No, it’s not your typical pop music, and you’d be hard pressed to find them on the commercial radio, but the importance and cultural relevance of Smithsonian Folkways, the non-profit record label owned by the Smithsonian Institution, cannot be overstated. The label, founded in 1948 by Moses Asch, has a simple MO: spread the music that speaks to the power of folk culture, which both illuminates our own heritage and engages us in the culture of others.
Smithsonian Folkways’ commitment to bringing historically and socially relevant music to the attention of wider audiences has rightly made them an influencer and a musical institution. Their attention to detail, which includes writing extensive and in-depth reviews for almost all of their releases, and making plenty of exciting, cultural- and genre-based playlists such as “Throat Singing”, “Boogie Woogie Piano”, “Radio Haiti”, and “Radio Africa”, makes following Smithsonian Folkways on Rdio an easy decision.
Don’t take our word for it though — straight from the folks at Smithsonian Folkways, below are their suggested “Five Essential Smithsonian Folkways Listens,” including commentary.
Five Essential Smithsonian Folkways Listens
Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly - Folkways: The Original Vision
A list of music from nearly 3,000 Smithsonian Folkways albums would need to start with Woody Guthrie and Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, two singer-songwriters who are arguably the most impactful American folk musicians of the last 75 years. This album was one of the first releases by Smithsonian Folkways after the Smithsonian Institution acquired the Folkways Records collection in 1987. A companion to this album is Folkways: A Vision Shared, which features the same songs performed by other artists including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Willie Nelson, and helped raise funds for the launch of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
Various Artists - Classic Folk Music from Smithsonian Folkways
We often take for granted the influence of artists such as Doc Watson, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Pete, Mike and Peggy Seeger, Big Bill Broonzy, Brownie McGhee, Elizabeth Cotten, and other folk musicians. This compilation, one of the numerous albums in the “Classic Series from Smithsonian Folkways,” sheds new light on the success of the urban intellectual-driven movement that made rural white and African-American artists and their music favorites everywhere.
Elizabeth Mitchell - You Are My Little Bird
Quality family music that doesn’t “talk down” to children has been essential to the Smithsonian Folkways mission. An excellent recent example is You Are My Little Bird, the 2006 recording from Elizabeth Mitchell that brings a fresh sound to cherished American folk songs, contemporary covers, and other melodies from around the world.
Various Artists - ¡Cimarrón! Joropo Music from the Plains of Colombia
Smithsonian Folkways has one of the largest and most diverse collections of music, spoken word and sounds from around the world. The “Tradiciones Series” features 33 recordings that showcase the diverse musical heritage of the more than 50 million Latinos living in the United States. A recent stellar example is ¡Cimarrón! Joropo Music from the Plains of Colombia, which features percussive strings, dynamic vocal expression, and a full-throttle pace that makes Joropo one of the most exciting regional musics of Latin America.
Babatunde Olatunji - Drums of Passion: The Invocation
Smithsonian Folkways not only produces new recordings, but it also accepts donations of other independent record labels or collections, such as Monitor, Fast Folk, and Cook Records, which would not otherwise be made available to the public. A recent acquisition is The Mickey Hart Collection, 25 albums of music the Grateful Dead percussionist performed, recorded or co-produced, that furthers his endeavor to cross borders and expand musical horizons. Drums of Passion: The Invocation is one of two albums by Nigerian artist Babatunde Olatunji in the series.