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