Upon returning home from camping, I noticed a deservedly long obit for noted folklorist Alan Lomax. Lomax, along with considerably flakier kook Harry Smith and redoubtable businessman Moe Asch, are the most important and influential record producers of the century.
Smith, in addition to performing duties as all-around visionary freeloader on the order of Joe Gould (which entailed, among other things, films featuring hand painted animation, a collection of “string figures’, and the basic visual vocabulary of sixties psychedelica), compiled, for Moe Asch’s Folkways Records, the Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music, which I’m quite overdue to discuss here. Smith’s aesthetic for the project required that the cuts he included were originally commercially released, that is, not recorded for posterity by someone out to document a vanishing culture but rather recorded in an act of commercial egotism. Additionally, he conceptualized the records themselves as a literal magic incantation, intended to change the course of American music. He quite indisputably succeeded.
Lomax, as noted in many obits, is the sine qua non of the itinerant documenatrist, out to preserve from exctinction the authentic sounds and songs of the nonprofessional singer or performer.
Moe Asch, looking to make a buck and maybe also to keep leftist kooks the likes of Woody Guthrie and Smith in pocket money, released works by both Smith and Lomax; today, Asch’s vast store of recordings and notes is, as it should be, the property of us all, Folkways now functioning as a subsidiary of the Smithsonian Institution.
It should be noted that Rounder Records has also been doing a kick-ass job on archival releases from the Lomax treasure.