The Folkways Philosophy

Folkways Records and Service Corporation was founded in New York City in 1948 by Moe Asch and continued under his direction until his death in 1986. It was a small operation with a huge output. Never employing more than a half dozen people, Folkways released over two thousand titles in the thirty-eight years of the company's existence-an average of one record a week. Even more remarkable was his view that every title in the Folkways catalogue was a document, an integral and lasting part of the catalogue, and must remain "in print" regardless of sales. Asch made this clear by often commenting, "Just because the letter J is less popular than the letter S, you don't take it out of the dictionary."

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Photo of Moe Asch image1

Photo of Moe Asch

LA0059
David Gahr

Used with permission, courtesy © Estate of David Gahr.

Technical and documentary innovations also set Folkways apart from other companies. Moe Asch's microphone placement is still regarded as the most effective means for capturing natural studio sound. Folkways Records pioneered the now commonplace practice of including liner notes with the album. These "notes" were often booklet-length with extensive ethnographic information, including photographs, song lyrics, and biographies of musicians, when available. The distinctive design of Folkways covers and the thoughtful consideration of its relationship to the audio content reveals a unique approach to the marketing of the albums.

 
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The Stoneman Family image1The Stoneman Family image2The Stoneman Family image3
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The Stoneman Family

FW02315
1957
Unknown
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Bile Them Cabbage Down — Ernest V. Stoneman

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The cutout image parts make up a lively banjo with type running along two of the strings. The stamped flowers in the background activate the image space and, together with the vibrant colour scheme, capture the spirited rhythms of the old-time tunes.

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The Fisk Jubilee Singers image1The Fisk Jubilee Singers image2The Fisk Jubilee Singers image3
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The Fisk Jubilee Singers

FW02372
1955
Unknown
Aaron Douglas
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Great Camp Meeting — Fisk Jubilee Singers

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The cut-out style of the type echoes the paper-cut art of the image. The figures, foliage, and radiating lines, all directed upward, complement the spiritual quality of the music. The design was produced in other colour combinations with successive printings. Aaron Douglas, an artist of the Harlem Renaissance, founded the Fisk University Art Department where he taught for twenty-nine years.

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Watergate, Vol. 1

FW05551
1973
Ronald Clyne
Unknown
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President Nixon's Watergate Speech, April 30, 1973 — Richard Nixon

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Through the use of a broken faceting of the building's facade, this series of album covers vividly and literally illustrates the public's "shattered" faith in the White House in the wake of the Watergate hearings. Colour and typography provide variation within the otherwise consistent layout of the series.

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The Women Blues of Champion Jack Dupree image1The Women Blues of Champion Jack Dupree image2The Women Blues of Champion Jack Dupree image3
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The Women Blues of Champion Jack Dupree

FW03825
1968
Ronald Clyne
David Gahr
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Jail House — Champion Jack Dupree

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The cover photograph by David Gahr is as intimate and sensual as a French Impressionist painting, capturing the mood of the New Orleans blues period of Champion Jack Dupree. The album is cast as "a song saga--in a setting of boogie woogie from slow blues to surging stomps" and unified thematically: "The theme is woman. Or women. Bad women and good women. Hard times, hooch, hot hands and hot music. Slow songs and sad lines" (liner notes).

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Sounds of North American Frogs image1Sounds of North American Frogs image2Sounds of North American Frogs image3
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Sounds of North American Frogs

FW06166
1958
Ronald Clyne
Unknown
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Chorus of Barking Treefrogs (Hyla gratiosa) — Barking Treefrogs

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Once a bestseller, this album, produced in cooperation with The American Museum of Natural History, presents field recordings of the sounds of different species of North American frogs. These sounds are captured visually on the cover through a series of concentric ovals emanating like sound waves from the frog's mouth. The background, appropriately, is green.

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The Pit and the Pendulum image1The Pit and the Pendulum image2The Pit and the Pendulum image3
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The Pit and the Pendulum

FW09705
1967
Ronald Clyne
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Begins: "I was sick - sick unto death..." — David Kurlan

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Animation of the typographic pendulum is created by gradually decreasing the height of the repeated titles and tapering the top of each one. Visual weight is suggested by the white "M" hanging at the bottom. The dark background and stark design reinforce the macabre and mysterious quality of Edgar Allan Poe's short story.

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The Nuru Taa African Musical Idiom image1The Nuru Taa African Musical Idiom image2The Nuru Taa African Musical Idiom image3
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The Nuru Taa African Musical Idiom

FW31306
1975
Unknown
David Stone Martin
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After Glow — Nadi Qamar

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The lively ink drawing of transparent hands, superimposed on a layering of African instruments, creates a sense of animation and rhythm. The quirky forms of the hand lettering contrast the capital letters in sans serif typeface used for the subtitle.

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Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Songs

FW02215
1955, 1961
Unknown
Carlis
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Meedli, Widdu Heiere — George Britton

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The cover uses Pennsylvania Dutch design elements, visually situating these songs typical of the Lancaster region and its German-speaking settlers. The cursive handwritten script used by Carlis conveys an untutored traditionalism suggestive of an earlier era in American folk music.

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Folksongs of Saskatchewan

FW04312
1963
Ronald Clyne
Unknown
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Saskatchewan — Jim Young

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The stark expanse of prairie sky dominates and serves as a backdrop for worn, degraded "typewriter" letterforms. The low horizontal format of the photograph superimposed on a taupe ground evokes the isolation of a prairie town. This photograph, taken in 1913, is of Vanguard, Saskatchewan.