Background

Folkways Records’ founder and director, Moses (“Moe”) Asch emphasized the central importance of cover art and design by once describing it as a “marriage” between the visual and the sound. What appeared on the cover was an integral component of a complex whole, intended to support and enhance the sonic contents of each recording. While individual Folkways covers are often astonishing in their beauty, simplicity and originality, viewed as a collection, the prime design imperative emerges: to create a look to invite a listen. Viewed as a collection of images spanning over four decades, the covers tell a story of human creativity and experience that matches the vast and diverse sounds and music of Folkways Records.

 
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The Asch Recordings 1939 - 1945, Vol. 2 image1The Asch Recordings 1939 - 1945, Vol. 2 image2
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The Asch Recordings 1939 - 1945, Vol. 2

FW00AA3/4
1939, 1967
Irwin Rosenhouse
Irwin Rosenhouse
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Cowboy Waltz — Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston

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Issued in 1967, this album is a compilation of material that first appeared on Asch and Disc Recordings, predecessor labels to Folkways. The cover design features the lively, hand-generated type for which Rosenhouse became known. The two-colour design makes use of overprinting to create a third colour and reversal to render the typographic elements at the top in white.

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Anthology of American Folk Music, Vol. 2: Social Music image1Anthology of American Folk Music, Vol. 2: Social Music image2Anthology of American Folk Music, Vol. 2: Social Music image3
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Anthology of American Folk Music, Vol. 2: Social Music

FW02952
1967
Ronald Clyne
Ben Shahn
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John the Revelator — Blind Willie Johnson

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The condensed, serif type and Ben Shahn's photograph are rendered in two colours: the brown superimposed on a pale tint of orange, gives a warm, earthy, rural sensibility to the overall design. The three-volume Anthology of American Folk Music by Harry Smith is considered one of the most important recordings in the Folkways catalogue.

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John A. Lomax, Jr. Sings American Folk Songs image1John A. Lomax, Jr. Sings American Folk Songs image2John A. Lomax, Jr. Sings American Folk Songs image3
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John A. Lomax, Jr. Sings American Folk Songs

FW03508
1956
Ronald Clyne
Unknown
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Whoopie Ti-Yi-Yo, Get Along Little Dogies — John Lomax, Jr.

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The structure of the cover, using cropping, a low horizontal image format, and type set along the top edge, suggests the open expanse of the western landscape. In 1925 Moe Asch purchased a copy of Cowboy Songs and Frontier Ballads by John A. Lomax, Sr., beginning his lifelong passion for American folksongs. The renowned folklorist's son sings this collection of songs.

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Negro Folk Songs for Young People image1Negro Folk Songs for Young People image2Negro Folk Songs for Young People image3
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Negro Folk Songs for Young People

FW07533
1967
Ronald Clyne
Frederick Ramsey Jr.
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We're in the Same Boat, Brother — Lead Belly

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The grainy photograph conveys the honesty and integrity of the legendary Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter), wearing his customary suit and tie, performing for a young audience. A powerful singer and guitar player, Lead Belly possessed vast knowledge of African American music with a repertoire ranging from children's play-party games to prison songs. Moe Asch allowed him to record anything he wished, resulting in a canon that continues to influence musicians worldwide.

From a purely pragmatic standpoint, an album cover houses and protects the record. For Folkways, it was also an important marketing and communication tool. It served as the visual entry point for the recording and contributed to the identity of Folkways Records as a whole.

 
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Niloh Service image1Niloh Service image2Niloh Service image3
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Niloh Service

FW08925
1973
Irwin Rosenhouse
Irwin Rosenhouse
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Ato Hivdalto M'Chol Lavonoseinu — Abraham Brun

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The sketchy quality of the image and hand-rendered letterforms give currency and immediacy to this traditional Jewish service. The first recordings made by Moe Asch were popular Yiddish songs, Jewish commentaries, and educational programming for radio station WEVD. Jewish cantorials and liturgical material from other faiths became an important part of the Folkways catalogue.

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Woody Guthrie: This Land Is Your Land image1Woody Guthrie: This Land Is Your Land image2Woody Guthrie: This Land Is Your Land image3
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Woody Guthrie: This Land Is Your Land

FW31001
1967
Craig Meirop
Sid Grossman
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This Land is Your Land — Woody Guthrie

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The superimposed images of Woody Guthrie reveal his passion and intensity during performance. The orange drop-shadows of the title identify the album as a recording of the 1960s. It was Guthrie's association with Moses Asch that yielded the bulk of his prodigious recorded legacy.

