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Excerpt: 'Worlds Of Sound'

Richard Carlin's 'Worlds Of Sound'

Chapter One:
Creating Worlds of Sound

The Extraordinary Career of Moses Asch

A picturesque village in the Cotswolds; a Pygmy camp in the Congo; a tiny settlement deep in the Brazilian rain forest; a platform of the New York City subways. Most of us will never visit these places to hear their music and sounds. But we can hear British ballad singers, Pygmy leaf orchestras, Brazilian Indian musicians, and the howl of the metal subway wheels as they rub against the tracks, thanks to the vision of a recording engineer working in a closet-sized studio in New York City. His name was Moses Asch; his legacy, about twenty-two hundred albums of music and sounds from around the world released over a period of thirty-eight years on the Folkways label. For the last twenty years, this mission has been upheld and expanded by the Smithsonian Folkways label, a nonprofit record company formed shortly after Asch's death to maintain and build on his vision.

Worlds of Sound celebrates Asch's outlandish plan to document every possible human musical expression (and many nonhuman sounds, too). Over the years, Folkways would become influential for several generations of folk revivalists, from Pete Seeger to Bob Dylan to Lucinda Williams. But Folkways also issued recordings of poets Langston Hughes and Nikki Giovanni, North American tree frogs, sounds of steam locomotives, electronic music by John Cage, traditional Irish music recorded live in pubs, Indonesian gamelan and African kora players, civil rights marches and the Watergate hearings, and much more. Asch's worlds of sound were expansive and all-inclusive, and this book will carry forward that spirit.

How did Asch build his "encyclopedia of sound" and still keep his business—albeit small—afloat? Asch's strategy for success contradicted what most business-people would call common sense. As early as 1946, Asch told a reporter from Time magazine, "I'm not interested in individual hits. To me a catalogue of folk expression is the most important thing"—and he meant it. No Folkways record ever cracked the top 10 of any chart—or the top 100, for that matter. Yet the influence of Folkways' records has lasted long after many once-successful pop labels have been forgotten.

Moses Asch, The Independent

Asch's philosophy and career choice were colored by his background as an Eastern European émigré, albeit one far better off than most of his contemporaries. His father was a well-known writer named Sholem Asch. The family was originally from Poland, but thanks to Sholem's success as an author, settled outside of Paris in 1912. Sholem left his family in Paris for work in New York City in 1914; a year later, he sent for his wife and children, including young Moses.

Asch rarely wrote about his childhood or spoke of it in public. However, in a letter written to Pete Seeger's daughter Mika when she was jailed in Mexico following a protest march held at the 1968 Olympics, he uncharacteristically opened up about his childhood experiences:

At the age of 6-7 (1911) I became very ill this was in Paris, the suburbs, we had our own house with separate bed rooms . . . . The four of us [Asch and his siblings] were taken care of by my aunt Basha, mother's revolutionary sister, who had fled from a train taking her to Siberia . . . . I was confined to bed for a period of 6 months with nothing to do . . . . Basha taught me many fundamental things. The one that has always stayed foremost was that one cannot be a progressive person interested and dedicated to social justice and reform if one lived a lie or did not tell the truth . . . . With the outbreak of WWI (1914) Basha brought the four of us to America. Father and mother were already here. Father was being published and his plays were shown on Second Ave. Father being not very clear as to our legal names and ages did not declare my name and age properly. So I was left behind at Ellis Island. For four days without communication I remained behind bars . . . . It exposed me to the immigrants their way of life and the way official dome acts in relation to people's lives. When a custom officer could not make out a person's name he gave him one that was Americanised. etc. Every one had a tag on them and were herded and treated like cattle. [Original punctuation and spelling]

Whether Asch was actually confined on Ellis Island for several days or just several hours, this frightening experience was seared into his memory, leaving him feeling vulnerable in a foreign world where immigrants were lumped together and treated like "cattle." This feeling of being judged because of one's group identity rather than one's individual achievements is something that Asch struggled to overcome. As he told Israel "Izzy" Young in a 1970 interview, "For what I stand for, I'll die, but for what somebody else tells me I stand for, I object."

Sholem Asch believed in using literature to instruct and educate his fellow man. While not gifted as a writer, Moses would follow in his father's footsteps in his chosen career of audio engineering. In the mid-1920s, he studied radio engineering in Germany, a center for the new science. On his return to the United States, he worked for various electronics firms before opening his own small radio repair business, called Radio Labs, during the Depression. Asch branched out into installing sound systems for rallies and events, which led to a job at New York's left-leaning radio station, WEVD (named for socialist leader Eugene V. Debs and owned by the Yiddish-language paper The Forward, which also employed Sholem Asch as one of its columnists). A major part of his job was to record programs on acetate discs for later broadcast, inspiring him to enter the record business.

In 1940, Sholem invited his son to travel with him to Princeton, New Jersey, to meet the physicist and humanitarian Albert Einstein. When Einstein asked the young man what he did for a living, Asch responded that he was working in radio and recording. Einstein was intrigued by this career choice, and encouraged the young man to record and document all the sounds of the world, to create an "encyclopedia" of man's musical expression. Asch took this as a life calling, and the idea was germinated to use his talents to capture a world of sound.

Excerpted from Worlds of Sound: The Story of Smithsonian Folkways. Copyright © by Richard Carlin. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.

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Richard Carlin