Smithsonian Institution
Spring 2012: The Cover Art of Folkways Records



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The online, multimedia magazine of Smithsonian Folkways

Transparency as authenticity? Ronald Clyne and his cover art for Folkways

by Andrew W. Hurley

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As Richard Carlin has noted in his book, Worlds of Sound, there was something different about a Folkways record:

The front “cover” consisted of a paper wrapper glued over a plain sleeve, the black cardboard textured like aged leather. The wrapper only reached about one-third of the way around the back of the album, and a list of the tracks to be heard within sometimes was printed on the back to give you a clue of what you were buying. Inside the sleeve, a heavy piece of cardboard was inserted to create two pockets. In one, a booklet of notes was inserted, sometimes as little as four pages, but more often expanding to thirty or more pages of background notes, photographs, and song lyrics; in the other pocket the record was placed, somewhat heavier than a typical vinyl album. Folkways albums were decidedly different; difficult to find in record stores outside of major cities, priced higher than normal albums, treasured and passed eagerly from listener to listener, their very obscurity making them that much more desirable (2008: xv-xvi).

Ronald Clyne, who designed an estimated 500 covers for Folkways Records, contributed to the distinctive “otherness” of its recordings. The physical alterity of a Folkways record was not the end of the matter. The label also had a special philosophy, and Clyne’s design complemented it well.

There was something quite different about the whole Folkways operation. Founder Moses Asch produced more than 2,000 recordings for the label between its inception in 1948 and his death in 1986, and these recordings ran the gamut, from classical, jazz, blues, and folk, to the very edges of recorded sound and market viability.

Asch’s ambitious life work combined a “preservationist” ethic, a political project, and an ideology of presenting, in as faithful a manner as possible, the real and authentic (Carlin 2008). Although he was interested in recording technology, Asch was always more concerned with content rather than questions of “high fidelity.” Indeed, his productions were often accused of being decidedly “lo-fi.” This was partly a question of finances, but also a function of Asch’s beliefs both in making sounds available (again), as well as in a certain approach to recording. Asch was an enthusiast of mono recording, at a time when his contemporaries were experimenting with stereo. He also did not believe in artificially boosting certain ranges in the sound spectrum, preferring to record as “flat” as possible.

Ronald Clyne: Visualising transparency?
Cover illustrations and designs offered another way in which the contents of a Folkways record were mediated to the listener. And they were one further point of distinction from the competition. Asch began releasing records at a time when plain paper sleeves were the norm; by the 1950s, Folkways record covers had become an instantly recognizable brand within the market. Visual aesthetics were not a matter of peripheral concern. Indeed Asch was to boast at one stage that his was the first record label to issue records with cover art (in 1945, he enlisted David Stone Martin to do the cover art for a series of jazz recordings). As Moses Asch biographer Peter Goldsmith notes, however, Asch did not initiate the practice; yet he did take it to “new heights” (1998: 134). Whilst artists like David Stone Martin, Ben Shahn, and Irwin Rosenhouse contributed original cover art, particularly in the early days of the label, it would eventually be Ronald Clyne’s covers that established a house style.

A relatively little-known figure nowadays, Clyne (1925–2006) was the son of an advertising executive. A modernist by inclination, the New Yorker was both a freelance graphic designer as well as a painter. He designed book jackets for a variety of publishing houses, including the sci-fi and fantasy Arkham House imprint, and he also designed record covers for some other labels, notably Vanguard. Yet it is his Folkways work with which he is most identified. The Folkways brief was a welcome one for Clyne. Although it was not highly remunerating, the work provided considerable artistic freedom. There was also some overlap between his own interest in tribal, or what he called “world” art, and the label’s large “Ethnic Folkways” sub-catalogue. As British designer Adrian Shaughnessy has noted, that deep interest lent his “Ethnic Folkways” designs a special integrity and sure touch far removed from the touristic designs of some of the contemporary “exotica” releases on other record labels (2010: 61).

Beginning in the mid-1950s, Clyne would increasingly be the designer of choice for Asch. This is not to say, however, that he was the only designer, or that his designs always followed the same principles. The look with which Clyne’s designs are associated was partly a result of aesthetic choices, and partly one of material realities. To the latter must be reckoned the low budget of Folkways Records. Whilst Clyne typically worked with two-colour printing—and made a virtue out of it—occasionally only one colour was available. The use of cheaper matte printing stock also contributed to the Folkways look. This, together with Clyne’s frequent predilection for autumn tones, contributed to an “earthiness,” which could easily be rhymed with the homespun, “authentic” nature of the music that the records contained.

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Click to enlarge

This artist spotlight was written as part of an exhibition initiative about Ronald Clyne's album design work, which was 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 images to enlarge and view captions

Click to watch video

After Ronald Clyne's death in 2006, Smithsonian videographer Charles Weber created this tribute to the artist from Margaret Asch and D. A. Sonneborn's 2005 interview with the artist at his home in Brooklyn, New York. The entirety of the documentation is available in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

“Moe asked if I’d do a cover for him. He knew that I was doing record covers for other people. I said sure, I’d be glad to, and I did that first Scottish folk songs cover and he continued giving me more assignments. He never mentioned price. He never mentioned how fast I should do them, or what I should do. Nothing like that. Of all the work I’ve done commercially, that’s the one I enjoyed the most because I had freedom.”

—Ronald Clyne, 2006

Click to view recording details

Album first published in 1950; not available for sale

“A month after the exhibition at the University of Alberta, I visited Ronald and Hortense Clyne in their beautiful mid-twentieth century modernist townhouse. I wanted to give them a copy of the exhibition catalogue in person. As we leafed through the pages looking at some of Ronald’s memorable covers –The Pit and the Pendulum, All the Homespun Days, Gazette—his comments did not betray any particular feeling. His remarks were as usual to the point, even brusque. At the same time, he was wiping tears away from his eyes. It means a great deal to me that we “found” Ronald in that year of the exhibition and were able to show him how admired his prodigious work for Folkways was and to hear, in turn, of the wonderful relationship he developed with Moe over the decades. Folkways Records was such a centre of creativity and commitment. People with something important to convey found a place to do it with others who shared that sense of importance.”

—Margaret Asch, co-curator of Seeing the World of Sound: The Cover Art of Folkways Records


Charles Weber, Margaret Asch, and Lauren Kritzer document Ronald Clyne at his home in Brooklyn, 2005. Photo by D.A. Sonneborn, Smithsonian Institution

Gazette, Vol.1, 1958 (FW02501 / FN 2501)

Design by Ronald Clyne

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