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Healing Songs of the American Indians image1Healing Songs of the American Indians image2Healing Songs of the American Indians image3
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Healing Songs of the American Indians

FW04251
1965
Ronald Clyne
Unknown
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The Approach of the Thunderbirds — Ki miwun (Rainy)

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This photograph of ethnographer Frances Densmore and Mountain Chief, the Blackfoot Nation's last hereditary leader, documents early sound technology. Densmore is shown playing a recording on a wax cylinder phonograph while Mountain Chief interprets the sounds in sign language. The extended, serif type of the title is reminiscent of wood type characteristic in the early American West.

On yet another level, Folkways album covers facilitated the broad dissemination of art, photography, and design reflecting Asch's conviction that the artist's work, like that of the musician, needed to be preserved and made available to the public.

 
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The History of Jazz image1The History of Jazz image2The History of Jazz image3
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The History of Jazz

FW02860
1978
Ronald Clyne
Joan Miro
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Who Stole the Lock off the Henhouse Door — Mary Lou Williams

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Hesitation Boogie — Mary Lou Williams

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The Miro painting reflects the playful, dynamic nature of the wide range of jazz music recorded here. The form and colour of the type subtly reiterate the whimsical qualities of the painting. Contrast is provided by the warmth of the orange ground. Mary Lou Williams was a pioneer jazz musician, arranger, and composer, and one of Moe Asch's favourite artists.

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Gazette, Volume 1 image1Gazette, Volume 1 image2Gazette, Volume 1 image3
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Gazette, Volume 1

FW02501
1958
Ronald Clyne
Leona Pierce
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Newspapermen — Pete Seeger

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Iconic Folkways recording artist Pete Seeger sees American folk music as "a living, vital, creative force in our lives...as much a reflection of the present as the past." The cover design plays on the layout of a newspaper front page to create a tone that is popular, accessible, and reflective of the album's topical songs. The expressive woodcut captures Seeger's stage presence perfectly. Attributed to Antonio Frasconi, the woodcut is, in fact, the work of Leona Pierce, Frasconi's wife.

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Cowboy Ballads image1Cowboy Ballads image2Cowboy Ballads image3Cowboy Ballads image4
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Cowboy Ballads

FW02022
1953
Unknown
Ben Shahn
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Chisholm Trail — Cisco Houston

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The simple line drawing by social realist artist and photographer, Ben Shahn, evokes the loneliness and isolation of a cowboy's life on the range. David Stone Martin, who illustrated and designed many of the early Folkways covers, introduced Ben Shahn to Moe Asch.

The Folkways cover image, as well as the recording, was intended to both reach out to and be an expression of humanity. The covers succeeded in communicating visually, in stylistic range and thematic focus, a breathtaking diversity of the socially relevant, highly topical and, often, politically radical sounds within.

 
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All the Homespun Days: A Narrative Poem image1All the Homespun Days: A Narrative Poem image2All the Homespun Days: A Narrative Poem image3
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All the Homespun Days: A Narrative Poem

FW03853
1961
Ronald Clyne
Norman Studer
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All the Homespun Days, Part 2 — Norman Studer

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The weathered face of an old man of the Catskill backcountry is enhanced by overprinting the photograph on a grey-green ground, evoking the regional authenticity of Norman Studer's poetry. Designer Ronald Clyne established the distinctive Folkways look seen here: the dark background and edges and simple, two-toned printing are characteristic of his work.

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Eugene V. Debs image1Eugene V. Debs image2Eugene V. Debs image3
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Eugene V. Debs

FW05571
1979
Ronald Clyne
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An Overview of Eugene V. Debs

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The bold, slab serif typeface and posterized photograph give weight and power to this tribute to Eugene V. Debs, trade unionist, socialist, and revolutionary. The red, white, and blue colour scheme underlines Debs's passion for the America "of the people." Moe Asch's first recordings in the 1930s were for the Yiddish radio station WEVD, created in 1927 by the Socialist Party. The station call letters stood for the initials of Eugene Victor Debs.

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Statement: Lecture at Columbia University image1Statement: Lecture at Columbia University image2Statement: Lecture at Columbia University image3Statement: Lecture at Columbia University image4
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Statement: Lecture at Columbia University

FW35503
1977
Ronald Clyne
Hermann Struck
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Statement — Sholem Asch

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The traditional, centered arrangement, together with the surrounding border and colour selection, lends a serious and solemn tone to the cover. The drawing of Sholem Asch, along with the word "Statement," conveys a sense of resolve, while the title Sholem Asch Statement adds a sense of defiance. The Columbia lecture was Asch's response to attacks from within the Jewish community over his writings on Christian themes.