The Guardian

The Guardian March 5, 2003


Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

Only in the USA

Did you note the newsworthy responses in the US to the French 
Government's refusal to support a US attack on Iraq? They differ 
widely.

Progressive opinion put forward proposals such as everyone buying a bottle 
of French wine regularly and drinking a toast to France (and sending an 
email to President Chirac congratulating France and encouraging him to go 
on resisting US pressure).

On the other hand, right-wing opinion, under a heavy mantle of patriotism, 
reacted by ceasing to advertise potato chips as "French Fries". Instead, 
they have rechristened them "Freedom Fries"!

Bound to catch on, don't you think?

My record collection includes only three LPs on the distinctive Folkways 
label. I say distinctive because Folkways records came in stiff double 
sleeves of heavy cardboard. One pocket contained the actual LP, the other 
contained a booklet of eight pages or so with the notes on the songs.

Even in 1950s, Folkways Records had a substantial catalogue of American 
folk music together with much English, Irish and Scottish folk music. But 
their catalogue included a vast array of ethnic music from Greece, Asia, 
the Pacific, Eastern Europe.

The following consecutive entries in Folkways' 1957 catalogue will give an 
idea of the label's extraordinary range and variety: Folk Music of 
Pakistan; Spanish Music of New Mexico; Folk Music of the Western Congo; 
Songs of the Watutsi; Folk music of Japan.

Indeed, Folkways had it all: from jazz to Scottish War Ballads, from songs, 
folk tales and historical items for children to readings from Bret Harte 
and James Joyce, from Union Songs sung by Pete Seeger to Dante's Inferno in 
Italian.

Founded by Moses Asch in the 1940s, Folkways was a mainstay of the folksong 
revival of the '50s and '60s. unlike most other labels, however, Folkways 
did not abandon the form when the folksong craze waned, overwhelmed by the 
intense commercial promotion of rock'n'roll.

Music From Western Samoa: From Conch Shell to Disco was added to the 
catalogue as recently as 1984. Asch died shortly thereafter.

He had always been concerned at the way other record companies only kept 
recordings in their catalogues for relatively short periods. As soon as 
their sales dropped off, they would be withdrawn. Once withdrawn a 
recording was unlikely to be reissued.

According to an article in The New York Times earlier this month, 
Asch was wont to ask if Q would be dropped from the alphabet just because 
it wasn't used as much as the rest of the letters.

The entire Folkways inventory of some 2168 titles beginning in 1948 was 
bought from Asch's estate by the famous museum of technology and Americana, 
the Smithsonian Institution in 1987. A condition of the sale was that the 
museum agree to keep every title in stock.

The New York Times notes that "Initially, requests for rare, out-of-
stock albums were fulfilled with dubbed cassettes". Now, however, a museum 
employee burns five copies on to recordable CDs, one for the customer 
requesting the item and four to put on the shelf for future orders.

The irony here, as the NY Times article noted, is that the 
commercial record industry is dead set opposed to recordable CDs, claiming 
that they will (shock, horror) allow people to record their own discs 
instead of buying the commercially available ones.

You want a copy of American Industrial Ballads sung by Pete Seeger or Folk 
Songs of the Canadian North Woods? Well, for US$19.95 plus postage, 
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings as it is now called will forward a CD-R 
"burned" with the original album, "along with a standard cardboard slipcase 
that includes a folded photocopy of the original liner notes".

While the Smithsonian's use of recordable CDs (CD-Rs) allows the museum to 
keep faith with its obligation to keep everything "in stock", it is, as the 
NY Times is quick to point out, "a labour-intensive solution that 
would be inefficient for the higher-demand catalogues of the major labels".

Which is a jargon-filled way of saying it would eat into their profits.

However, to overcome this problem with the more popular titles in their 
catalogue, Smithsonian Folkways is venturing into the manufacture of CDs 
(as opposed to their in-house CD-Rs), using a "print-on-demand" company 
Americ Disc.

"These Collector's Series discs come with full-colour booklets and are 
identical in quality to commercial releases, but are sold only through the 
Smithsonian Folkways Web site (www.si.edu)."

The Museum expects to sell significantly more copies of these CDs than 
their typical CD-R's, but still fewer than full-blown commercial retail 
releases.

What the New York Times article does not point out is that the 
reason the Smithsonian can produce records in this highly specialised way 
is because it is that rare creature in the US, a not-for-profit public 
institution.

If the vast US "record industry" was run by similar Government-supported 
public bodies, their truly enormous back catalogues of music, sound and 
spoken word could also be made available free from commercial constraints.

The Smithsonian is showing the US people the way new technology should be 
applied.

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