Folk Scene

May and June 1978

"Conversation with Mr. Folkways: Moe Asch" by Jim Capaldi

Moe Asch has been recording folk music longer than most of us have been alive. From the 1930’s, a time of great social and political upheaval, to the present space age, he and his microphones have captured the music and sounds of the people of the world on Asch, Disc and Folkways Records. It was his genius that recognized the value of native American folk song, and the talent of people like Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Pete Seeger at a time when neither the music nor the musicians playing it were considered to be worthy of any serious attention. Moe Asch has been a key figure in the folk revival, having been associated with People’s Songs Bulletin, Sing Out! and Oak Publications. But it is chiefly through his role as founder of Folkways Records that we know of him today.

Now in his seventies, Moe Asch remains a vital force in American folk music. His record company still issues dozens of new releases every year and still maintains the policy of keeping all records in print at all times. Material on the more than 1,600 discs ranges from Appalachian mountain music to love songs of Lebanon to sounds of the human body. Looking back over the accomplishments of four decades, Moe Asch’s place as perhaps the foremost oral historian of this century is well established. The discussion that follows took place in May, 1977; it reveals something of Mr. Asch’s methods, philosophy and plans for the future.

Folkscene: Was your father Sholem Asch, a famous Yiddish writer (whose most well-known work was "The Nazarene’) , an influence in your decision to devote your life to documenting the folk music of your time?

Asch: No, except that he used to go on lecture tours throughout the United States in the 1920’s; wherever he went in the old days, in small towns, they had these sheets listing past events of the place, how they began and grew; always the heading had a folk song. So I knew there were folk songs about various areas in the United States that people had documented. My main influence was the John Lomax book which came out in 1913, Cowboy Ballads. That was the first book that documented American folk songs, and I picked that up in Paris.

I’m not interested in music per se, but the literature of it, the words. The music is mostly public domain. Usually somebody, a poet or someone else, wrote about a current event, some local happening. Like tabloids, they were local things that happened that were of interest, like murders. Local people set it down; someone musically inclined put it to music and sang it. My background is literary.

Folkscene: Then why did you go into the recording business, instead of publishing?

Asch: Because I happen to be an electronic engineer and I built equipment for radio stations. They needed recordings to use on the equipment and I got involved with folk music.. .because they told a story, because they documented a thing.

Folkscene: When did you start making records?

Asch: In 1935. My first commercial issue (on the Asch label) was in 1939, "Jewish Folk Songs" by the Bagelman Sisters. I recorded Ukrainian folk songs and Jewish cantorials for the radio; it was a foreign language station.

My first recording of American folk music was Lead Belly’s play parties.

Folkscene: How did you meet Lead Belly?

Asch: I met Lead Belly after John Lomax released him from his contract. This was after Lead Belly had made his "March of Time" film. I knew Si Rady, now a very famous motion picture producer, when he put together the show "Pins and Needles" for the Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. And I knew Rady well because I had put together the sound equipment for "Pins and Needles." He told me about Lead Belly and we met. Lead Belly and I got along right immediately. After the release of the play party album we got national publicity. Walter Winchell and others wrote about "this murderer singing children’s play parties," but Lead Belly was the most wonderful gentlemen you’d ever want to meet.

Folkscene: What about Woody Guthrie?

Asch: Woody, I met after he came to the Library of Congress and did his recordings of the Dust Bowl ballads for Alan Lomax. When he first came to New York City in the Forties, he was broke. Lomax introduced him to me and we got along very, very well. But he was a very hard man to get along with. As a human being he was very anti-social. He didn’t like people generally, because they tended to look down at this character from the west who spoke with a drawl. He didn’t give a damn about people as such.

Folkscene: Yet his songs are full of love for people...

Asch: Well, he was for the common man, but he was anti-New York, anti-establishment. Everywhere he went they wanted him for his money. Wherever he went, they wanted his songs to be commercial.

Folkscene: What did you think of the recent film about him, "Bound For Glory"?

Asch: The movie is not too bad; it shows more of what happened before he came here. But generally they are commercializing him to the extent that they are destroying him as a person and making an image of him that he wasn’t.

Folkscene: How can you prevent his commercialization?

Asch: By continuing to sing his songs. His songs speak for themselves. His children’s songs are still the best.

Folkscene: You’ve issued a lot of records with Woody and Cisco Houston singing together.

