Inside Smithsonian Folkways' Quest to Preserve Music's Past - Rolling Stone
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The ‘Forever Business’: Smithsonian Folkways’ Quest to Preserve Music’s Past

The label sets the bar for archiving standards while acquiring niche collections and releasing new music that broadens the definition of “folk”

Sandy and Caroline Paton, the founders of Folk-LegacySandy and Caroline Paton, the founders of Folk-Legacy

Sandy and Caroline Paton, the founders of Folk-Legacy that was recently acquired by Smithsonian Folkways.

Courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways

In the middle of January, with temperatures hovering around zero degrees, John Smith and his colleagues at Smithsonian Folkways drove a truck up to a 19th century homestead in Sharon, Connecticut to pick up a record label. For over 50 years, the remolded barn and carriage house had been the headquarters of Folk-Legacy and the home of two of its founders, Sandy and Caroline Paton. The Patons, along with their business partner Lee Haggerty, founded Folk-Legacy in 1961 and dedicated their lives to recording, preserving and releasing traditional folk songs and ballads from across North America and the British Isles, as well as new records by folk revivalists who embraced and built upon those traditions like Hedy West, Gordon Bok, Anne Mayo Muir and Ed Trickett. But when Smith, the Associate Director at Folkways, and his team arrived, they found all that history — over 140 albums, reels of master tapes, correspondence, business records, photographs, books and other trinkets — in less than ideal conditions.

“The house was in disrepair, it was cold, there was little heat,” Smith recalls. “To put it mildly, the earth was starting to reclaim the house. There were a lot of little critters in there.”

It took a week to pack up Folk-Legacy, but the experience was revelatory: “When you’re boxing up a record label like that, you learn so much in such a short amount of time,” Smith tells Rolling Stone. “You’re going through the history of the label, but it’s also their space — you’re feeling the energy that’s there, the grassroots way they operated and the community they built and the sheer love that the artists and the fans of Folk-Legacy have for that.”

Smithsonian Folkways officially announced the acquisition of Folk-Legacy on Wednesday with a 15-track compilation, A Living Tradition, that offers an overview of the label’s output and was compiled by the Patons’ granddaughter, Juliana, who spent the past few months working as an intern at Folkways.

Folk-Legacy is the 19th record label that Smithsonian Folkways has acquired, starting with Folkways itself, which became part of the Smithsonian in 1987. Founded in 1948 by Moses Asch, Folkways is best known as the home of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Leadbelly, as well as the label behind the mythic and much revered compilation, Anthology of American Folk Music. When the Smithsonian acquired Folkways, the label already had a vast catalogue — 2,168 records, released over 40 years (amounting to about a record a week). Now, Smithsonian Folkways boasts over 60,000 songs, spanning genres, decades and continents.

Huib Schippers, the Director of Smithsonian Folkways, likes to say the label is in the “forever business,” though in the streaming era, it may seem like everyone is. Never has so much music been so readily available, but this accessibility belies both the gaps in the universal jukebox and the fact that recorded music, no matter what form it’s in, will always be as fragile as a 78 RPM shellac record. In March, it was revealed that MySpace lost an estimated 50 million songs by 14 million artists during a server migration, and in June, The New York Times Magazine reported that approximately 500,000 recordings — including irreplaceable master tapes — were allegedly destroyed in a 2008 Universal Music Group vault fire.

But for Smithsonian Folkways, being in the “forever business” is an ethos that permeates their preservation efforts and their approach to working with contemporary artists. It’s epitomized in the mandate Asch gave the Smithsonian when it acquired Folkways: That every recording remain available in perpetuity. Not all 60,000 Folkways recordings are timeless, great or even merely good, nor are all of them of major historical importance. But as a collective, they’re a testament to the scope of recorded sound and the ways people over the world make and share music.

Folk-Legacy’s earliest releases were often by traditional singers that Sandy and Caroline Paton and their friends recorded during their travels. “This was really, really roots music,” says Folkways archivist Jeff Place. “That was their niche.”

There was Eugene Rhodes of Michigan City, Indiana, a blues guitarist and singer who honed his craft while hopping around the South; Marie Hare of New Brunswick, Canada, who sang a capella broadside ballads; Sarah Ogan Gunning of Knox County, Kentucky, whose songs were steeped in her struggle to help local coal miners organize; and Harry Cox, a farmer from Norfolk, England with head full of traditional English ballads. The first Folk-Legacy release was by Frank Proffitt, an old-time banjo player from Reese, North Carolina, who played a key role in the preservation of the 1860s murder ballad “Tom Dooley”: It was Proffitt who taught the song to folklorist Frank Warner, whose 1952 version inspired the Kingston Trio’s 1958 smash, which helped spur the Sixties folk revival. Proffitt’s rendition of “Tom Dooley” first appeared on his 1962 album for Folk-Legacy.

