Smithsonian Folkways Preserves the “People’s Music”
From current artists such as Del McCoury, Tony Trischka or Po’ Ramblin’ Boys – to late greats such as Bill Monroe and Ola Belle Reed – Smithsonian Folkways Recordings has made sure to preserve music’s present and past for future generations. As part of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, this nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution shares some similarities with commercial labels while fulfilling a unique mission: To curate the most meaningful parts of the history of music.
When Smithsonian Folkways Marketing Manager Jonathan Williger talks about how the label operates, it sounds slightly different. In addition to recordings, the website explains the label also releases educational materials to “strengthen people’s engagement with their cultural heritage and enhance their awareness and appreciation of the cultural heritage of others.”
The artist selection process isn’t exactly as it would be for many other record companies. Williger spoke of the “curatorial thrust” of the label. The Smithsonian is an institution revered by many and considered in some quarters to be our nation’s most notable repository of things that relay the full, true scope of – and myriad complexities of – the human experience. Based on that, the label’s method of evaluating content comes as no surprise.
“We think of it as a collection of artifacts,” Williger explained about how artists are selected. “It’s thinking of the collection as a whole and how it affects the world of sound.”
Although Williger said the number of releases is ramping up, he said Smithsonian Folkways drops “usually between 10 and 14” records each year. He said the process involves a content board that “reviews submissions of new releases.” Of course, strong voices in the process also include the label’s brand new director and decision-maker, that Williger describes as the “main curator,” ethnomusicologist Maureen Loughren. He said Jeff Place is also an essential archivist and curator at the label and is among those who play a role in these decisions.
The label finds its origins as far back as 1948, with the founding of Folkway Records, by Moses Asch. In 1987, The Smithsonian acquired the company from the Asche estate, and it became the label that operates today. It held tight to Asch’s original intent to document “‘people’s music,’ spoken word, instruction, and sounds from around the world.” Today, the label re-releases archival recordings of the past while also helping today’s artists reach listeners at many points of access.
“There are certain ways in which we are like other record labels, and we have a PR team,” Williger said. “We work traditional media angles…and we definitely make sure our music is distributed to libraries through our distributor.”
In addition to the music from bluegrass talents of both present and yore, Smithsonian Folkways releases music from genres including jazz, Latin, gospel, classical, old time, blues…you name it. However, from whichever corner the music hails, there tends to be a common thread. Williger said the commonality amongst the artists on the label’s roster is that the curators seek voices that might not otherwise be heard; he said the focus is on “marginalized communities.” According to the Smithsonian Folkways website, the aim is to support “cultural diversity and increased understanding among peoples through the documentation, preservation, and dissemination of sound.”
The “American experience” of music is not a homogenous monolith; it’s a vast melting pot. Its full reality includes a multitude of varying paradigms, from performers with roots of origin in many backgrounds, nations, and walks of life. In Willger’s four-and-a-half years with Smithsonian Folkways, he said he personally appreciates how a more comprehensive and inclusive approach to music aids in “creating empathy” in listeners.
“I think it’s important because sound and music is a key way humans express belonging,” he said. This is in addition to the more obvious “cultural” and “emotional” expression for which music is widely known. “A lot of the music that comes out of Smithsonian Folkways, we want it to say a lot about the artists and their communities,” Williger said. “It’s important for people to experience music made by people who are not like them. "