Smithsonian Folkways producer and archivist Jeff Place holds one of the original glass studio recordings he would have listened to in the making of his recent project Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
Over the past three decades, Jeff Place has been the central figure researching, organizing and ultimately releasing the recordings represented in one of the world’s most important collections of 20th- century music: The Rinzler archives includes the 12 record labels now collectively known as Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
On a recent weekday, Place stood in the Rinzler vault — a windowless room stacked with recordings from 19th-century wax cylinders to 8-tracks. He carefully slid a glass disc out of a paper sleeve and held it up to show the black film — the area where sound had been recorded — peeling like a bad sunburn. This Lead Belly radio recording, dating to the 1940s, could no longer be played. But there was good news. Place had copied and digitized it years ago.
“You sneeze, and they break,” he says. “The whole idea is you want to take these in and get them out to the public. We don’t want to hoard these things. We want to get this stuff out of this room.”
In 1987, the Smithsonian made a deal to buy Folkways after the death of the label’s founder, Moses Asch. Place scored an interview and got the archivist job.
“Folkways was huge,” recalls Tony Seeger, Pete’s nephew and an ethnomusicologist who worked as curator alongside Place until 2000. “Moses Asch had all this artwork very carefully stored and 2,168 LPs. For each of those there was a file. We knew we couldn’t do it in a day, but Jeff’s a fairly unstoppable person. He also brought a pretty good knowledge of American folk music. He knew what it meant when he found something special.”
Place never met Asch, who died in 1986, but he does share part of his philosophy. Asch, he learned, wasn’t desperate for hit records. In fact, a hit would disrupt the Folkways formula by putting undue pressure on the label to press and distribute albums. Asch simply wanted to record as much good music as he could and reach those who were passionate about it.
Walking through the Smithsonian offices, Place points out the activity. One person is converting fast-dissolving master recordings; another is scanning slides from a music festival into the computer system.
There’s a room where anyone can make an appointment and come in and listen to records. There’s also a disc-burning machine — “the robot,” Place calls it — through which visitors can order discs long out of print that have been digitized, such as the aforementioned “Sounds of Medicine,” a 1955 album featuring “stethoscope sounds” from a variety of ailing patients, as well as the 1982 release “Cable Car Soundscapes.”
Last fall, Place stepped down as full-time archivist to become the Rinzler curator, which is really what he has been doing the past few years. He likes to work out of his house in Mayo, Md., on the Chesapeake Bay, which he shares with his wife, Barrie, and his collection of about 20,000 records.
Still, Place remains the ultimate authority on Folkways and doesn’t sound ready to retire. A Pete Seeger box and book — the third in a trilogy that began with Guthrie in 2012 and Lead Belly this year — should be out in 2016. There’s also work to be done on the music of the banjo-playing lawyer Bascom Lamar Lunsford.
“This is the stuff,” Place says, still wide-eyed as he stands in front of rows of Lead Belly, Guthrie and Seeger masters. “You look in this room. All these tapes, these records. Every one of them has a story. Every time you take one out and copy it, you’re in for it.”