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Smithsonian Folkways

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August 10, 1846 the United States Congress passed legislation creating the Smithsonian Institution.

Smithsonian Folkways mission is the legacy of Moses Asch, who founded Folkways Records in 1948 to document "people's music," spoken word, instruction, and sounds from around the world. The Smithsonian acquired Folkways from the Asch estate in 1987, and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings has continued the Folkways commitment to cultural diversity, education, increased understanding, and lively engagement with the world of sound.

 

from Writers almanac Friday Aug 10 Garrison Keiller  

It was on this date in 1846 that the United States Congress passed legislation creating the Smithsonian Institution.

James Smithson was an English scientist. He was also the illegitimate son of a nobleman and a widow who was related to the royal family. He was born in secret in Paris, and though he inherited a lot of money from his mother, his illegitimacy kept him from any of the social or career advantages that his family connections might have given him. He once wrote, "On my father's side I am a Northumberland, on my mother's I am related to kings, but this avails me not." He never married, and spent his life traveling and getting to know some of the greatest scientific minds of Europe. He believed scientists should be "citizens of the world," and wrote, "It is in knowledge that man has found his greatness and his happiness." Smithson published more than two dozen papers on a wide variety of subjects.

Shortly before his death in 1829, he bequeathed his estate to his nephew. But if the nephew died childless, Smithson wrote, then the money was to go to the United States for the foundation of an institution for "the increase and diffusion of knowledge." The nephew died without any heirs in 1835.

The bequest sparked a debate in Washington between the Federalists and the supporters of states' rights. The states' rights people argued that the Constitution didn't make any provisions for a national institution. But the Federalists won out, and in 1838, the entire estate, worth more than half a million dollars, was transferred to the United States Mint. The debate didn't end with the Federalists' victory, though. For nearly a decade, people argued about what he meant by the "increase and diffusion of knowledge." Did he mean a university? If so, what kind? Did he mean an observatory, a research institute, a publishing house, a national library, or a museum?

In the end, it became all of those things, with the exception of the university. The Smithsonian complex now includes museums of natural history, American history, fine and decorative arts, and air and space technology: 16 museums in all. It also encompasses four research centers, a research library, and the National Zoo.

Smithsonian Folkways Mission

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings is the nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution, the national museum of the United States. We are dedicated to supporting cultural diversity and increased understanding among peoples through the documentation, preservation, and dissemination of sound. We believe that musical and cultural diversity contributes to the vitality and quality of life throughout the world. Through the dissemination of audio recordings and educational materials we seek to strengthen people's engagement with their own cultural heritage and to enhance their awareness and appreciation of the cultural heritage of others.

Our mission is the legacy of Moses Asch, who founded Folkways Records in 1948 to document "people's music," spoken word, instruction, and sounds from around the world. The Smithsonian acquired Folkways from the Asch estate in 1987, and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings has continued the Folkways commitment to cultural diversity, education, increased understanding, and lively engagement with the world of sound.

Our History

Folkways Records & Service Co. was incorporated in 1948 in New York City by Moses Asch (1905-1986) and Marian Distler (1919-1964). Under Asch's enthusiastic and dedicated direction, Folkways sought to record and document the entire world of sound. Between 1948 and Asch's death, Folkways' tiny staff released 2,168 albums. Topics included traditional, ethnic, and contemporary music from around the world; poetry, spoken word, and instructional recordings in numerous languages; and documentary recordings of individuals, communities, current events, and natural sounds.

As one of the first record companies to offer albums of "world music," and as an early exponent of the singers and songwriters who formed the core of the American folk music revival (including such giants as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Lead Belly), Asch's Folkways grew to become one of the most influential record companies in the world.

Following Asch's death, in 1987 the Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington D.C. acquired Folkways Recordings and the label's business papers and files to ensure that the sounds and genius of its artists would continue to be available to future generations.

As a condition of the acquisition, the Smithsonian agreed that virtually all of the firm's 2,168 titles would remain "in print" forever—a condition that Smithsonian Folkways continues to honor through its custom order service. Whether it sells 8,000 copies each year or only one copy every five years, every Folkways title remains available for purchase.

In the years since 1987, Smithsonian Folkways has continued to expand on Asch's legacy, adding several other record labels to the collections and releasing over 375 new recordings that document and celebrate the sounds of the world around us.

A Worldwide Educational Online Download Network

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings launched its Smithsonian Global Sound®educational initiative in 2005. This unique online resource delivers easy access to tens of thousands of audio recordings and hundreds of video features from the U.S. national museum's Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections (which includes Smithsonian Folkways) and content from partner archives including the International Library of African Music at Willard Rhodes University (South Africa), the Archives and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology of the American Institute for Indian Studies (India), the Aga Khan Music Initiative for Central Asia of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (Central Asia) and others still to come.

Listening and viewing are enhanced by extensive documentation, indexing and search capabilities, including in-depth features in the online Smithsonian Folkways Magazine and educational resources in the Tools for Teaching section 

Today, the website www.folkways.si.edu and all of Smithsonian Global Sound's features have been strengthened and renewed within a single website Smithsonian Folkways offers downloads and streaming video, tools for teaching, in-depth features, and institutional subscriptions (via Alexander Street Press) to Music Online/Smithsonian Global Sound® for Libraries. The initiative provides unparalleled accessibility to less-often heard voices of people from all over the world. Smithsonian Folkways will continue to partner with other audio archives worldwide to increase global, digital access.

The revenue received from you for individual downloads and institutional subscriptions supports the creation of new educational content and is shared with archival partners, who in turn pass on a portion of those revenues for the benefit of artists and their communities. The development of this initiative was made possible by generous support from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation and folkwaysAlive! at the University of Alberta.

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