Moses Asch originally co-founded Folkways Records in 1948 in an ambitious attempt to record and document “the entire world of sound.” At the time, this meant everything from music of all sorts to poetry and historical recordings. His tiny staff recorded over 2,000 albums in 38 years, capturing some of the most important artists and writers of the day, including Woody Guthrie, Ella Jenkins, Pete Seeger, and W. E. B. DuBois.
The idea wasn’t to make money, and they didn’t stop offering something if it wasn’t selling. “Would you take the letter ‘q’ out of the dictionary because it was used less than the other letters?” Asch liked to ask. Near the end of his life, in the 1980s, Asch was looking for a way to preserve his recordings for future generations.
He found Ralph Rinzler at the Smithsonian, who was running the institution’s folk festival. Asch offered to donate the collection on one condition: that the Smithsonian uphold his commitment to keeping the sounds of American folk music alive. Asch died before the deal could be completed, but in 1987 it was finalized and a new nonprofit, Smithsonian Folkways, was launched. Smithsonian Folkways has subsequently added 375 more recordings, and in 2005 made much of the collection available online—with the help of a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.