Feature on Politics and Folk Music

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New Left, Old Left, Left-Over Left. Our guest essayist this month is Bob Cohen, a veteran of the 1960s folk group the New World Singers. He discusses the Hollywood movie about folkies—and how things really were.

Read “Strumming Along with Dylan and Seeger” by returning to top left, the Pages list.

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More Moe

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Note the preceding photo. That envelope was sent to Moe Asch’s recording studio in Manhattan by Woody Guthrie. Moses “Moe” Asch (the original Mel Novikoff from Inside Llewyn Davis, see December posts) began putting Guthrie’s singing and playing on acetate master discs in 1944. The producer was “impressed with the man’s ability to make the radical past come alive,” according to Joe Klein in Woody Guthrie: A Life (1980). The Guthrie album called Struggle, featuring “some of his heavier material,” was an Asch release from 1946.

Asch assigned Guthrie a project that was to have been the pièce de résistance: a set of original songs about Sacco and Vanzetti, who had been celebrated as martyrs by the Communist Party for decades. The songs didn’t turn out well. Guthrie’s work “was becoming rather ponderous and self-righteous,” writes Klein.

Moe Asch

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envelope to Asch

Try Saying Something. One of the funny side characters in the movie Inside Llewyn Davis is Mel Novikoff, a record producer running a mom-and-pop label in New York. Half musicologist and half fly-by-night businessman, he is shown fussing behind his cluttered desk and evading poor Llewyn Davis’ attempts to be paid for his work.

There was an actual Mel Novikoff. He was Moe Asch, founder of Folkways Records and quite a character. It Still Moves, the 2008 book by Amanda Petrusich, describes Asch as “notoriously irresponsible about paying proper royalties (he repeatedly scrapped with Lead Belly over financial concerns).”

Here’s Asch on a life spent sifting through the profusion of demo tapes he received over the transom:

“Most of them protest about love and stuff like that; I try to tell them, why don’t you use this talent that you have for the people’s use? I am not interested in pro-love or anti-love material.”

His various recording ventures, beginning before World War II, were directed toward using music as a weapon, in the Pop Fronters’ parlance. Petrusich includes a well-known story (disputed by Asch himself): When the young Bob Dylan showed up at Folkways angling for a record contract, Asch turned him down because “he didn’t have anything to say.”