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Moses (Moe) Asch

By

Moses Asch

Moses Asch

© Smithsonian Folkways

Description of Moses Asch's work:

Folk music collector, founder of Folkways Records

Comparisons:

Moses Asch was one of the earliest champions of American folk music within the music industry. His Asch Records became Folkways Records, which was eventually acquired by the Smithsonian after his death in 1986. Asch also assisted with the formation of Verve Records - another label which championed the recording careers of some of the most important early folk recording artists. Though his ardent allegiance to folk music collecting and advocacy rivals that of some folk musicologists and collectors like Charles Seeger, John Lomax, Alan Lomax, and others, Asch was not as much of a music historian as those folks. He simply believed the music should be collected and preserved, and that it deserved an avenue for preservation.

Artists With Whom Moses Asch Worked:

Moe Asch was an early champion of artists on the cutting edge of traditional and topical folk music. In addition to championing the careers of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, and the Almanac Singers, Asch gave voice to Dave Van Ronk, Scott Joplin, Josh White, Mary Lou Williams, Peggy Seeger, Reverend Gary Davis, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, the New Lost City Ramblers (including Pete and Peggy's brother Mike Seeger, who also recorded for Folkways as a solo artist), and many more.

Books About Moses Asch and Folkways Records:

Worlds of Sound: The Story of Smithsonian Folkways, by Richard Carlin.

Making People's Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records, by Peter D. Goldsmith.

Moses (Moe) Asch Biography:

Moe Asch was born in December, 1905, in Warsaw, Poland. Both his father Sholem and his brother Nathan were authors (his father wrote both Yiddish-language novels and plays; his brother mostly just novels). His parents prohibited him from listening to jazz when he was a boy, but Asch developed a taste for music which defied all rules and barriers.

By the time he started preserving traditional music on his own Folkways Records label in New York in 1948, Asch had developed an affinity for any musical expression which existed. Where other record labels were aimed at marketing a specific style of music to a specific community of people (i.e. R&B albums to African-American communities; country and western to rural people), Asch was focused on generalized distribution - placing all styles of music in equal reach to everyone. He recorded every style of traditional music imaginable - from Mormon hymns to political protest songs, to the Anthology of American Folk Music (compiled by Harry Smith, released on Folkways Records).

Famously, Moe Asch's office was cluttered with recordings and books and papers and other items - on every surface available. He was an ardent collector, student, and champion of music and culture. His Folkways releases were intended to be different from any other recording one might pick up at a record store. They were packaged in a two-sided case with two pockets - one for the LP, and another pocket for liner notes.

He ran Folkways Records from the time he created it in 1948 until his death in 1986. At that point, according to his plans and recommendations, Folkways was consumed by the Smithsonian Institute, where it resides today. In Asch's place stands a legacy which champions the vitality and importance of traditional music. Any musical sound a person could make, Asch believed, was worth someone else hearing. Whether the listener found inspiration or was simply unaffected, it didn't matter; as long as the music was sure to be heard by someone.

To learn more about Moses Asch's legacy, life, work, and the recordings he made for Folkways, check out this profile of Smithsonian Folkways Records.

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