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The online, multimedia magazine of Smithsonian Folkways

A Tribute to Samuel Gesser


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Grigsby tried to interview the producer for several years, but Gesser characteristically always directed him to the artists themselves, generally shunning the limelight.

By his work both as a Folkways record producer and impresario Gesser quietly influenced the formation of post-World War II Canadian art and culture policy, particularly as Canada awakened to the Francophones' (native French speakers) claim of identity and recognized it as valid, perhaps more subtly in the realization of Aboriginal land claims. "Sam influenced the [social and cultural] fabric in the sense of his being out on the leading edge; he influenced people who later influenced," commented Grigsby. Gesser's interest in Canadian music traditions was influenced and deepened by Marius Barbeau's work, and he steered some of Barbeau's recordings to Folkways Records. The anthropologist Barbeau (1883–1969) recorded extensively during a lifetime of fieldwork—early on with French–Canadians, and for decades among indigenous peoples in Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia (Folkways FG 3502/FW03502). Folklorist Helen Creighton (1899–1989) was another whom Gesser encountered. She recorded thousands of songs, largely in the eastern Canadian Maritime provinces (FM 4006/FW04006 and FE 4307/FW04307). He worked with those famous scholars to represent their material to the world beyond the academy and museum. "He thought it deserved a wider audience," said Grigsby. According to Grigsby, the politicians thought of Gesser:

Here's a guy who's recording Ukrainian folksongs and Polish folksongs and Nova Scotia folksongs and Newfoundland folksongs and poets, and that's all good... He was part of a zeitgeist. Sam was doing in the private sector what the government was trying to do in public policy. I think he was saying, "This isn't stuff to be stuck in a museum, this is stuff that ought to get out on the road."

And Sam Gesser saw to it that music and performance arts made their way from Newfoundland to British Columbia, from small-town concerts to World Fairs, and by those Folkways recordings into homes around the world. Gesser was always friendly and unassuming, and easy to talk with. Occasionally, he questioned how he accomplished all he had during his long career, or even why he thought he could do it. "I just did what I really wanted to do, what really interested me," he said, "and it never occurred to me that it was impossible."

References Cited

Dalen, Brenda. 2006. "Introduction" in the booklet accompanying Classic Canadian Songs from Smithsonian Folkways. Smithsonian Folkways SFW40539 and folkwaysAlive!.

Grigsby, Wayne. 2009. Telephone interview by D. A. Sonneborn. December 7.

Mills, Alan. 1956. Animals, Vol. 1. Folkways Recordings FW07677.

Qureshi, R. 2007. "Folkways Records and the First Canadian Folksong Revival." In Folk Music, Traditional Music, Ethnomusicology: Canadian Perspectives, Past and Present, edited by Anna Hoefnagels and Gordon E. Smith (Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Press), 39–49.

Sonneborn, D. A. 2008. "Sam Gesser: Documenting Canadian Music." In Worlds of Sound: The Story of Smithsonian Folkways, edited by Richard Carlin (New York: HarperCollins), 92.

About the article

This article is drawn from several sources: videotaped interviews with the late producer and impresario conducted by University of Alberta's folkwaysAlive! scholar Brenda Dalen and this author in Montreal during several days of October 2007; references cited, and especially the telephone interview with film producer Wayne Grigsby. Copies of the videotaped 2007 interviews are available in the collections of folkwaysAlive!, Department of Music, University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada and the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections in Washington, DC.

About the author

D. A. Sonneborn is the associate director of Smithsonian Folkways.

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Click to watch video

Sam Gesser discusses Folkways Records and Canadian music