Moses Asch is almost certainly the only record-label owner to have had his aspirations personally endorsed by Albert Einstein. From this auspicious encounter, Asch went on to release titles by Leadbelly, Woodie Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan (as Guthrie-inspired Blind Boy Grunt), and Lucinda Williams. He sometimes operated on the brink of financial collapse (Asch's first two labels did not survive). Then he discovered the unlikely business model for Folkways Records: Compensate artists upfront (and maybe never again), keep every title in print, and steer clear of hits.
Tony Olmsted's book Folkways Records: Moses Asch and His Encyclopedia of Sound approaches an understanding of Asch's work via a thorough examination of business documents from the Folkways archives. It is, perhaps inevitably, sometimes as mundane as invoices and inventory reports can be. For anyone interested in the particulars of operating an independent record label in the 20th century, however, it's an insightful account.
In Worlds of Sound: The Story of Smithsonian Folkways, Richard Carlin breaks down the distinct eras and styles of material captured by Folkways (including its current incarnation as part of the Smithsonian). Though little is revealed about Asch on a personal level, the book is enlightening and exhaustive in scope otherwise. Given Asch's pioneering approach to record packaging, Carlin's illustrated offering is gratifying.
Unlike the other two works considered here, Making People's Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records by Peter D. Goldsmith is an actual biography. Sometimes excessive cultural, sociological, and political context is provided, but the reader is certainly guided carefully through Asch's world. Given the depth of Goldsmith's research, this is not a book to take on casually. Ultimately, Goldsmith reveals Asch, warts and all - a man of principle (politically, if not personally) who prioritizes artistic integrity over commercial possibility.
Moe Asch was a true iconoclast. An independent-label executive who avoided music venues and recorded only with the utmost transparency (one microphone, no splicing or overdubs, no EQ). In spite of his sometimes difficult demeanor (not to mention the promise of only modest financial reward), artists came to him repeatedly because Asch accepted and validated their vision in a way no other label would. The result is a collection of over 2000 records now housed and (still) distributed by the U.S.'s foremost museum of culture and history. As Asch and Einstein originally discussed, it's the sound of the world and a world of sound.
Matt Frazier is at email@example.com