Young Artists Refresh The Mission of 70-Year-Old Smithsonian Folkways

Nov 6, 2018


  A WWI-era Jewish emigree from Poland named Moses Asch failed in his first attempt to form a record company in the US. But his second go, a 1948 partnership with his assistant Marian Distler, thrived. Folkways Records became a history-changing outlet for Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, The New Lost City Ramblers and a range of indigenous musicians from the US and the world at large. Its 1952 release of the Anthology of American Folk Music, compiled by Harry Smith, catalyzed the folk revival.

Before he died, Asch left the Folkways catalog to the Smithsonian Center for Folklife, which to this day pursues the original mission of documenting the “people’s music” under the name Smithsonian Folkways. And lately, in its 70th anniversary year, the label has been on a creative tear, signing a raft of young, emerging artists who are well positioned to dispel the misconception that Smithsonian Folkways only puts out antique or defiantly obscure music.

“Moses Asch worked with young, touring artists all the time,” said associate director John Smith during a September visit to Nashville for AmericanaFest. “And I think what we’re doing is just putting a little bit more emphasis on it, reminding people that’s what we do. We’re not just an archival label. We’re in the business to open ears to new sounds, whether it be in Americana or world music, whether it be more traditional or less traditional.”

John Smith

Smith is back at the label after a few years away. He first came on board in 1999 after landing his “dream job” at age 24. After 15 years he stepped away to focus on a folk label he launched called Free Dirt Records. There he released music by Virginia neo-country songwriter Dori Freeman, throwback showman Pokey LaFarge and folk icon Utah Phillips among others. Not long after Folkways installed musician, scholar and educator Huib Schippers as only the fourth Director in the label’s history in mid 2016, Smith accepted an offer to return.

The label is a self-supporting non-profit nested inside the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, part of the Smithsonian Institution. While those entities receive federal funding, the record company does not. “We are not profit driven, but we do have to make money, so that we can continue to do the things that we are doing – the mission focused projects,” Smith said. “And just because a project makes money doesn’t mean it isn’t mission driven. I think someone like Kaia Kater is very much mission driven.”

 

Kater, who was recently profiled by WMOT, is a 25-year-old Canadian singer and songwriter who’s been called “a star in the making” by streaming radio station Folk Alley. Her third album Grenades was picked up by Folkways and released this month. Beyond being a distribution and marketing vehicle, Smith said Kater was dazzled by the Smithsonian archives, where she discovered a Caribbean field recording that gave her the melody and frame for her original song “La Misere.”

 

“It means a lot,” Kater said about sharing a label with legends such as Pete Seeger and Elizabeth Cotten. “What I like is that it was a very conscious decision (to emphasize new signings). Essentially what they’re doing is taking gambles on young artists. And they’re also signing a lot of women. I like that.”

Three other artists releasing new music this year or next epitomize a renewed commitment at Folkways to signing and releasing a new wave of folk music talent.

Anna & Elizabeth

One of the most head-turning and acclaim-grabbing acoustic duos to come along in quite some time, Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle manage to split the difference, where few saw one to split, between Appalachian heritage music and the downtown avant-garde. LaPrelle is from rural Virginia, Roberts-Gevalt from Vermont. Their journeys into roots music intersected and today they are the closest thing we have to the iconic duo of Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard. They’ve burrowed into song and recording archives famous and obscure to develop a repertoire and they’ve befriended visual artists and puppeteers to fashion dazzling neo-primitive visuals that elevate their already gorgeous and spectral vocals into something theatrical and unique. Their label debut The Invisible Comes To Us is cyber-folk for the alienated city dweller or the rural esthete.

Lula Wiles

Lula Wiles is the singing, songwriting, instrument-trading, mostly acoustic trio of Ellie Buckland, Isa Burke and Mali Obomsawin. Friends and musical collaborators since they were kids in Maine, the group formally launched in 2014 after the women all studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. They trade lead roles as they gather around a single microphone and harmonize about life’s untidy details. They’ve released a self-titled debut, and their Folkways turn will come in the first  half of 2019.

 

Dom Flemons

Flemons is the best known of the new wave of Smithsonian signings because of his role founding and playing multiple instruments in the Grammy-winning, game-changing Carolina Chocolate Drops. His passion for authentic folk traditions as a solo artist makes him a perfect fit for Folkways, where he’s acting not just an artist but an archivist and historian as well. His 2018 album Black Cowboys was the product of extensive research on a whole population of Americans who’d been virtually whitewashed out of cowboy imagery and narrative. It’s only the first of what Folkways expects will be a long relationship exploring important aspects of folk tradition.