For years, the original tapes for all those albums, plus an unknown amount of unreleased recordings, were stored in an upstairs room of Folk-Legacy headquarters; a trove of history subject to the whims of the weather, erratic heating and cooling systems and whatever else the walls of a 19th century barn couldn’t keep out. Now under the purview of Folkways — which must adhere to the Smithsonian’s strict archival standards — the tapes are kept in an archive where the temperature stays between 68 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity always hovers around 40 percent.

Jeff Place, who joined Folkways in 1988, says keeping the tapes in a climate-controlled environment is paramount, adding the archive is outfitted with alarms that go off if the temperature or humidity fluctuate too much. There are also detailed disaster plans in place for every possible damage scenario, like if sprinkler water soaks the tapes during a fire, they would be quickly frozen, thawed and then dried out. Also in the case of a fire, the walls of the Folkways archive are coated with a flame retardant primer capable of containing the blaze for about three hours, giving the fire department plenty of time to arrive and get things under control.

The most crucial part of sound archiving, Place says, is ensuring the original master recordings are always safe. Safety copies stored in different locations are an important failsafe — Folkways has vaults in Virginia and Pennsylvania, as well — but those recordings will never be as rich and clean as the original. Simply digitizing the original isn’t a solution either, as release formats improve as frequently as transfer technology. Place notes that the Library of Congress is toying with a turntable that uses a laser beam to read records. “If they perfect it, you can get so much more audio out of those grooves than a needle would,” he says. “But if you didn’t have those originals…” he trails off, a silent suggestion that you’d be totally out of luck.

Important as preservation is, Place adds, “The archive is really about outreach — it’s about getting these recordings out for people to hear. It’s not for putting them in the backroom and locking them up and making sure they’re safe.”

As the Times Magazine reported, Universal Music Group outsourced its archiving to Iron Mountain, a massive storage conglomerate that also houses master tapes for the other two major labels, Warner Music Group and Sony Music Entertainment, after the 2008 fire. While Iron Mountain’s facilities are state-of-the-art, the drawbacks include a barcode-based cataloguing system that’s susceptible to errors and can lead to a record disappearing into the stacks. Iron Mountain also charges a fee each time a label wants to retrieve a record, making crate digging for lost items and other gems financially unfeasible.

Smithsonian Folkways, on the other hand, has what they call the “robot,” or, in an affectionate tribute to Moe Asch, the “Moe-bot”: A computer system capable of producing a CD copy of any record in its collection, artwork and all, on demand.

“We had to promise Moe Asch that everything would be available in perpetuity and now we can promise the same thing to all the labels we acquire,” Schippers, the label’s director, says. “That’s probably the most convincing argument that we have [when talking to potential acquisitions], because we don’t have vast amounts of money. We are there for the legacy.”

Photograph courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways

Folk-Legacy is Smithsonian Folkways’ second acquisition of the year, following Stinson Records, which boasts a unique catalogue of American folk and jazz and a trove of Soviet-era recordings from Russia (Stinson at one point operated in tandem with Asch and the original Folkways, but the two labels split in 1946). Folkways is also close to deals with labels dedicated to everything from international folk to electric blues to cowboy and Western music, and they have a list of about 40 more labels they’re in contact with about a potential acquisition.

Many of those labels, Schippers says, fall under the Americana umbrella, which remains Folkways’ bread and butter. But Folkways maintains a broad definition of “folk,” and as the people who founded niche labels in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties begin to consider the future of their collections, there’s great interest at Folkways in including more things like jazz, avant garde/experimental music and underground and international variations on hip-hop and punk.

“We’re looking for culturally and historically significant recordings; we’re looking for artists that have a sense of what the history of Folkways is about and the mission that Moe Asch was trying to achieve in documenting a world of sound,” John Smith says. “Artists that have a respect for cultures they grew up in, but also surrounding cultures. Artists that are in some sense on the cutting edge, and artists that are living and breathing.”

