Moses Asch's remarkable collection of recordings brings the music and voices of the world to the University of Alberta.
by John Charles
Sixty years ago a young American studying in Germany happened across a book of cowboy songs, and the seed of an idea was planted. Eventually that seed would blossom into a remarkable collection of more than 2,300 recordings, almost all of which are now available at the University of Alberta Music Resources Centre.
The University's Moses and Frances Asch Collection represents nearly the complete output of Folkways Records, the New York City based company that for 39 years created an audio archive of the world's folk music-from blues, ethnic and tribal to traditional and children's music. The company's founder and driving force was Moses Asch-that young American so influenced by the collection of cowboy songs-who died in 1986 at the age of 81.
Asch's son Michael is a professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta. His father originally offered the collection to him but Michael persuaded the Folkways' founder to donate the collection to the University instead.
"I felt it was much more important to have the collection here in an accessible way for students and faculty than to own it myself," said the anthropology professor in a recent interview.
The U of A collection is one of three major Folkways collections; the others are maintained by the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. and by Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. The recordings are a major resource for students and scholars in ethnomusicology, Native studies, American and Canadian history and anthropology.
"The way he told it, my father was studying engineering in Germany in the late 1920s, early '30s and was teased by Germans about America being a place with no culture," said Asch. "He was born in Poland, the son of Sholem Asch (the distinguished Yiddish novelist) but moved to New York at an early age, and he felt an immense identification with the U.S. culturally, though not politically. He liked that melting-pot dynamic in which different cultures could express themselves. While in Germany he ran across John Lomax's trailblazing book (Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads ) and realized that there was a culture in America, and one he could begin working on."
After returning to the United States Moses Asch eventually became a sound engineer and was asked to make a recording of Jewish religious ceremonies. It proved to be his introduction to the business of ethnic music. In 1947 he founded Folkways Records, and over the years the range of recordings was astonishing. Skimming the titles in American music alone, the eye is delighted by such examples as country blues, jug bands, Kentucky mountain music, Cajun swing, sea chanteys, square dances and War of 1812 ballads. Folk singer Peter Seeger made 78 albums for Asch, and other artists recorded by Folkways include Woody Guthrie, Josh White, Burl Ives, and jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams.
At the time of Moses Asch's death music historian Alan Lomax commented: "Mo was an explorer, but an eminently practical explorer and vox humana was his terrain." To the Folkways founder, vox humana included children's songs, readings from the McCarthy anti-communist hearings, a read-in for peace in Vietnam, and healing songs of American Indians. It was also music from Cuba, Hungary, Cambodia, Venezuela, Australia and Nova Scotia. In the 1950s and '60s Alan Mills's albums of French-Canadian folk songs, which are included in the U of A collection, were very popular on campuses across North America.
Michael Asch was no stranger to his father's business. In the 1960s he produced for the label's ethnic music series before taking up a teaching assistantship at Columbia University under Margaret Meade. In 1973, two years after joining the faculty at the University of Alberta, he edited Folkways anthology of North American Indian and Inuit music. (Anthropologist Asch has a continuing interest in the Native peoples of the North, and has been intimately involved in issues surrounding the Dene land claims. He also teaches in the University's School of Native Studies.)
"My father was from the same generation as anthropologists like Franz Boas and Margaret Meade, or artists like Picasso and Chagall," said the anthropology professor. "They were all part of an explosion in the West regarding indigenous cultures and shared an interest in such cultures as a means of rejuvenating their own, as shown by Picasso's use of African masks."
The fundamental assumption of Boas's research was simple: you cannot place a value on other cultures. On an expedition to British Columbia he gathered more than 350 salmon recipes from one tribe, which struck some of his colleagues as trivial. But his point was that salmon recipes may be of greater importance to that tribe than, for example, their organizational structure, or some other aspect of their culture. It was his tenet that all an anthropologist can do is report accurately what exists.
"That's what my father did with Folkways." Asch explained. "He wanted to provide the pure experience and not interpret it. Interpretation was left to those who listened to the records. Folkways was conceived as an encyclopedia which would include everything. Maybe the letter z isn't used as much as the letter s, but that doesn't mean you throw it out. And just because some records sold poorly didn't mean they could be dropped. I remember some records that only sold two copies in a year—but they continued to be available in the catalogue."
When the Smithsonian finally acquired the Folkways label in 1986 (along with Moses Asch's archives) one of the elder Asch's stipulations was that all of the records in the entire catalogue be maintained for purchase by institutions and individuals.
The original donation to the University of Alberta comprised 2,240 long-playing discs. There were 91 titles missing. Those gaps have been filled by the label's distributor on the understanding that duplicates will be offered to the Smithsonian.
The immediate problem for the University is cataloguing the records, since access is limited unless each title is listed in the campus-wide on-line catalogue. The breadth of subject materials in the Moses and Frances Asch Collection makes it of value to a wide range of scholars, but most students and scholars would not think of investigating the Music Resources Centre, because its main thrust is classical music.
Help has come from the Alberta Cultural Heritage Foundation, which donated $10,000. That was doubled by a matching grant from the University's Special Initiative Fund. However, together these grants only covered the costs of cataloguing two thirds of the collection (that is now done), and music librarian James Whittle is hoping to secure additional funding.
"We have a new faculty member teaching ethnomusicology, so Folkways will be a huge help," Whittle said. "The records which present the art music of India, China and Japan and traditional folk music of Europe and the Americas were badly needed. There's considerable documentation of Native American and Canadian music which will be of interest to many Alberta composers such as Violet Archer, who often draws upon Native melodies in her compositions."
Spoken word recordings, which number 250, include poetry and prose of James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, speeches and plays, and will supplement related holdings in the University's other audio-visual collections. Curriculum researchers at the HT Coutts Education Library are delighted with the numerous songs and stories for children. The elaborate documentation that comes with each album-the texts and notes—further enhances their educational value.
The Moses and Frances Asch Collection circulates to University teaching staff, but must otherwise be listened to at the Music Resources Centre (2-7 Fine Arts Building). Cassettes can be made for classroom presentations by students and faculty alike.
To commemorate the collection the Department of Music performs an annual World Music Concert, with ticket proceeds going to the cataloguing project. Annual concerts have featured music from such countries as India, Ukraine and Chile. The next concert in this series is scheduled for January 1990. Thus the vital tradition that Moses Asch so lavishly documented continues to flourish.
Published Winter 1989.