Asch: An awful lot. We went through the books the other day and through a twenty-four hour period, they recorded between forty to fifty songs, one right after the other. It’s not like today; you didn’t have the problem of four tracks and everything else. I was my own recording engineer. There was one mike, we set it up and they just sang, one song after another. Every one was perfect. And if there was a mistake, that was all right too. You couldn’t cut off a mistake like you can with tape this was acetate. We all felt that the spirit was in the record. I still have some of the old original acetates; many were broken because they were recorded on glass. They had no aluminum; it was being used in the war. So they made acetates out of glass.

Some years ago we copied all the ones that weren’t broken onto tape.

Folkscene: Pete Seeger is probably your most prolific artist. When did you meet him?

Asch: In 1942, when Pete was on leave from the army to make a Decca recording of the Lincoln cantata "Lonesome Train." He was here for just twenty-four hours and when he was finished at Decca, the other folksingers who also worked on that project brought him to me. We met for the first time that evening and he recorded for me just before he went back to the army.

Folkscene: One of my favorites is Pete’s Darling Corey (FA 2003).

Asch: It’s a good record because in those days he was not conscious that he had to do something. He just did what he felt like, the way he felt like doing it. Now he’s also starting to be conscious of the quality and the balance and all that business for the standards of today. Although that new record of his is wonderful, the one about the Hudson Valley (Fifty Sail on Newburgh Bay, FE 5257). It’s a beautiful record; it was carefully edited, carefully recorded. On my original ones they got to the studio, they sang and that was it. I did the recording and the spirit was there in the record. And those are still my best sellers, that came out from those days.

Folkscene: Were you involved in any way in the 1930’s political movements?

Asch: No, not at all. They just came to me. For example, during the war it was very difficult for people, like workers in the factories, not to feel guilty because they were not called into the army. So to boost their morale, the C.I.O. wanted recordings saying that the workers at home were just as much soldiers as the men on the front and that we were also needed. So they came to me and I recorded them, albums such as Citizen C.I.O. with Tom Glazer and so forth. I was never involved in the political system but I was the documentor. They would come to me and record; at the same time Irwin Silber, with his American Folksay group, recorded their own political songs on their own label. So I wasn’t the only one.

Folkscene: But didn’t you record the Almanac Singers as a group? They were very political in the beginning, with their Songs For John Doe album.

Asch: No, I didn’t; not them as such but as individuals. I never recorded the Almanacs but knew them all individually. Once in a while they would come together, but not as the Almanacs, to the studio to record.

Folkscene: Were you affected by the McCarthy era blacklist in the 1950’s?

Asch: I was always affected by the blacklist, because they wouldn’t play my records on the air. John Henry Faulk wouldn’t play my records on the air because he was afraid CBS would fire him if he played Pete Seeger or Asch records on the radio. And yet he was a victim later himself, of the blacklist. We were never allowed on the air in those days. I was listed in the "Red Channels" book (this was a listing circulated to broadcast stations giving the names of suspected "subversives." Anyone mentioned would not be used, whether the accusation was true or not.), with about a hundred mentions of me. It never affected me because my people bought my records. There was never any problem as far as I was concerned; I didn’t give a damn. I issued what I wanted.

The only thing that happened to me was that when we broke with Red China, I had issued a recording of Chinese revolutionary songs. The Treasury Department asked me not to issue the record; they claimed that money owed Red China would never get there, because we had a block. So that was the only official problem I ever had. I was not affected because the people that bought my records knew what I was doing and wanted them. The libraries wanted them, the universities needed them, the young people liked them. I didn’t use the commercial channels, I wasn’t on the air; so I was not affected. I never wanted to be a millionaire. Everything we made, more than the cost of production, went into new recordings. I issue fifty to sixty a year. And Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly help pay for them with their sales.

Folkscene: It seems that New York City was the center for the beginning of the folk music revival, while today the movement is scattered across the country. Did your early releases sell very many outside of New York?

Asch: Well, it kept us alive. . .I’m still here.

Folkscene: What problems do you encounter with distribution? Do you sell more to libraries and schools or to the public?

Asch: It’s about half and half. Those the stores buy also go to schools through parents and teachers that want them. As for distribution, many stores won’t stock them because they don’t think it’s commercial. My children’s records are not kiddie records. We merchandise them the same way as we do every other kind. There are only seven or eight stores that carry a decent quantity of Folkways. There are about one thousand stores around the country that carry some, but not that many. In other words, I never sell ten thousand of a particular number. We do have over six hundred retail establishments that buy directly from us for example, Sam Goody and King Karol here in New York. Sam Goody has always supported us; he always believed in what I did.

Folkscene: Didn’t one of your 78 rpm labels go bankrupt in the Forties?

