The Frying Pan
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Einstein and Folkways Records

Einsteinviolin

 

If a movie was ever made about the early years of Folkways Records, someone would have to play Albert Einstein.

It would only be a cameo and its true importance is hard to assess, but nevertheless there is an anecdote that links the father of modern physics with the label that brought us Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and the New Lost City Ramblers.

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My research is in its early stages. But it keeps getting clearer and clearer to me that Folkways Records wasn't just a label that released folk records. It has been a significant force in shaping the way music listeners in the United States and beyond think about their culture and their past.

For example, Woody Guthrie has sometimes seemed to me, and others, as some kind of mythical legendary superfolk. Much of the reason is that Pete Seeger consciously set out to make sure he was remembered this way. But it seems very doubtful that either Pete or Woody would have had the careers they had without Folkways.

Also, as I understand it, Leadbelly had such a degrading experience under management of the Lomaxes that it's unclear how much recording he would have done if Folkways founder Moses Asch hadn't brought him into the studio.

And Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music came out on Folkways and continues to be a major conduit between Americans and their own musical heritage. But when Smith walked into the Folkways offices, all he wanted to do was sell them his old record collection. Having Harry put together an anthology was the idea of Moses Asch.

And remember that the very first LP of bluegrass music ever released was on the Folkways label.

And on page 15 of Bob Dylan's autobiography, Dylan tells us why he went to New York: "I envisioned myself recording for Folkways Records. That was the label I wanted to be on. That was the label that put out all the great records."

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Here's what I know about Einstein's role — plus a little of what I don't know.

Moe Asch was the son of Shalom Asch, perhaps the best-known novelist writing in Yiddish and a leading leftist intellectual. He and Albert Einstein were acquaintances. In the late 1930s, both men were actively trying to rescue German and other European Jews endangered by the Third Reich. They encouraged and enabled Jews to leave Europe and tried to get reluctant governments, including the U.S., to accept Jewish refugees.

The young Moe Asch had recently acquired a new "portable" audio recording machine (an enormous, weighty beast in the 1930s). At this point, accounts vary in certain details. Usually, Shalom Asch brings his son and his son's machine to Princeton, NJ to record a message from Einstein about European Jews for later radio broadcast. In one version, Einstein visits the Asches in their home for the same purpose.

At some point, Einstein apparently asked the young Asch what he wanted to do for a living, and Moe offered that he might like to be a mathematician. (I can imagine a young man answering this way in hopes of pleasing Einstein, then one of the most famous celebrities on Earth.) After the recording was finished, Einstein told Moe Asch that his recording machine was a better path to follow if he wanted a creative and prosperous future.

In some accounts, Einstein speaks expansively about the machine's potential to record and preserve global civilization. In some accounts, it's Asch who speaks of starting a company that would "describe the human race, the sound it makes, what it creates," and Einstein reacts encouragingly. According to Moe Asch himself, Einstein told him:

It's very important for the 20th Century to have someone like me who understood the intellect and who understood the changes of the 20th Century and who understood folk and dissemination.
Given the very real and immediate threat to Western Civilization that was the very reason for their meeting, it's not hard to imagine any of these scenarios.

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A little harder to imagine, in detail, is the account Pete Seeger liked to tell his audiences. Seeger was close to Moe Asch and knew him well, but he was also a better entertainer and myth-maker than he was a historian:

... and then over supper, Einstein says, "Well young Mr. Asch, what do you do for a living?" And Mo says, "Well, I make a living installing public address systems into hotels, but I've just bought this recording machine, and I'm fascinated with what it can do. And in New York, I've met a Negro musician named Leadbelly who's a fantastic musician but nobody's recording him. They say he's not commercial. But I think this is American culture and it should be recorded. Down in the Library of Congress they record things and just put it on the shelf there and only a few people ever hear them."

Well, Einstein says, "You're exactly right. Americans don't appreciate their culture. It'll be a Polish Jew like you who will do the job."

I doubt Pete Seeger's account, but mostly because there's too much truth packed into it.

The genius of Folkways Records was that it was the fabled "cool corporation." Asch turned his back on the risky business of making "hits" and instead focused on a sure bet — if you record something great and rare, somebody will want it eventually. So he recorded whatever seemed to be in the spirit of his conversation with Einstein, gave it excellent and exhaustive liner notes, and kept it in print forever. (The "Sounds of North American Frogs" has been available continuously since 1958 — and in 1998 it was even digitally remastered and released on CD.)

I've also recently come to really appreciate the vital roles that Europeans played in preserving American folk music, Northerners played in preserving the sounds of the South, whites have played in keeping black musical traditions alive and kicking ... and so on, ad infinitum. The Celestial Monochord is lousy with such stories if you know where to look. In researching these curious histories, one finds Folkways Records almost continuously at the center of the action.

Aschsonnybrownie
Moses Asch, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee in 1958 (from a 1-megabyte article from the National Yiddish Book Center, available as a PDF.)

