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Smithsonian Folkways

Ralph Rinzler Archives

Jeff Place spends most of his waking hours communing with Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, Big Bill Broonzy and hundreds of regular folks whose voices and music were preserved for posterity decades ago by Folkways Records. The collection is part of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage’s Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives, which Place oversees, and he has made it his mission to bring the music alive again on the Smithsonian Folkways label. He spoke with managing editor Christine Kreiser.

Why did you launch Smithsonian Folkways?

We wanted a vehicle to continue the Folkways legacy by keeping every one of the 2,000-plus recordings the label produced between 1948 and 1986 in print. Folkways founder Moses Asch set out to collect the people’s music and create a sonic encyclopedia of the 20th century. Folkways was raw-edged and real—traditional musicians from the mountains and stuff. The records came in heavy cardboard sleeves with a little booklet telling about who this retired miner from eastern Kentucky was and what his life was like.

Where is the people’s music of today coming from?

I think it’s everywhere. Teenage garage bands create folk music. Within their community, that music has the same role as if you’d go up into the mountains and find a Saturday night dance at a country store. People write about what’s going on in their lives, and it’s changed. All those songs about textile mills in North Carolina, well, they don’t exist anymore. I’ve heard songs about people losing their jobs in the factory and going to get a white-collar job. There’s a funny song called “White Collar Holler” that’s a sort of sea chantey about guys hauling paper in the Xerox line.

What are the challenges of trying to preserve old sound recordings?

We have 100-year-old 78 recordings on shellac and 100-year-old Edison discs, which, if you don’t play them will last forever. We have the first-ever recording of “This Land Is Your Land,” by Woody Guthrie, on a shellac disc, which is starting to crack. Those things have all been digitized. Reel-to-reel tape from the 1950s and ’60s has stood up really well, but reel-to-reel from the 1970s and ’80s hasn’t. They changed how they made it, and it just hasn’t lasted. The trick is to do triage. With a collection the size of what we have, there will never be enough funding or bodies to process it all. So you have to pick and choose.

What else is in the Rinzler Archives?

A good percentage of it is from the 43 years of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, held every summer on the National Mall in Washing ton. A lot of occupational folklore has been documented there. For example, in 1992 we did a project on workers at the White House—maitre d’s and plumbers and things. We got interviews with people going all the way back to the Taft administration. Out of that came a film called Workers of the White House. This year we’re doing a program on NASA—the guys at the desk from Mission Control, all kinds of scientists and, I’m sure, some astronauts. I audiotape everything. We have a video crew and a crew of photographers to get all this stuff down. It all goes into the archives.


Originally published in the August 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here