Moe started Folkways in 1948, building upon experience with his prior recording companies, Asch and Disc. Moe produced over 2,100 Folkways recordings—an average of one per week for thirty-eight years. Albums were not produced for commercial purposes. Moe never had a hit. He never took a recording out of print because it was a poor seller. As he said, “Would you take the letter ‘q’ out of the dictionary because it is used less than other letters?”
The son of Yiddish author Sholem Asch, Moe was born in Poland and came to New York as a youth. Studying radio electronics, he became interested in American folk music in the 1920s after reading John A. Lomax’s book on cowboy ballads. “It had an introduction by Teddy Roosevelt, which guided me through life because he said that folklore and folksongs were the real expression of a people’s culture.” A meeting with Albert Einstein inspired Moe’s mission to document the world’s sounds.
Moe developed relationships with Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Langston Hughes, Mary Lou Williams, Ossie Davis, and Ella Jenkins. He recorded Margaret Mead and W.E.B. Du Bois. Ethnographers sent him field recordings. He had Sam Charters, Harold Courlander, Harry Smith, Fred Ramsey, John Cohen, and Mike Seeger develop recording series and compilations. He gave Guy Carawan a tape recorder to document the African American Civil Rights Movement. Moe formed a partnership with Norman Granz for a jazz series. He released protest music of the 1960s. He also documented computer music, the sounds of frogs, and the streets of New York. Moe used Ben Shahn artwork for album covers and pioneered the use of detailed liner notes.
Moe took a scientific approach to recording. He objected to the use of the studio as a place where the engineer manufactured the sound from isolated performances. He saw recordings as a means for artists to express themselves free from interference by technicians. He did not like stereo because it “lied” about the location of the performers. He did not like multitrack because it gave the engineer too much power. He favored an approach that would allow the entire performance to be recorded through one microphone and rely on the musicianship of the performers to ensure that the sound was balanced. He recorded “flat.” He saw the record as a document and the performer as the artist around whom the document was constructed. Some complained about the quality of his recordings. But Moe persevered so that people in the future would have a reference point and not need to second-guess how an engineer hyped the sound. Now, with better techniques, his engineering is lauded by technicians for its clarity, integrity, and faithfulness to the sounds as performed.
Importantly, Moe demanded that Folkways recordings contain and reflect social values. He said: “I came to own several tapes of songs by the Nazi SS troops, but I won’t issue them. I won’t issue propaganda or anything that is used against people.”
Moe was a sometimes difficult man with a large mission in a tough business, applying hard work, determination and a lot of chutzpah. He relied on many partners and co-workers, including Marian Distler and Irwin Silber.
In a Declaration of Purpose, Moe stated: “My obligation is to see that Folkways remains a depository of the sounds and music of the world and that these remain available to all. The real owners of Folkways Records are the people that perform and create what we have recorded and not the people that issue and sell the product. The obligation of the company is to maintain the office, the warehouse, the billing and collection of funds, to pay the rent and telephone, etc. Folkways succeeds when it becomes the invisible conduit from the world to the ears of human beings.”
The Smithsonian’s acquisition of Folkways Records, initiated with Ralph Rinzler before Moe’s death, was completed by the Asch family and takes the form of the Moses and Frances Asch Folkways Collection and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. A Folkways Advisory Board, chaired by son Michael Asch, ensures continuity with Moe’s ideals, including the proviso that every recording always remains available to the public.