 


Comments

Mark Woody

Hello, just a few comments about your great site. I stumbled upon it looking up info about Harry Smiths' Anthology. I had read about it in Marcus Greils' Invisible Nation, and just knew I had to get a copy of it eventually. It's as wonderful as I was imagining and more so, because I find it very dense and intriguing. Especially Vol. 2, Social Music. But, back to your site. I like your cross-referencing. I look forward to reading your site now that I have discovered it. I'm also turning it on to colleagues. Mark

The Celestial Monochord

Thanks, Mark. I really appreciate that. Back around 1998, I found a copy of Invisible Republic in a used book bin. I'd heard good things about Greil Marcus and I'd always liked the Basement Tapes, so I bought it. When I read about Harry's Anthology, I went out and bought that. (Only later did I realize that both the book and the CD version of the Anthology had JUST been released a short time before.) I remember pacing around the record store for a REALLY LONG TIME, worrying about whether or not I should spend the $57 on the Anthology (I had a coupon). Today, I would very gladly spend $5700 for the experience of getting to know all that great music. Thanks again for reading, Mark. -- Kurt G.

DAveW

This is a really great blog! I found it while researching Einsteins love of music, and how Kepler believed in the harmony of the spheres.

John Culpepper

If Lead Belly had "such a degrading experience" under the management of the Lomaxes, why did he keep writing to John A. Lomax, asking him to take him back after the latter broke with him in April, 1935? Contrary to folklore, the 68 year old Lomax managed Lead Belly for a mere two-and-a half months, and their quarrels over money and credit were typical of those that artists have with their managers. They never saw each other again, but both Lead Belly and his wife, Martha Promise, sang at John Lomax's memorial concert in 1948.

I suggest you read up on the real story of Lead Belly and the Lomaxes in Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell's biography of Lead Belly, to start with. And then the chronology of the Lomaxes and LeadBelly on the Association for Cultural Equity website.

http://www.culturalequity.org/currents/ce_currents_leadbelly_faqs.php

It does a disservice to these important historical figures to reduce them to cartoon stereotypes. The fact is, that if the Lomaxes had not recorded Lead Belly and brought him to Washington and NY, Lead Belly would have spent the rest of his life pumping gas in Louisiana (a best case scenario) or back in jail for life.

Neither was Moe Asch, who gave Harry Smith the idea of making the Anthology, a saint in by any means, either in his private life or in his business dealings. But then, who is?

Read Peter Goldsmith's magnificent biography of Asch: "Making People's Music", a wonderful portrait of an man and an era. This book describes Asch's transformative encounter with John A. Lomax's book, "Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads" while a student in the German Rhineland in 1922.

The encounter is also describes in Gene Bluestein's Poplore (1994):
Asch, brought up in Staten Island, NYC, had been sent by his father to technical school in Post World War 1 Germany to save money.

There the other students taunted him by saying that America had no folklore and was “just a wilderness with Indians in the streets.” He told Bluestein “while I was in Paris on vacation from school . . . I came across the 1913 edition of John Lomax’s cowboy ballads, and it had an introduction by Teddy Roosevelt which guided me through life, because he said that folklore and folk songs were the real expressions of a people’s culture. And when I got back to school I was able to show the kids at school that there was uniqueness in our [American] culture. Lomax showed that there was folklore in America. All this stayed in the back of my mind.”

As recounted above, in 1939, on the advice of Asch family friend, the physicist Albert Einstein, Asch founded Disc and later Folkways records to document and preserve European Jewish (then in dire peril) and American folk music. See Gene Bluestein’s Poplore: Folk and Pop in American Culture (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994), pp. 105–120. A version of the story also appears in Peter Goldsmith's bio of Asch.

John Culpepper

Another interesting thing about Asch, is that his father, Schlomo Asch, was marginalized and practically excommunicated by the Jewish community for trying to reconcile Judaism with Christianity.

Sort of like a later-day Spinoza.

Harry Smith was not wrong to associate folk music with things celestial.

Carl Sagan knew it, too. According to wikipedia:
Alan Lomax was a consultant to Carl Sagan for the Voyager Golden Record sent into space on the 1977 Voyager Spacecraft to represent the music of the earth. Music he helped choose included the blues, jazz, and rock 'n' roll of Blind Willie Johnson, Louis Armstrong, and Chuck Berry; Andean panpipes and Navajo chants; Azerbaijani mugham performed by two balaban players,[32] a Sicilian sulfur miner's lament; polyphonic vocal music from the Mbuti Pygmies of Zaire, and the Georgians of the Caucasus; and a shepherdess song from Bulgaria by Valya Balkanska;[33] in addition to Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, and more. Sagan later wrote that it was Lomax "who was a persistent and vigorous advocate for including ethnic music even at the expense of Western classical music. He brought pieces so compelling and beautiful that we gave in to his suggestions more often than I would have thought possible. There was, for example, no room for Debussy among our selections, because Azerbaijanis play bagpipe-sounding instruments [balaban] and Peruvians play panpipes and such exquisite pieces had been recorded by ethnomusicologists known to Lomax." --Carl Sagan, Murmurs of Earth, p. 16.

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