Smithsonian Folkways: Young Artists Refresh The Mission of 70-Year-Old Smithsonian Folkways

A WWI-era Jewish emigree from Poland named Moses Asch failed in his first attempt to form a record company in the US. But his second go, a 1948 partnership with his assistant Marian Distler, thrived. Folkways Records became a history-changing outlet for Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, The New Lost City Ramblers and a range of indigenous musicians from the US and the world at large. Its 1952 release of the Anthology of American Folk Music, compiled by Harry Smith, catalyzed the folk revival.

Before he died, Asch left the Folkways catalog to the Smithsonian Center for Folklife, which to this day pursues the original mission of documenting the “people’s music” under the name Smithsonian Folkways. And lately, in its 70th anniversary year, the label has been on a creative tear, signing a raft of young, emerging artists who are well positioned to dispel the misconception that Smithsonian Folkways only puts out antique or defiantly obscure music.

“Moses Asch worked with young, touring artists all the time,” said associate director John Smith during a September visit to Nashville for AmericanaFest. “And I think what we’re doing is just putting a little bit more emphasis on it, reminding people that’s what we do. We’re not just an archival label. We’re in the business to open ears to new sounds, whether it be in Americana or world music, whether it be more traditional or less traditional.”

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