This Day in Jewish History

1986: Moe Asch, Tight of Fist but Savior of Folk Music, Passes On

WWII savaged culture in Europe, but brought Moe Asch the opportunity to collect rights to folk songs from around the world.

Courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways

On October 19, 1986, Moe Asch, founder and owner of Folkways Records, one of the world’s great collections of ethnic- and folk-music recordings, died, at the age of 81. The character of Mel Novikoff, the stingy record producer in the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” offers an unflattering portrait of Moe Asch’s less pleasant side, but no one disputed the fact that his contribution to musical posterity is immeasurably large.

Moses Asch was born in Warsaw on December 2, 1905. His father was the dramatist and writer Sholem Asch, who went on to become of the most well-known, if controversial (because of his flirtation with Christianity), Yiddish writers of the 20th century. His mother was the former Mathilde Shapiro.

A year after his birth, the family moved to Berlin, where Sholem’s play “God of Vengeance” was being staged by Max Reinhardt. However, in the years leading up to World War I, the family lived Paris while Sholem lectured in the United States. They joined him there just as the war was starting, in August 1914.

Next door to Trotsky

In New York, the Asches lived, successively, in the Bronx, where a neighbor was Leon Trotsky; Brooklyn, and then Staten Island. Between the ages of 9 and 16, Moe told a interviewer, he attended five different schools in four different boroughs. All the while, Moe was developing a fascination with radio technology.

In 1922, his father was living in Koblenz, Germany, where, because of runaway inflation, he wrote his son, “I can put you through college for a dollar a day.” Moe, despite not knowing a word of German (though he did speak Yiddish), traveled to Germany and attended a technical school in Koblenz.

Not only did he learn to build radio transmitters, but it was also in Germany that he began learning about folk music, after reading Alan Lomax’s book about cowboy ballads.  

Returning to the U.S. in 1926, Asch founded a firm that produced amplifiers, and began installing sound systems in theaters. In 1937, he took on the mission of building a transmitter for New York radio station WEVD, which was owned by the Yiddish Daily Forward.

World War II brings opportunity

The first recording issued by Asch Records, in 1939, was a voice recording of Bible stories interpreted for children by his father. But World War II gave him an opportunity to move into the field he was really interested in, by buying up the rights to many existing folk recordings, as established record companies began thinning out their catalogs and cutting back on production.

Screen grab from Folkways

Asch received encouragement for his plan to document cultural and ethnic groups from Albert Einstein, whom he recorded for the American Jewish Committee shortly after the start of the war. He told Einstein about his interest, and, according to Asch, Einstein “said I should stick to this because in Europe all that was being wiped out and here it was being assimilated.”

Folkways, which he established after Asch Records went bankrupt, in 1948, didn’t just record such American folk, blues and jazz musicians as Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Pete Seeger and Coleman Hawkins. Its 2,168 recordings also included folk music of India and Haiti, Negro spirituals, cantorial music, Mormon folk songs and even a disc of frog sounds.

Dave Van Ronk, whose memoir, “The Mayor of McDougal Street,” served as a partial  inspiration for “Inside Llewyn Davis,” wrote about him in that book, “"Moe Asch could be an exasperating man, and he would never pay you ten cents if he could get away with five, but he really loved the music."

Not that Asch was getting rich. He was putting out new records at the rate of one album a week, and as a rule, he never let any recording go out of print, even though two-thirds of them sold fewer than 100 copies a year.

Shortly before his death, Asch began negotiating with the Smithsonian Institution to buy his entire catalog and archive, a deal that was consummated the following year. One condition of the sale was that the Smithsonian too keep everything in print. It has kept that promise, and gone on as well to produce some 375 new recordings of its own.