Smithsonian Folkways Meets Central Park
“I’m not straight edged, but I do like straight edges,” my boss commented while working on an archives project for Smithsonian Folkways, a non-profit record label associated with the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Moses Asch donated Folkways Records to the Smithsonian Institution in 1987 where all albums have since been made accessible to the public. Asch originally started his collection though in an effort to “document people’s music, spoken word, instruction, and sounds from around the world.”
The straight edgedness, or lack thereof, is how Folkways is using its musical collections to connect with people of all ages and ethnicities across the world. Folkways is committed to cultural diversity, education, increased understanding, and lively engagement with the world of sound, because the Institution recognizes that “the sounds of people and their music” are direct representations of specific cultures’ and individuals’ stories.
Folkways has a very unique and interesting collection, with recordings from six continents, and albums ranging from Folk Tales from Ghana to Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land. Popular albums along with those purchased once every ten years illustrate how music, of all kinds, is capable of speaking to a specific audience in a unique way.
This past weekend I had the chance to visit a friend in New York City who happened to have won two tickets to a big concert in Central Park. This concert turned out to be a huge deal, with over 60,000 fans gathered on the Great Lawn, raising awareness for those living in extreme poverty. With an incredible line up of Band of Horses, K’naan, the Black Keys, Foo Fighters, and Neil Young and Crazy Horse, all audience members who attended received free tickets based on an online lottery system. The concert was put on by Global Citizen, and between acts different celebrities spoke of certain NGOs they supported, and how all of our support, could really make a difference.
I looked around and sitting in front of me was a traditional middle-aged couple, an extreme hippie to my right, two young lovebirds on my left, and a boy who couldn’t have been in his double digits yet a few rows back.
It was an incredible experience that such a diverse audience was crowded together, listening to amazing music, and being instructed not to think of ourselves and our wants and needs, but to dig a little deeper and to hold one another accountable against the numbness that can build up against poverty.
No hat was passed for donations, and no guilt trip was given. Music was played for the enjoyment and entertainment of thousands of people so that we could hear a story, and be educated in some way, about something that reached beyond the hard rock of Neil Young’s guitar or the rhythmic rapping of K’Naan.
The culmination of my exposure to historical folk albums and records from across the world, along with my experience in Central Park listening to modern-day popular performers of rock, rap, and blues inspired songs, made me realize how timeless and powerful music really is. Whoever the audience, wherever the sounds are played, music has the potential to reach its listeners in a unique and compelling way to tell some kind of story and to touch its audience in an often irresistible and incomparable way.
Image by Julie Glassberg for The New York Times at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/01/arts/music/global-citizen-festival-with-neil-young-to-combat-poverty.html