MAKING PEOPLE'S MUSIC by Peter D. Goldsmith


Moe Asch and Folkways Records
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An exhaustive, illuminating life of Folkways Records founder Moe Asch, whose American and international folk-music releases laid the ground for the folk revival of the 1950s and ’60s and the world-music explosion of recent years. Goldsmith (Anthropology/Dartmouth) details splendidly Asch’s background. Born in 1905 in Warsaw, he was the son of Sholem Asch, the eminent Yiddish writer, who moved his family to New York to escape WWI. The senior Asch’s peripheral association with leftist political causes, disregard of Jewish orthodoxies, marital infidelity, and neglect of his children were all passed on to Moe Asch, who studied broadcasting technology and gradually drifted into recording at the end of the 1930s. At first, he recorded and released only Jewish cantorial songs, but in 1941 he met, was bowled over by, and began recording the folk-blues singer Leadbelly. Asch was soon recording other jazz, blues, and folk performers, including Art Tatum, James P. Johnson, a very young Pete Seeger, and the erratically brilliant Woody Guthrie. In addition to recording new music, Asch issued out-of-print American records from previous decades, as well as ambitious field recordings from the American South, Europe, Africa, and beyond. Folkways, which Asch ran until his death in 1986, made available much of the folk-song library that a new generation of civil-rights activists and singers drew on in the ’60s. Artists like Seeger were deeply committed to progressive politics, and Goldsmith analyzes well how folk was claimed by the political left (Asch himself generally promoted political causes only implicitly). Asch is portrayed here as —frequently uncomfortable in the presence of others—an emotionally stunted, socially isolated person,— thus there’s inevitably a cloak of vagueness over his motivations as both man and businessman that detracts from reader interest. But as an examination of how Folkways successfully mined obscure veins of vernacular music for four decades, this is a valuable study. (24 b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: May 1st, 1998
ISBN: 1-56098-812-6
Page count: 468pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 1998


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