Folkways gets trampled underfoot at renovated Smithsonian

Above: Smithsonian patrons deserve a space to discover and learn more about American musicians like Big Bill Broonzy.

By Joel Francis

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s two-year, $85 million facelift is a lot like the plastic surgery aging stars get – it attracts a lot of interest at first and does a good job of hiding the wrinkles, but ultimately accentuates all the other flaws.

A visit to the renovated Washington, D.C. museum in the week after it re-opened to the public revealed Kool Herc’s turntable and Afrika Bambaataa’s pendant as the most prominent exhibits of 20th Century American music. There was no acknowledgement to the richness of the museum’s own music archives and label, Smithsonian Folkways.

The National Museum of American History needs a showcase dedicated to the legacy of Smithsonian Folkways recordings. A place for visitors to learn about its artists – not only better-known names like Pete Seeger, Guthrie and Leadbelly, but the anonymous rural musicians label founder Moses Asch sought to document.

Asch founded Folkways Records and Service Co. in 1948 to “suppor(t) cultural diversity and increase understanding among peoples through the documentation, preservation, and dissemination of sound,” Much like his contemporary and fellow musicologist Alan Lomax, Asch captured songs from primitive villages to New York City’s avant-garde, ancient Greek literature to Russian poetry.

The permanent space should include an interactive map where visitors can hear and learn about indigenous music styles in a given area, and see how those forms migrate and influence each other. They should also house several kiosks where listeners can listen to recordings while learning about the performers. Rotating exhibits of instruments, lyrics and other memorabilia would also enhance the space.

When the Smithsonian acquired Asch’s library after his death in 1987, they adopted his mission of document “the people’s music” as their own. They also guaranteed that all the label’s 2,000 releases would forever remain in print. One wouldn’t know this promise has been kept by visiting the museum’s gift stores.

In the old configuration, the main retail store on the bottom floor was a clearinghouse for the Smithsonian Folkways catalog. Nearly every title and artist was at the shopper’s fingertips. All that remains today is a few compilations of blues, bluegrass, train and labor songs and the essential Woody Guthrie box set. Patrons deserve better than this. They deserve a place to flip over the rocks of American roots music and discover what lies underneath.

Addressing this need would not correct all the problems of the renovated museum. The public would have been better served had the curators waited until all their exhibit space was completed before re-opening.  More than a third of the building is still under construction and closed to the public. But the tapestry of American music the Smithsonian has preserved is too rich to be swept under the rug.

Indigo Girls Bring Passion, Activism To Leid Center

Indigo Girls

Kaw Valley Independent (Lawrence, Kan.)

By Joel Francis

It is impossible for the Indigo Girls to separate their music from their activism. Their 90-minute set at the Lied Center last week not only brought out the fans, but the plight of Leonard Peltier, the American Buffalo and environmental issues.
The Girls opened their set with a moving version of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” that featured Emily Saliers on piano and Amy Ray on guitar. After the song the duo yielded the stage to Winona LaDuke, Honor the Earth project director. They returned aided only by accordion and piano player Carol Issacs for an all-acoustic set that included “Get Out the Map,” “Power of Two” and a reworking of “Go” that did not lose any of its electricity despite being unplugged.
The Girls also premiered two new tracks, “Devotion” and “Leaving,” that were released on the new best-of “Retrospective.” The crowd responded enthusiastically and sang along like they were old standards.
“We put two brand new songs on (the collection) because we wanted the fans to have something new,” Saliers said in telephone interview the day before the concert. “Picking the songs for the new album wasn’t nearly as difficult as putting together 1,200 Curfews, our live album. We just picked songs that we liked and we both agreed on it together.”
The set climaxed with “Kid Fears” when supporting act Shawn Mullins and reprised the vocals originally recorded by Michael Stipe. The trio’s voices blended and danced around the room leaving the audience awestruck. Later, on “Galileo,” Ray and Saliers yielded the mic to the crowd, who didn’t miss a beat or a lyric.
The Girls closed a jubilant night on the Honor the Earth Tour on a bill shared with Mullins and the all-Native American blues band Indigenous, each of whom received standing ovations at the end of their sets.
“The Honor the Earth tour is something Amy and I have been doing for almost seven years now,” Saliers said. “It has very specific social, political focuses that have to do with environmental issues on Native lands.”
This year’s issues included the slaughter of buffalos in Yellowstone Park and nuclear waste dumping on Native American land.
“It’s impossible to be an environmentalist and not consider indigenous issues,” Saliers said. “I think Americans need to see what kind of environmental racism is going on in impoverished communities and the responsibility for the nuclear industry to take care of its waste.”
To show their willingness to put their money where their mouths (or hearts) are, the Indigo Girls have released another new track, “Pt. Hope.” The song was recorded live in Atlanta and is available only by download at for $3.60.
“Three dollars of that money goes to Honor the Earth,” Saliers said. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful song that Amy wrote that deals with a lot of the issues that we’re covering on the tour.”
The Indigo Girls are not slowing down once the Honor the Earth tour wraps up. Ray will release her first solo record in February. Both Girls will return to the studio in May to record their ninth album. Saliers said the new album would have an intimate sound and return to their acoustic roots.
“We don’t want to belabor over this record,” Saliers said. “We just want to write strong songs and get in there and do it in a way that’s pure and catch the emotion of the songs.”
That emotion was undeniable on Saturday night.
“We’re passionate about these issues. If you’re going to write a song, you have to write about something you’re really thinking about or feeling,” Saliers said. “We’re activists and we come from the question of what can be done to help rectify a bad situation”