Michael Asch, a semi-retired anthropology professor, promotes his father's legacy with a radio program based on more than 2,000 Folkways records. Photograph by Deddeda Stemler.
By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 4, 2010
Michael Asch is the grandson of the late Sholem Asch, a distinguished novelist and playwright who for a time was the best known Yiddish writer on the planet.
He is the son of the late Moses Asch, the founder of Folkways Records, who recorded Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
At 66, Mr. Asch betrays a hint of his Greenwich Village upbringing in his speech even decades after leaving Manhattan. He is an accomplished anthropologist who will be teaching a class on indigenous rights at the University of Victoria this session.
With stylish eyeglasses and a neat trim of white beard, the amiable Mr. Asch looks much the semi-retired academic. His own extensive credits include a decade with the Dene, a time during which he once interviewed Julian Yendo, a last living negotiator of Treaty 11.
Mr. Asch is writing a book about treaty relations between Canada and First Nations, a work that will examine mindsets and assumptions. He has written several other books, also compiling the recordings and writing liner notes to “An Anthology of North American Indian and Eskimo Music.” The album was released in 1973 on his father’s legendary label.
Folkways never had a hit record, never paid much in royalties, never made a mogul of the founder.
It was Moe Asch’s promise in life and wish before death that all he recorded remain in print in perpetuity. He told his artists he would always make their music available to an audience, no matter how small.
Shortly after Moe’s death in 1986, Michael Asch completed negotiations with the Smithsonian, which purchased the Folkways catalogue, earning the family a modest grubstake while fulfilling a father’s obligation.
To this day, you can buy any and every recording Moe Asch ever released.
As well, the Smithsonian Folkways label continues to issue several new works every year.
“The catalogue is so broad,” Michael Asch, a little smile on his face an acknowledgement of his understatement.
On average, Moe Asch released a record each week since founding the label in 1948. He named his long-suffering secretary the principal, a dodge designed to confuse bill collectors, not to mention Red-baiting politicians eager to confuse Mr. Asch’s hatred of racism for a love of communism.
He left 2,168 albums — recordings by Pete Seeger, Big Bill Broonzy, and Champion Jack Dupree; by Memphis Slim and Mississippi John Hurt; works of folk, blues, jazz, gospel, and ragtime; collections of children’s songs and anthologies of picket-line anthems for striking workers; readings by the poet Langston Hughes and by the acid evangelist Timothy Leary.
He gathered folk music and tribal chants from around the globe, including Quebec fiddle tunes and 1953’s “Folk Songs of Newfoundland.” He was ahead of his time in creating records of environmental ambience, some of which were released in 1958 as “Sounds of North American Frogs.”
Michael Asch does what he can to keep Moe’s legacy in the public mind. He chairs a Smithsonian advisory board dedicated to continuing his father’s ideals. Last year, he hosted 26 radio programs based on his father’s work. In the coming weeks, he will prepare another 13 episodes for the CKUA radio network in Edmonton.
It reflects his father’s liberal taste and extensive catalogue that a son can dedicate an entire show to Folkways songs about the days of the week (“Stormy Monday,” “Mardis Gras Song,” “Wednesday Night Waltz,” “The Ballad of Bloody Thursday”), and another to works about Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian-born labourers and anarchists whose legal defence was a cause celebre before their execution in 1927.
Moe Asch was a driven and difficult man inevitably described as crusty even by favourable biographers. His only son attended the Little Red School House in Greenwich Village, where his classmates included Robert De Niro, the future actor, and Angela Davis, the future academic and revolutionary Communist. As a teenager, Michael befriended a girl named Jane, whose father was a playwright. When invited to her home, his evening meal was prepared by Arthur Miller’s second wife, the actress Marilyn Monroe.
His music teachers were Charity Bailey, who launched a weekly television program in New York in 1954, and the quirky Earl Robinson, who had written film scores in Hollywood before being blacklisted during the McCarthy era. (Mr. Robinson composed music for the song “Joe Hill,” the martyred labour leader. He also co-wrote “Black and White,” a hit for Three Dog Night, likely the only song about the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court desegregation ruling, Brown vs. the Board of Education, to have hit the Billboard Hot 100.) Both teachers recorded with Folkways.
Mr. Asch first came to Canada to attend the Mariposa folk festival in 1963. He busked with a guitar on the streets of Yorkville during Toronto’s folk revival of the mid-1960s.
He decided to become an anthropologist after studying under Sol Tax at the University of Chicago. “Because of my background,” he said, “I understood that people don’t assimilate.” He spent time with the Cherokee in Oklahoma before returning to New York for graduate school, a far more palatable option than being drafted to fight an unjust war in Vietnam.
He taught at the University of Alberta in Edmonton before moving to Victoria 12 years ago, continuing his father’s mission, giving voice to anonymous office worker and tribal elder alike, taping the clacking of a manual typewriter (“The Sounds of the Office,” 1964), and a canoe paddle song (“Nootka Indian Music of the Pacifis North West Coast,” 1974).
The album of bullfrog mating calls was reissued on its 40th anniversary. The 92 tracks include such esoterica as the “Mating Trill of the Southern Toad (Bufo Terrestris).” The field recordings were made by Charles Bogert and produced by Moe Asch.
Best of all, the album credits “various artists.”
Seventeen of Michael Asch's radio programs are available to listen as a podcast. Click here and follow instructions.