on the offer, but instead urged him to assemble the best of them into a document tracing the evolution of American folk music. Issued in several volumes, the anthology introduced and reintroduced artists such as Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, Furry Lewis, Dock Boggs, the Carter Family and Mississippi John Hurt.
In the waning days of Jim Crow, those artists would not have been able to share a stage in many parts of the country, but Smith and Asch respected no color line. Out of the anthology came modern folk music — and, more to the point, Bob Dylan — to say nothing of the revival of roots country music that begat such acts as Wilco, Devil in a Woodpile, and Lucinda Williams (an Asch discovery). In ecumenical spirit, Asch also issued a vast collection of ethnographic music that no self-respecting hipster and audiophile of the '60s could do without, from early reggae to pygmy songs to Indonesian ballads.
Without Moses Asch and Folkways Records, which became part of the Smithsonian Institution in 1987, we would likely not know songs such as Goodnight Irene and If I Had a Hammer. Without them, our aural landscape would be the poorer. Carlin's book — richly illustrated, and with a world-ranging CD sampler as a lagniappe — is a welcome, long-overdue celebration of the musical entrepreneur and his singular idea.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor to the Encyclopaedia Britannica and its blog, for which he writes about world geography, music and many other subjects.