On Smithsonian Folkways and Arhoolie Records

920x920Last week I was thrilled to hear that Smithsonian Folkways — the nonprofit record label associated with America’s national museum — has acquired Arhoolie Recordsfrom Chris Strachwitz and his business partner, Tom Diamant. In keeping with Folkways’ policy, the catalog will be kept accessible to the public in the same way that they’ve been managing Moe Asch’s Folkways catalog.

The Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage purchased Folkways back in 1987, and one of the conditions of the sale was that all 2,168 titles would remain in print forever. Using a combination of modern digital distribution and their custom order service, every single title remains available for purchase. Over the years, the Smithsonian has added content from other labels and collections, and the addition of Arhoolie’s 350 titles of blues, gospel, Cajun, and Mexican folk music is a perfect fit.

The New York Times covered the story on May 10th with an article by Ben Sisario, who wrote:

Chris Strachwitz, born in Germany to an aristocratic family, came to the United States after World War II. In the 1950s, he joined the loose network of collectors and sleuths who tracked down and recorded folk and blues musicians who had made their first recordings decades before. Arhoolie’s first release was by Mance Lipscomb, a blues singer and guitarist, whom Mr. Strachwitz and his fellow researcher Mack McCormick located in Texas.

Partly inspired by Folkways, the label run by Moses Asch that released records by Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie and the landmark 1952 “Anthology of American Folk Music,” Mr. Strachwitz took a scholarly approach to releasing records. The Smithsonian acquired Folkways in 1987, a year after Asch’s death, and in an interview this week Mr. Strachwitz said that it was Mr. Asch who once gave him advice about setting up his legacy.

“It was the late Moe Asch of Folkways Records who told me, ‘Chris, when you kick the bucket you’ve got to think about what you’re going to with all your stuff,’” Mr. Strachwitz recalled.

I’ve always been curious about how the Smithsonian operates, as I assumed it was a branch of some government entity. So I did a little research.

The Smithsonian was established in 1846 from the estate of a British scientist named James Smithson, and although two thirds of its employees are federal workers, funding comes from the Institution’s endowment, private and corporate contributions, membership dues, government support ($800 million in 2011), and retail, concession, and licensing revenues.

In the case of Arhoolie, the Times article states that the acquisition was made as a result of a donation from Laura and Ed Littlefield of the Sage Foundation. Strachwitz said that the Littlefields essentially bought the label and donated it to Smithsonian Folkways.

Imagining there must be a lot more music-related collections throughout the 138 million items that the 19 museums in Washington, DC, make available to the public, I came across a new building opening this year on the last available space on the National Mall, next to the Washington monument.

According to its website, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture “will be a place where all Americans can learn about the richness and diversity of the African American experience, what it means to their lives, and how it helped us shape this nation.”

When that museum opens its doors in September, there will be an exhibition called Musical Crossroads that will showcase contemporary items along with those of the past. There will be rare recordings from Mahalia Jackson alongside George Clinton’s wigs, outfits worn on Soul Train, a pair of Curtis Mayfield’s glasses, and Cab Calloway’s suits. An Amtrak field trip seems like a pretty good plan.

This post was originally published as an Easy Ed’s Broadside on the No Depression website.