Transparency as authenticity? Ronald Clyne and his cover art for Folkways
by Andrew W. Hurley
Two other aspects of Clyne’s designs must be mentioned here: His use of typography, together with his featuring of photography. Given the volume of covers that Clyne designed, any comments about his typographic choices can only be partial. Nevertheless, Clyne’s most typical (and effective) designs used type in a very “clean” manner. These exhibit a great typographic economy, especially when using sans serif fonts, which is very much in key with Clyne’s overall design precepts. If some of the recordings of the folk revival featured an excess of antique, “junk shop” ornamentation, then Clyne the minimalist often avoided this.
The other salient aspect is Clyne’s use of photography (an element in which Asch also took a keen interest). This is not innocent—witness the fact that Clyne was an accomplished painter, yet his Folkways designs almost never featured his paintings. An exception here is his early cover for Sounds of New Music (1958), a collection of modern compositions by John Cage, Henry Cowell, and others. The accent on photography had economic, ideological, and personal reasons. Having a respect for “world art,” Clyne doubtless felt that a photograph might best do justice to the content of an “Ethnic Folkways” album. He always maintained a significant file of photographs that were in the public domain. This reflected both a need to keep design costs down, and the fact that Folkways was itself peddling a link between its content and the public domain.
There was also a deeper association between photography and the documentary impulse behind Folkways. In many ways photography and Folkways shared the same ideology of transparency. If photography did not lie, then Folkways was also interested in “truth” and authenticity (not just in terms of the music and sounds that it sought to document, but also in terms of its “flat” recording philosophy). Beyond this, one can co-locate documentary photography and Folkways’ sonic documentation within the same progressive political context. As Robert Coles has indicated in his book, Doing Documentary Work (1997), many documentarians in mid-twentieth century America had a progressive politics in mind when they sought to take and publish their photographs and reportages. Just as progressive documentarians had photographed (and filmed and reported on) the poverty of Depression-era tenant farmers, Moe Asch was (re)publishing Woody Guthrie’s landmark Dust Bowl Ballads (1940), which related similar concerns in a different medium. In Clyne’s masterful design for the 1964 reissue, he complemented the record’s progressive politics and “documentary” impulse with a photograph-based cover that somehow conveyed the contents of the album (and its underlying ideology) in an austere, and “transparent” fashion, even if it did have a “earthy” undertone—indeed, one could almost feel the dust of which Guthrie sang.
An earlier version of this article was published in Idea: International Graphic Art and Typography 59.1 (No. 344), Jan. 2011: 139-146 (ISSN 0019-1299). It was also published as catalog text for an exhibition of Clyne's graphic work for Folkways at the Deska Inc. Gallery 5610, Tokyo, Japan (held between 17 Jan. 2011-11 Feb. 2002). This was part of a larger exhibition initiative organized by Warren Taylor, John Nixon, and Stephen Bram. Beginning in 2006, the exhibition was presented in galleries in Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. Click here for more information about these exhibitions.
Peter D. Goldsmith, Making People’s Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records.
(Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998); Tony Olmsted, Folkways Records: Moses Asch and his Encyclopedia of Sound. (London and New York: Routledge, 2003); Richard Newsome and Ronald Clyne, Six Hours with Ronald Clyne; Seeing the World of Sound: The Cover Art of Folkways Records exhibition catalog (University of Alberta, 2005); Richard Carlin, Worlds of Sound: The Story of Smithsonian Folkways (Washington and London: Smithsonian Books, 2008); Kevin Reagan, Alex Steinweiss: The Inventor of the Modern Album Cover (Cologne: Taschen, 2009); Tony Brook and Adrian Shaughnessy, “Ronald Clyne at Folkways,” Unit: Design/Research, Vol. 1 (2010); Robert Coles, Doing Documentary Work (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); and a Smithsonian Folkways Recordings interview with Ronald Clyne (2006).
Dr. Andrew Wright Hurley is a lecturer in cultural studies at the University of Technology, Sydney, and is currently working on an Australian Research Council-funded project on representations of music in recent German literature.
©2010 by Andrew Hurley