Long before the labels “world music,” “indie” and “alternative” existed, Folkways founder Moses Asch set out to capture the heart of music traditions, many on the brink of vanishing, in recordings of exceptional artists: the jazz of Mary Lou Williams, the folk inspiration of Woody Guthrie, the gospel and blues energy ignited by Lead Belly, and a galaxy of others. Defying convention, Folkways would go beyond its iconoclastic roots but never outgrow its original mandate: gather all sounds and get them to the people.
Worlds of Sound begins with the studio’s troubled birth in 1948, after Moses Asch had seen two previous recording studios go bankrupt. Banned from leading any more labels, seemingly washed up at the age of 42, Asch hit “the lowest point of his life.” Folkways Records defied the ban and emerged from a fire sale of his previous label. The original indie, Folkways took a strikingly different path from the rest of the music industry: Asch combined wide-ranging tastes, a mission to get authentic sounds to the public, and an absolute trust in the ears of his producers and artists.
The film takes viewers into what Folkways producer Sam Charters calls “the central, crucial role that Folkways played in the growth and development of a genuine alternative culture.” Starting with the label’s first big successes with Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, we get a glimpse of Asch and the Folkways circle of producers and artists: like Bernice Johnson Reagon, Pete Seeger, the New Lost City Ramblers, and Ella Jenkins.
As the years passed, Folkways sound collectors delved further, and the mission to catalog all sounds grew: North American frogs, sounds of the office, the engines of passing trains. Reaching deep into the world, Folkways producers searched to fill gaps in the mosaic. Sam Charters, a member of this next wave, recounts how he pursued a hidden trail to rediscover blues artist Lightnin’ Hopkins in 1959 and bring Hopkins back to recording and performing for new audiences. The film explores how Folkways played a surprisingly pivotal role in key movements of the past century, from the Folk and Blues revivals to the Civil Rights Movement.
In the 1980s, Folkways faced the real possibility of disappearing. Then Ralph Rinzler, a long-time performer and producer at the Smithsonian Institution, spearheaded a drive to bring Folkways under the Smithsonian umbrella. Since then Smithsonian Folkways has found new life. It has continued to expand its reach to artists and listeners around the globe, using new media and an ear for everything.