The Look of the Listen
The Cover Art of Folkways Records
Greer and Asch, along with their interdisciplinary team, eventually selected 209 from more than 2,000 covers for the exhibition, organizing them by production methods, stylistic approach, album genres and categories as defined by the wide-ranging Folkways catalog, and the individual artists and designers who created the work.
Margaret Asch reflects,
The process of viewing and re-viewing the entire Folkways cover collection helped bring forward not only some stunning individual covers, but patterns started to emerge. I started to see what a designer like Ronald Clyne was trying to achieve (clarity and simplicity) and to appreciate his aesthetic (minimalist)… given the production challenges that existed for the Folkways designers (limited to two colours), some of the covers created by Irwin Rosenhouse are unbelievable. This Land is My Land is a good example of this and his freehand work on albums like Niloh Service is unparalleled. I also find the many photographic covers particularly moving. They show musicians so honestly and respectfully, whether it’s the work of professional photographers such as David Gahr or John Cohen or others not known for their photography, such as Béla Bartók and ethnologist Anne Chapman. It occurred to me at some point in the curatorial process that without these covers we might have no visual record of who many of these extraordinary people were.
The 2005 exhibition coincided with the centenary of Moses Asch’s birth. It was a milestone that illuminated, in the words of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings Director Daniel Sheehy, the “look” that invites the “listen.” It evoked the breadth and diversity of audible and especially musical creation, and celebrated Folkways contributions to visual design. What’s more, in the context of the exhibition, the “look” also invited more active responses. While gallery visitors admired the formal beauty of the art work, they were also engaged through the often personal and aural memories that these album covers triggered—an experience that inspired some people to spontaneously break into song while onsite.
The exhibition was the inaugural research project of folkwaysAlive!, a partnership between Smithsonian Folkways Recording and the University of Alberta. folkwaysAlive! showcases the complete set of Folkways recordings donated by Moses and Frances Asch to the University of Alberta in 1985 and uses them as a basis for exploring and supporting Canada’s diverse musical-cultural heritage and living musical traditions. Through this partnership, the University shares in the legacy of respecting and celebrating people’s voices and connects directly to Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and its stewardship of the Folkways mission worldwide. This partnership has produced a Smithsonian Folklife Festival program, Alberta at the Smithsonian, in 2006; two Smithsonian Folkways albums—Alberta: Wild Roses, Northern Lights and Classic Canadian Songs from Smithsonian Folkways (2006); and internships for University of Alberta students. It also created album and exhibition design classes and a preservation program with Smithsonian conservators and archivists, which contributed to the conservation of the original artwork of Folkways album covers.
folkwaysAlive! continues its commitment to broadening access to the history of Folkways Records and the ongoing work of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings through the website, The Look of the Listen, a virtual presentation of the original gallery exhibition. Here, you can view all of the art from the exhibition as well as stream audio from the albums represented. The site also includes a handy search function that enables the visitor to browse album covers by designer, photographer, illustrator,
Enter the Look of the Listen