- Peter Goldsmith
Asch, Moses (02 December 1905–19 October 1986), sound engineer and record company executive, was born in Warsaw, Poland, the son of Sholem Asch, a world-renowned Yiddish novelist and playwright, and Matilda Spiro. Since Asch’s father acquired literary fame early in life, the family lived in material comfort. But they moved frequently, and Asch often was left in the care of others, notably his mother’s sister Basha, a Social Democrat and revolutionary. Additionally, although a prominent figure in international Jewish intellectual circles, Asch’s father was an iconoclast by nature, and as a consequence Asch was never bar mitzvahed. In 1912 the persecution of Jews in Poland rendered life intolerable for the Asches, and they moved to a villa in the suburbs of Paris. When in 1915 war’s violence engulfed France as well, the family resettled in New York City.
Young Asch developed an interest in radio electronics while still in high school, and when his parents resettled in various parts of France in 1923 he was sent to a technical Hochschule in Koblenz, Germany. Although he completed neither high school in New York nor an engineering degree in Germany, he did acquire two substantive years of training in sound electronics, which enabled him to return to New York in 1926 and begin a career in radio electronics. Initially he worked for both the fledgling Radio Corporation of America and the mercurial inventor Lee de Forest, and later he supported himself as a radio repairman. But he had aspirations to be an inventor, and in 1930 he began his own shop, Radio Laboratories of Brooklyn. In 1928 he married Frances Ungar; they had one child.
Financial circumstances forced Asch to merge his company in 1934 with another that specialized in public address systems. This merger enabled him to branch into other areas of sound electronics. Capitalizing on his father’s connections with New York’s Yiddish theaters, Asch found work wiring burlesque houses and other establishments for sound. A more propitious event occurred in 1938 when his father’s employer, the Jewish Daily Forward, commissioned Radio Labs to construct a transmitter for its Yiddish-language radio station, WEVD. From this project Asch recognized a market for recorded Yiddish music, both sacred and secular, and for both the retail market and radio airplay. In 1940 Radio Laboratories was dissolved; in its place he established Asch Recordings. From that point on, Asch was immersed in the recording, manufacture, and sale of phonograph records.
In the early 1940s he primarily recorded cantorials—Jewish liturgical music. However, early exceptions prefigured the direction that his recording ultimately took. In 1941 he began to record the southern African-American folk singer and ex-convict Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly). During this era the enthusiasm for folk music came primarily from political leftists, and specifically from the mid-1930s’ initiative of the Communist Party U.S.A., known as the Popular Front, which celebrated American (and particularly African-American) folk culture as the expression of the proletarian will. Through World War II, Asch recorded most of the premier American folk musicians of that time, including Josh White, Burl Ives, and Sonny Terry; many of the musicians were not overtly political themselves, although they were pleased to attract a leftist audience. Starting in 1944, however, with the first recordings of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, Asch was recording musicians who sought to deliberately use folk music as a vehicle for promoting assorted progressive agendas, particularly the cause of labor, racial harmony, and (after the war) international peace. Asch’s own political sympathies were often ambiguous, and he avoided party affiliation (particularly with the Communists); still, he did at times describe himself as an “anarchist” (in the tradition of his aunt Basha) and often lent his resources and those of his company to leftist causes.
Asch’s early commercial successes came not with folk musicians, but with such major jazz figures as Mary Lou Williams, James P. Johnson, Stuff Smith, Art Tatum, and Coleman Hawkins. At the close of the war, to get out from under a partnership he had entered into with Stinson Records, Asch formed the Disc Company of America. Through Disc, Asch continued to release folk and jazz records, avant-garde symphonic music, and, with the assistance of Harold Courlander, a series of ethnic recordings that featured traditional musics from around the world. The most lucrative part of his operation in the Disc years was a collaboration with jazz impresario Norman Granz who, through his Jazz at the Philharmonic series, made popular the recording of improvised jazz in concert settings. But this association also caused Asch to overextend himself financially, and in 1948 he declared bankruptcy.
Late that same year Asch was able to resurrect his recording business by having his secretary, Marian Distler, purchase his assets and establish a new recording company, Folkways Records, in her own name. Although nominally a “consultant” to Folkways in the early years, Asch ran the company from its formation until his death. By concentrating on folk music, historical and political documentaries, children’s, and spoken-word recordings, he was able to create an immense catalog of titles (almost 2,200 at his death), which had a modest but dependable market, particularly among music educators and school librarians. His most unambiguous political convictions received expression in the many recordings of African-American folk music, blues, documentary history, poetry, and, in several magnificent collections, songs of the civil rights period. When the “folk revival” began in the 1950s, the Folkways catalog provided much of the impetus and inspiration. Although most of the bigger names of the folk revival recorded with more commercial labels, they depended on the material available in Asch’s catalog—as well as on the example he had set by recording seminal figures in the 1940s.
Over the years Folkways became a repository for the field recordings of anthropologists and others who brought Asch the traditional musics of the world. Asch often was accused of compensating musicians and field recorders meagerly, but most of them were pleased that he kept the material available to the public—nothing ever was deleted from the catalog. Additionally, he gave artists and collectors free reign in album production and encouraged them to include printed material that provided social and historical context. He died in New York City.
Long before most others, Asch recognized the value of folk music in helping people understand who they are in all their cultural complexity. Neil Alan Marks wrote in the New York Times (2 Nov. 1980): “Folkways Records was for folklorists and musicians the talmudic source for much primary material. Its founder, Moses Asch, may have more to do with the preservation of folk music than any single person in this country.”
Asch’s papers as well as the entire Folkways collection (and the rights to it) are deposited in a special archive within the Smithsonian Institution. Several useful articles about Asch appeared during his lifetime, notably Robert Shelton, “Folkways in Sound . . . or the Remarkable Enterprises of Mr. Moe Asch,” High Fidelity, June 1960, pp. 42–44, 102–3; and Israel Young, “Moses Asch, Twentieth Century Man, Parts I & II,” Sing Out! 26, no. 1 (1977), pp. 2–6, and no. 2 (1977), pp. 25–29. Biographical information appears in Peter Goldsmith, Making People’s Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records (1998). See also Tony Sherman’s generally accurate article, published a year after Asch’s death, “The Remarkable Recordings of Moses Asch,” Smithsonian, Aug. 1987, pp. 110–21; and Robbie Lieberman’s My Song Is My Weapon: People’s Songs, American Communism, and the Politics of Culture, 1930–1950 (1989), a thoughtful book about the political uses of folk song during two critical decades. The most complete obituaries are in the New York Times, 21 Oct. 1986, and Sing Out! 32, no. 3 (1987).
- Asch, Sholem (1880-1957), Yiddish novelist, dramatist, and short story writer
- de Forest, Lee (1873-1961), radio engineer and inventor
- Lead Belly (1888-1949), folk singer and composer
- White, Josh (1915-1969), folk and blues vocalist and guitarist
- Ives, Burl (1909-1995), folk singer and actor
- Terry, Sonny (1911-1986), blues harmonica player and vocalist
- Guthrie, Woody (1912-1967), singer and songwriter
- Williams, Mary Lou (1910-1981), pianist, composer, and arranger
- Johnson, James P. (1894-1955), jazz and popular pianist, composer, and songwriter
- Smith, Stuff (1909-1967), jazz violinist, singer, and comedian
- Tatum, Art (1909-1956), jazz pianist
- Hawkins, Coleman (1904-1969), jazz tenor saxophonist