When Huib Schippers arrived at Smithsonian Folkways in 2016, he was just the third person to be named its director. At the time, the label was still reeling from the collapse of the CD-based music business; for a label dealing in niche, curated sound, CDs were always more profitable than the pennies accrued from streaming. Schippers says Folkways turns over about $3 million a year, which it makes back in sales, licensing and partnerships. The Folkways catalogue boasts some steady sellers, and their collection is large enough that they can turn out various compilations and snag lucrative licensing deals (Spider-Man: Far From Home — of all movies — features a song from Jantina Noorman’s 1955 Folkways album, Dutch Folk Songs). Box sets are also big: This year Folkways teamed with the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival for a set of 50 live recordings made over the festival’s 50 years, while 2020 will see the release of the Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap. But Schippers also wanted to balance all that history with the present.

“Folkways may still be somewhat known as a label that puts out people who are dead,” Smith acknowledges with a laugh. “But Moe Asch did not release albums of dead people.”

In January, Folkways released Lula Wiles’ What Will We Do, an album of musically and politically forward-thinking Americana, while in September they’ll issue Songs from the Bardo, an avant-garde soundscape based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead by Laurie Anderson, Tibetan multi-instrumentalist Tenzin Choegyal and composer Jesse Paris Smith (daughter of Patti Smith). Perhaps the label’s most notable release this year was February’s Songs of Our Native Daughters, a project helmed by Rhiannon Giddens that offered a radical reimagining of roots music and served as a corrective to the genre’s whitewashed history. That record, Schippers notes, also marked the unofficial start of a new series where the label will invite well-known artists to do their “Folkways album.” Next up, he says, is Aloe Blacc, who’s working on a record of “black folk [music] based on stuff in our archive.”

Schippers continues, “We’re looking for people that have clear voices, that are musically excellent and have real stories to tell. If you’re doing curated sound now, it’s really important that you sign artists where there’s a real story behind whatever the album or the group is… We’re not trying to replicate anything commercial labels are doing or the completely independents are doing. We’re trying to sit in the middle where we think we can make a difference with sounds and music with meaning.”

Caroline and Sandy Paton. Photograph courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways

Just as Smithsonian Folkways is now releasing artists who offer novel approaches to traditional music, Folk-Legacy took a similar turn in the mid-Sixties. In 1964, after two years of releasing albums of traditional songs by traditional singers, Folk-Legacy issued its first “contemporary” album, Golden Ring’s A Gathering of Friends for Making Music. Recorded by George and Gerry Armstrong, Ed Trickett, Howie Mitchell, Win Stracke and others over a few days in Chicago, the album featured clever new versions of very old songs, from the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” to a unique rendition of the classic “Jesse James” ballad. Folk-Legacy artists like Gordon Bok, Cindy Kallet and Joan Sprung would continue to blend the past and present in this way on future records, but perhaps the most important aspect of A Gathering of Friends was the way it captured the communal spirit that defined Folk-Legacy.

At one end of Sandy and Caroline Paton’s home and headquarters in Sharon, Connecticut was a giant room, perfect for large gatherings of musicians and friends, and even a few recording sessions. “We just called it the Big Room,” says Sandy and Caroline’s granddaughter, Juliana. “It’s the most beautiful room ever. It has really high ceilings, really big rafters, and there’s a little stage and a giant fireplace in the back. I never saw that room cleared out. It was always full.”

Juliana began working as an intern at Folkways in April, about a month after Caroline’s death (Sandy died in 2009). Along with compiling the new Folk-Legacy compilation, A Living Tradition, she spent much of the summer sorting through the boxes that Folkways hauled down to D.C. from Sharon. Among the gems: A box of letters between Frank Proffitt and Chicago folk icon Gerry Armstrong that included a couple of origami guns made out of dollar bills. And because Folkways is adamant about always paying artists, Juliana also worked tirelessly to track down musicians, or their surviving family members, who put out records on Folk-Legacy. That search led her to reconnect with people she met through her grandparents as a child, as well as scores of other folks she never knew, but remains inextricably tied to through music.

“I’m getting really warm responses like, ‘I’m so glad that this music is going to be shared and I just want my parents’ music to be preserved and listened to,’” she says. “One person said, ‘Isn’t it nice we’re all connected along this golden thread in this tapestry of life?’ It was the cutest thing.”

Like so many niche record labels from the past 80-odd years, Folk-Legacy offers a unique look at the ways people shared and experienced music outside the structures of the mainstream record industry. It’s pop music, not in terms of mass appeal, but as a facet of peoples’ lives; it’s pop music because, as the Folkways motto puts it, it’s “music of, by and for the people,” and that is always worth preserving.

“I’m sure that the biggest Rolling Stones hits will always be maintained, but it’s really important to know that these things are part of the pyramid,” Schippers says. “And I think what [Folkways has] is a lot of the base of the pyramid. We’re incredibly proud to keep this legacy of recordings that the music of today was built on.”

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