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by Philip Sherburne

May 15, 2013

Smithsonian Folkways' Electronic Gold Mine

by Philip Sherburne  |  May 15, 2013

The Smithsonian Folkways label is a national treasure. Founded in 1948 by Moses Asch and taken over by the Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage after Asch's death in 1986, the label is a repository for the music, sounds and spoken-word that defined the 20th century. The label is best known for folk and world music, as you might guess from its name; its catalog ranges from Pete Seeger's collections of popular songs to recordings of Mexican magic-mushroom ceremonies, and from the speeches of the Black Panthers' Huey P. Newton to Leadbelly's blues. (There's also the cult classic Sounds of North American Frogs). Surprisingly, Folkways' catalog also includes a wide range of electronic music, thanks to the fact that Asch's vision of "folk" was wide enough to encompass modern technology and avant-garde composition.

Folkways was one of the very first record labels to release electronic music of any kind. You can find demonstrations of musique concrète alongside the field recordings and cityscapes of 1953's Sound Patterns; 1957's Sounds of New Music features electronic (and acoustic) experiments by Henry Cowell, Vladimir Ussachevsky and John Cage. Tod Dockstader's landmark Eight Electronic Pieces was issued on Folkways in 1961, and the 1970s produced a steady stream of recordings for the Dartmouth digital synthesizer, the Synclavier, Moogs and more.

We've compiled all of Folkways' electronic-music recordings, from space-age sound-effects records to academic studies. What's striking is how ahead of their time many of them seem: Four Tet fans will flip when they hear Barton Smith's Reelizations. And who would have guessed that you'd find space disco on Folkways? Well, you can, in Gianni Safred and His Electronic Instruments' delightful 1980 album Futuribile, which presages Daft Punk with unbelievably funky songs like "Disco Satellite" and "Robot Party."

Explore more than two dozen albums or sample the archive with our playlist, and reboot your concept of folk music.

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