Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Who's Who In Knickerbocker Village History: Moses Asch, part 2

An excerpt from a 1978 conversation with Moses Asch from Pete Seeger's site
"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.

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