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eMusic article re Smithsonian Folkways

30 Apr 07 - 10:03 PM (#2039950)
Subject: eMusic article re Smithsonian Folkways
From: Zhenya

I just came across some interesting comments on the eMusic blog site 17 dots. This is an article about the fact that Smithsonian Folkways hasn't stayed relevant in terms of preserving and promoting roots music, and a cry for SF or others to continue this type of activity.

I added a comment to that site about Musical Traditions, which does promote this type of music. I thought this might be of interest to some people here, and you might have lots of current sources to recommend as well.


eMusic: Why We Need a New Folkways

    Smithsonian Folkways isn’t a record label, it’s a museum. Once upon a time — primarily the ’50s through the late ’60s — Folkways was a living label, an imprint that still discovered artists, sought out new recordings and truly trafficked in its founding mission: Moses Asch’s goal to document “people’s music,” and, later, all aspects of sound. Somewhere along the way, however, Folkways stopped doing that, turning its attentions to curating the folk music legacy of Woody and Pete along with a few niche focuses, and paying less heed to the types of records that made the Smithsonian Folkways catalogue such a powerful and unique one.

    It’s an understandable shift for Folkways to make. As a government entity in need of funding and political support, it is in a unique position: accountable to no one, and yet simultaneously accountable to us all. The NEA has long been a right-wing bugaboo, but the Smithsonian has largely dodged those critiques by playing up its populism rather than any of the other isms its catalogue contains. Thus, Folkways stays out of the way when the very radical aims of Guthrie and Seeger are synthesized into some sort of vanilla portrayal of modern-age minstrels and troubadours who busked children’s lullabies and summer camp singalongs for a day’s wage and a piece of that fresh apple pie — this land is your land, after all.

    This has been a boon to those artists and their estates, both in terms of legacy and proceeds, and has helped Smithsonian Folkways maintain a broader cultural relevance while its annual output of new recordings slows to a mere dribble. It also stays current by making its catalogue available digitally to services such as eMusic and, for instance, by putting together a compilation to accompany the release of Dylan’s Chronicles Vol. 1 autobiography. These are smart marketing and business moves that enable Folkways to endure even through trying political times. They cannot be reasonably faulted for this.

    The real trouble, however, is that no one else has stepped up to take their place. The treasures of Folkways are when the anthropological and the musical collide, when a 20-volume series on the Music of Indonesia uncovers an embarrassment of musical discoveries; when Harry Smith and Alan Lomax stumble across a wholly unique performer like Roscoe Holcomb; or when a blues master like Big Bill Broonzy offers unsurpassable renditions of classic folk songs. These releases show not only an unquenchable thirst for discovery, but also a genuine daringness, a refreshing disregard for risk.

    But we are in a very different place now. And certainly some of the prime-era Smithsonian Folkways recordings are of dubious value, but that’s not an altogether bad thing! How would I have known how much I love Transylvanian wedding music, the Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri rainforest, the sounds of the junk yard or any number of other bizarre, out-there recordings if someone in the ’60s had not decided, “this has value, even if it’s just for one person.” As much as people talk about the long tail and all of that now, here’s the best-possible application there has ever been!

    Some of what Folkways did has been overtaken by a larger, more corporate structure. World music, once the bulk of Folkways’ recordings, is now very much a big business, a form of pop music sold to a more affluent consumer, but not treated all that differently in the end. Field recordings have disappeared, sadly. And the regionalization that Folkways so heavily relied on in the Smith recordings and their ilk is largely gone — what are regions now that there’s a pervasive media/entertainment super-structure?

    But still, there are pockets out there. Pockets that need to be discovered, and should be. And certainly some people are doing that. This whole enterprise — whether you want to dub it ethnomusicology or simply a quest for sound — is not dead, by any means. But it has been relegated to the archives, and it shouldn’t. The quest for discovery is a very real and permanent thing — maybe the most human trait of all — and it must subsist. Someone needs to carry on this legacy, this very important aim, and they need to start now. Who better than the folks who started it all?


01 May 07 - 12:04 AM (#2040019)
Subject: RE: eMusic article re Smithsonian Folkways
From: Zhenya

I take it back - I thought I wrote a comment on the 17 dots site, but it seems to have been deleted! I'm hoping this was due to some technical glitch on my part, and not censorship by the blog site. At any rate, if you're not familiar with Musical Traditions, here's a link:

Musical Traditions


01 May 07 - 04:22 PM (#2040601)
Subject: RE: eMusic article re Smithsonian Folkways
From: Desert Dancer

The home page of Musical Traditions Internet magazine is here.