Moses Asch Speaks Out!

Folk Music - A Personal Statement

By Moses Asch From Sing Out!, Feb/March 1961.

When I was 8 years old, we made our home in Brooklyn. It was there on East 4th Street near the cemetery that I first became aware of folk music lore and song. I had a good background to it. First as an infant in Poland where we spent our summers in the woods living in a log cabin with white caulk to seal the trunks from the winds, searching for strawberries and mushrooms. This has stood me well these days for I have been able to discuss mushrooms of Poland with ethnomycologists such as Mr. Wasson for whom I issued the "Ceremonies of a Mushroom Worshipper." Then as my father's works were being played in Berlin we moved there. Dressed as "a city kid", I noticed the contrast with our former life in Poland. As World War I was imminent we moved to Paris where Yiddish became my mother language rather than French, although as school kids we played and sang to "Sur le pont D'avignon." Mother taught me Yiddish folk songs such as "Oif dem Pripitchik" and put us to sleep with "Shluf mein kind."

In Brooklyn we (all the kids in the block) sang "My Good Man" ("Whose Head is that Head Where My Head Ought to Be") We also sang "Johnny Come to the Fair" and other ballads that later I found out were the bases for Anglo-Saxon Folk Culture.

As father had to make enough to support four children, a wife and a home, he had to travel on lecture trips. His earnings as corespondent and serial writer for the Jewish Daily Forward brought him only 40 dollars a week. Most of his trips were in the west. He used to send me books filled with the lore of the west so Jesse James and Bill Hickock were early acquaintances of mine. Especially as they defied the law and helped the poor against the rich. For the Robin Hood story was close to us living in Brooklyn. The cops used to chase us from street corners by shooting live bullets over our heads. Name calling was common to me as Moses was an especially apropos name..."Eeny Meeny Minni Mo(e)" or "Holy Moses, the King of the Jews" was an ordinary greeting on the way to school or used to choose sides. Between the ages of nine and sixteen we went to five schools in four boroughs. So school songs, cheers and then war songs were an every-day occurrence ..... ...

The depression helped me understand folk music so much more as the songs of the people made more sense to me than the popular songs of the 20's with their Wall Street slant. The depression made me go into business for myself - first building equipment for radio stations and then putting in recorders for air use. At this time the price of phonograph records were cut so drastically that stores dumped their unsold stocks. This gave me a change to buy thousands of folk music records for 5 to 10 cents a piece. These formed the basis later for the Anthology of American Folk Song series.

Forming one of the first independent record companies it was natural for me to want to record folk music and people's expression of their wants, needs and experiences. So when Leadbelly (Victor label), Josh White (Columbia label) and Burl Ives (Okeh label) were let go by these companies as folk music "didn't sell" in the new mass media markets of the post-depression period, Asch Label became their new home. Woody Guthrie, after making one album for Victor, decided we were a logical place for his creative writing and his Songs to Grow On became legion. Then came Pete Seeger, the first without affiliation.

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