Who couldn’t admire a man like Moe Asch (1905-1986), the farsighted individual who began Folkways Records in 1948? Here was someone who not only understood the value of both current and historical recordings of international folk music at a time when few others did, but against all odds released completely original takes on field recordings (Tony Schwartz, Sounds of the Junk Yard), blues (Elizabeth Cotten, Reverend Gary Davis), spoken word (Huey P. Newton, Al Capp), and contemporary electronic music (Tod Dockstader, Halim El-Dabh), just to name a few genres where Folkways tread under Asch’s hand. If you think the amazing Secret Museum of Mankind series started it all, Asch and Henry Cowell were onboard in the 1950s with their multivolume Music of the World’s Peoples, as well as with two collections of early international recordings collected by Erich von Hornbostel, and a familiar little something called The Anthology of American Folk Music. As many doubtlessly know by now, Folkways is now Smithsonian Folkways, and virtually every one of their releases is available through download, on a store-bought CD, or on a custom CD.
However, before Asch started Folkways, he manned other labels. First, there was “Asch” and later, “The Disc Company” (whose slogan was “The Folkways of the World on Records”). Disc Company, before going bankrupt ca. 1947 (a whole separate story), released, among other things, a series of five far-reaching box sets of international music on 78rpm, recorded “on location.” Three of them (Cult Music of Cuba, Folk Music of Ethiopia, and Folk Music of Haiti) were recorded by ethnomusicologist and general editor of Disc’s “ethnic series,” Harold Courlander. The fourth box set, American Indian Songs and Dances, was recorded by a gentleman named Charles Hoffman.
A little mystery surrounds the fifth and final set in the series, the fascinating Folk Music of the Central East USSR – which included today’s musical offering. Courlander was most likely not involved and it was Moe Asch instead who chose the recordings. Where the recordings came from, however, seems to be an unknown. The best guess that has been posited is that they came from Herbert Harris, the man behind another small New York label, Stinson. Harris, a CP member who owned a Soviet-themed movie-house on 46th Street, became the owner of a swath of Soviet 78rpm recordings given to him when the Soviets pulled their exhibit from the 1939 World’s Fair, after the Hitler-Stalin pact. Asch, in the early 40s, had a business relationship with Harris and both Asch Records and Stinson released recordings from Harris’ Soviet collection. Could this group of Central Asian recordings also have stemmed from Harris?
Who knows? One interesting tidbit is that, after the bankruptcy of The Disc Company, several of those Disc box sets were eventually reissued by Asch on Folkways, on 10″ and 12″ LPs. Courlander’s Cult Music of Cuba, Folk Music of Ethiopia, and Folk Music of Haiti are three examples. What became of Folk Music of the Central East USSR? A few tracks made it to the 1951 Folkways release Music of the Russian Middle East, but the rest vanished, and can only be heard on the original Disc 78rpm records.
Today’s piece is one of the vanished, featuring a fierce, plaintive vocal by Yusofov (a more accurate spelling of his name). Thanks to intrepid Excavated Shellac reader ‘volkan’ who provided very helpful information, we know that this piece of music is NOT, as it states on the label, from Georgia at all! It is in fact Azeri music, sung in the Azeri language, and performed in the Ashik style (a type of folk poetry), with accompaniment on the tar. And, unless I’m going deaf, there is no accompaniment of the balaban on this track – thanks also to volkan, we can confirm that the balaban is not a cello as stated, it’s a double-reed wind instrument.
So, the question is, was this a pressing error? Was the “Song of Stalin” actually not included on the original box set? I double-checked all of Folkways’ historic Central Asian material currently available and this song does not appear on any release. Even Henry Cowell, who wrote the notes to the original box set, could say little about the music as he knew it:
Very often well-known old melodies have new words added, as in the case of the Georgian “Song of Stalin” in this album, which is a traditional type of tune.
A “traditional type of tune” eh? Not much to go on, Henry. Perhaps others in the fray can help? In the meantime, Woody Guthrie put it best in a letter to Moe Asch:
I can’t understand one single word of this Central Eastern lingo, but by hearing these songs I know more about our humanly race than I could learn by reading a thousand Congressional Reports.
(Much info gleaned from Peter Goldsmith’s Making People’s Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.)
Issue Number: 1507
Matrix Number: 319-6596