Asch: I went bankrupt in 1947. That happened because I issued Jazz at the Philharmonic with Norman Grantz. Nat King Cole cost me $15,000. It was so expensive. I couldn’t commercialize it, so I couldn’t keep up with it. The Disc Company went bankrupt and then I started Folkways in 1947. The banks gave me a $3,000 advance because they knew the type of thing that I did would sell. So I started Folkways Records with $3,000. It was actually the high cost of the jazz records that caused the bankruptcy. Today Norman Grantz is doing very well; he knew how to merchandise jazz.

Folkscene: When you first began Folkways did you have any idea of the great folk "boom" that was about to take place?

Asch: No, that didn’t happen until 1964,my biggest year. It survived, dropped again, and then the popular people picked it up. Nobody wanted the type of thing I did. It was too ethnic, too primitive. But they all used my material. MGM wanted to get involved in the folk music scene and I leased them some recordings, which they issued as the Verve/Folkways label. Then, in two years time, they decided not to continue and they returned them to me. About ten records or so came out on Verve/Folkways.

Folkscene: Which release of yours has sold the most copies?

Asch: I guess that would be Woody Guthrie’s Songs To Grow On (FC 7015) and Pete Seeger’s Birds, Beasts, Bugs And Little Fishes (FC 7610) . My children’s records have always been my biggest sellers.

Folkscene: In his book Bob Dylan:An Intimate Biography, Anthony Scaduto quotes Dylan as saying, "Went up to Folkways Records. I had written some songs. I said, ‘Howdy. I’ve written some songs. Will ya publish some songs?’ Wouldn’t even look at them. I heard Folkways was good. Never got to see Moe Asch. They just about said ‘Go!’...I thought I was in the wrong place." According to that you rejected Bob Dylan. Why did you reject him, but record others like Kevin Roth and Gary Green?

Asch: That isn’t true. Bob Dylan immediately went to Columbia Records. Pete Seeger and John Hammond brought him to Columbia; he never came to me. I never rejected him for rejection’s sake. No, I’m interested in Green because he’s a new voice, a new person. And I just issued Jeff Ampolsk — he’s terrific. And that is done for Broadside magazine. They bring me all these new people; nobody else does.

Every month I receive about forty or fifty tapes, about one or two a day. And I listen to all of them. If I think that they have something to say, I use them. Most of them protest about love and stuff like that; I try to tell them, why don’t you use this talent that you have for the people’s use. I am not interested in pro-love or anti-love material.

That’s the only way I reject it.

Folkscene: Why did Pete Seeger leave Folkways in 1961 to go with Columbia?

Asch: Because Columbia offered him such a good deal, and I couldn’t match it. And it’s not my interest to hold onto an artist. We have let go Gary Davis, Sammy Walker and several others. Sammy said that we sell better than his new label, Warner Brothers. They did nothing for him, just issued the record.

It’s my purpose to expose an artist, and if some big company wants him, fine. I can’t afford to have a best seller, because I have 1,600 items and if all my efforts go to one record, what will happen to the other 1,5999? My interest is to keep the catalog alive, the whole thing in print. It’s more interesting for me to sell two each of l,600,that would be 3,200 records than 3,200 of a single release if I have not got the facilities to press them. We have had orders for 25,000 records from book clubs, but those I give to other factories to do. I don’t do it in my regular way, so I’m not involved. I can’t take my capital and throw it into a big best seller, with what all that requires advertising and publicity and let the rest of the catalog go. That’s not my interest. The important thing is that the catalog is alive and moving and paying for itself. That’s the whole thing.

Folkscene:. Are there some titles that don’t sell any copies at all in a given year?

Asch: Yes, some that sell one or two or none. Recently, for instance, they issued a book in Belgium that was a discography of all the science records in the world and all of my scientific records are in there. Something like Sounds of the Human Body is in there. And I get orders from all over the world, name the country. Some hospital, some organization of surgeons may need that record. So it’s there.

Folkscene: The catalog includes music from all over the world. Have you been to any of those places?

Asch: No, I’ve only been to Europe. They are all done by anthropologists or governmental departments of music. All the records are done scientifically; they’re not just put together.

Folkscene: Looking back over the years and your many achievements, do you feel that you’ve accomplished all that you set out to do?

Asch: I think so. I’m very satisfied. And I’m working now on how to keep this thing going after I’m gone in exactly the same way it is. It’s already being organized in such a fashion. The person in charge of talent and type of issue would be my son, a doctor of anthropology; he was brought up on this type of material and understands my philosophy. And the people in this office are being trained to carry on. . .

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