Changing Lives with Recorded Sound



excerpt from Anthony Seeger (

For 12 years I was director of Smithsonian Folkways recordings at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. Folkways Records was an independent record company founded in New York City by Moses Asch in 1948. When it was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution in 1987 it had a catalogue of 2,168 titles in print, including the music of many genres, many countries, and particular strength in “unpopular” recordings—recordings issued for reasons other than sales alone.

The Folkways recordings had been published as long as forty years previously, and were all carefully kept in print during that time. This gave them a long time to influence people—in fact to influence generations of listeners.I discovered the existence of a whole genre of stories that might be called “My Influential Folkways Record.” People would tell me about a certain Folkways recording they could remember and how important it was to them. They would usually describe how they happened to acquire it.

They often would say, “I never imagined such a thing existed.” Then they would go on to tell me more about the music or sound. Often their descriptions included the phrase “and it changed my life.” Some of these stories came from well-known musicians—Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, and Mickey Hart all remember such recordings. Most of the stories came from people I had never heard of, but whose lives had been equally affected.

Some people wrote about their experiences. From the author Jon Pankake: “In the case of my own questing youth, my discovery of the Anthology [of American Folk Music] at the age of twenty-one quite literally changed the course of my life”

My e-mail files at the Smithsonian were erased in a change of platform, but one of my assistants filed some of the query letters we received. Here are a few:

From Denver, Colorado: “I would like your assistance in locating and purchasing an old LP record. Mormon Pioneers is the title.… I know it existed because I had a copy, probably about 30 years old.”

From Garland, Texas: “I have been searching for years for a particular recording of American Revolution era songs….. Song titles I recall are: To Anacreon in Heaven, The Women All Tell Me….”

These stories of an important recording in the person’s life sometimes passed directly into another genre of recorded sound story that I also found to be extremely widespread. This is the genre of “How I Lost My Folkways Recording.” People would tell me that they lost their treasured recordings to fire, or divorce, or in a flood, or a sudden move. Here is an example:

From St. Louis, Missouri: “Some time ago a number of my records were stolen from my car. I have been able to track down copies of some of them, but two of my most cherished records, both Folkways, have proven impossible to find…. I would give anything to have them back in their original format again….I realize this may sound a bit unusual to you, but I am really quite serious about it; those records were incredibly special to me. The two in question are: The Music of New Orleans: Music of the Dance Halls; and The Music of New Orleans volume 5: New Orleans Jazz—the Flowering.”

These stories of loss were often followed by my revelation that every single Folkways recording ever released was still in print and available directly from the Smithsonian so they could retrieve their past, replace their lost recording, and do so assured that artists would receive royalties and my staff would get paid. But before I got to that point in the conversation, the vivid impact that these recordings had on people was always forcefully brought home to me.

Another important group of stories recounted that hearing the recording “made me want to play the music.” This is one of the most significant groups to me, because that is precisely what we as music educators hope people want to do—becoming self-motivated scholars and learning to play the music are two things some listeners resolved to do after hearing recordings. Some of the recordings influenced scholars: Marina Roseman, who has published books and recordings of the Temiar of Malaysia, became interested in the Temiar through an old Folkways recording of their music (Roseman, personal communication).

Peter Stampfel (a member of the Fugs and many other groups) wrote of the Anthology of American Folk Music: “Hearing all these people for the very first time, it was as if a veil was lifted…. ‘That’s what I was born to do,’ I thought. ‘Play and sing like those guys.'”

Not all of the people who talked to me spoke only about the sounds of Folkways. A recording is more than sounds—it has a look, cover art, and liner notes. They often spoke about the look and feel of the package, which in the era of LP records was made of heavy black cardboard with simple two-color slicks glued to them and a heavy piece of cardboard inside separating the long play records from the liner notes—often a thick pamphlet of them.

The Folkways look and the extensiveness of the enclosed notes were mentioned over and over again by people who recalled them, and also by the founder of Folkways, Moses Asch. He said he developed that heavy look because he wanted to show people that this was music to be taken seriously. It was important music. There was the look and feel of Folkways records that in itself had an impact on people. Sometimes, however, it was just the cover image that was remembered as in this letter:

From Middlesex, England: “I am looking for a Fred Gerlach recording. All I can remember is that on the record cover it portraited the strings of the guitar, and I believe the color was orange. So could you possibly let me know if it is still available?”


One Response to “Changing Lives with Recorded Sound”

  1. Chris Smith Says:

    Tony Seeger is one of the great quiet heroes of American music scholarship. Wonderful kind man, visionary leader, superb researcher. A national treasure

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