Smithsonian Folkways is the non-profit record label of the United States. Its mission is to document and celebrate traditional culture throughout the world. It began as Folkways Records in 1948 and was founded by Moses Asch and Marian Distler. Asch and Distler began in 1939 with their subsequent Asch, Disc, and Cub labels putting out the kinds of roots material few other labels were committed to. The Asch estate sold the label to the Smithsonian Institution in 1987, negotiated by Ralph Rinzler, an important documenter of Appalachian music. It was re-born again the following year as Smithsonian Folkways to carry on the Asch legacy. One of the key missions of the label continues to be to provide deep information about the artists and region in the liner notes.
Smithsonian Folkways has had a long history of releasing titles of Appalachian music beginning with Hobart Smith and Texas Gladden during the Asch Records period. In an era when it made its famous recordings of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly, they made recordings of Durham’s Sonny Terry and Kingsport’s Brownie McGhee. Others in the catalog during the 1950s and early 1960s were John Jacob Niles, Jean Ritchie, Artus Moser, Paul Clayton and Andrew Rowan Summers. The label was the prime destination for folklorists looking to publish their recordings from the region. During the era of the great folk song revival musician/folklorists like Mike Seeger (Elizabeth Cotten, The Stoneman Family, Dock Boggs, Kilby Snow; some of the first bluegrass LPs); John Cohen (balladeers from Madison County, N.C, Roscoe Holcomb and music from Eastern Kentucky); Sandy Paton (Horton Barker); Ed Kahn (Pete Steele) and Ralph Rinzler (Doc Watson, Clarence Ashley; The Phipps Family) brought their work to the public through Folkways. They published extensive liner notes discussing the history of the songs and music. Others Asch published were Hazel and Alice and the Country Gentlemen.
The label continued to release regional music from Appalachia up until Asch’s death in 1986. The Smithsonian began the task of updating a reissuing the older titles on compact disc adding new titles to the catalog. Additional material from Mike Seeger, Ralph Rinzler and John Cohen’s work was issued. New albums by others like Ola Belle Reed, John Jackson, Doug and Jack Wallin, and the Seldom Scene became part of its legacy.
The music of the Appalachian Region has always been a central part of what Smithsonian Folkways does. As it moves on into time, projects by Anna and Elizabeth, Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons, formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops will continue the legacy which will continue to publish the kinds of projects Smithsonian Folkways has always been known for.