Interview with Jeff Place of Smithsonian Folkways
by Christopher Kline
I first visited the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archive a year and a half ago while passing through Washington D.C.. It was housed within the Smithsonian Folklife offices where we met archivist Jeff Place, an affable and enthusiastic man with seemingly one of the best jobs going, not to mention an encyclopedia's worth of music history floating around in his brain. He gave us a tour around the archive and brought us back to the shelves to show us letters handwritten by Huddie Ledbetter and lyrics penned by Woody Guthrie. We sat and browsed in awe at the thousands of titles held within the collection, largely centered around the label Folkways Records which was acquired by the Smithsonian in 1987 following the death of Moe Asch. Folkways was founded by Moe in New York City in 1948 and was renowned for the quantity, variety and quality of sounds it released, specializing in traditional, ethnic, and contemporary music from all over as well as, basically, anything else that could be captured on record: documentary and educational recordings, plays, natural sounds, and field recordings of all types. It is perhaps best known, however, for its American recording artists such as Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly and Pete Seeger.
Even spending several hours at the archive listening to original LPs of any Folkways release we wished left a completely daunting amount of amazing material untouched. One could spend a lifetime in there, and so it seemed only natural to get back in touch with Jeff and ask for his take on Folkways, folk music around the world, and sound in general. In addition to running the archive, Jeff is always busy putting together collections of songs for new releases and writing Grammy award-winning liner notes for historical albums, amongst a slew of other projects. Moreover, Jeff is a brilliant and kind person whose words always leave one feeling inspired and a little bit smarter. Who could ask for more?
CK: It's been said that Moe Asch wanted to create a "tapestry of the times" through the sounds that he released on Folkways Records at a startling rate since its founding in 1948, an average of about one album per week. It's even been noted that he released albums that he didn't like if he felt they added to some sort of whole he envisioned. Though he certainly could not ever have hoped to release every example of the inexhaustible and ever-fleeting well of sounds within the universe, his thoroughness is impressive and unprecedented.
JP: I guess the background on that one, the tapestry of the times, is early on he had been a radio engineer in New York City. His father was a well-known Jewish novelist who wrote books in Yiddish, a rather controversial writer named Sholem Asch who was in residence at Princeton University for a while where he became friends with Albert Einstein. So Moses went down to Princeton to see his dad and Einstein was over at the house asked Moe "What are you doing with your life young man?" and he said "Well, I'm working as a radio engineer but I have this idea of creating this encyclopedia of sound and documenting the century of sound on recordings," and Einstein said, "Well that's a brilliant idea and you should definitely go for it," so he came back to New York and he started sort of putting out these records. I've talked to his son Michael about this and he said his Dad had this ledger book, I've actually got the book, and he had numbers he assigned to all of the Folkways records and each number sort of represented something. So you had larger categories like the 5,000s for historical and protest or you had 8000s which were world music titles, but an 8500 was definitely different than an 8300. He broke it down even that far. So he was looking for certain things. He might all of a sudden put out 8301, but then maybe it'd be 12 years until he put out 8302 because he had something in mind that he was looking for and 8303 may never have been released in his whole life, so we might not know what that would've been. But he said he thought of himself as the pen that people wrote with. He wanted to document culture but he also wanted people who had something to say. So he was often times faulted for having these people who couldn't sing worth a darn putting out records because he was into it for what they were saying not how good a performer they were.
CK: Why do you think Moe chose to dedicate his life specifically to recorded sound, and what motivated his visions for Folkways?
JP: Well, he was a sound guy, a sound engineer, so that was what he did. He built PA systems and things like that in the early years and he was also a radio engineer for radio programs in New York City, WNYC radio and WEVD radio. What's interesting in the early years of his first labels Asch and Disc Records, especially Asch records, is that he has in his collection a bunch of radio transcriptions of shows he worked on, oddly enough which feature the same people he recorded for his record label. So I just imagine that after the show was over he'd kind of ask these folks, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Mary Lou Williams, "Hey you wanna come down to the studio and cut a record?" You know, multitasking.
CK: Why do you choose to interact with predominantly recorded sound over other mediums or experiences? What motivated you to become an archivist?
JP: Well I guess it goes back... you know, I'm one of those weird people that has a massively huge record collection at home. I started putting all of my records on 3x5 cards when I was a teenager, sitting in there listening in the house, and I did that at home for years. Somewhere along the line as I was approaching 30 I started thinking, you know, "What am I going to do as a career?" and obviously since I like doing this kind of organization and library stuff I figured that might work and I was also real into music and sound, so I went and got a graduate's degree and specialized in sound archives. I didn't know that I'd necessarily end up with a job this good, you know, this is right on the money with the stuff I'm interested in. I thought I might just be off at some public library somewhere running the CD machine for somebody. But this came along right at the time I was getting out of grad school and it was just like, yeah, wow, that sounds like a great place to be.
CK: Had you been a fan of Folkways before you began working for the Smithsonian?
JP: Yeah, when I was in my 20s I ran a record store in Washington and I used to sit up at the front counter and spin records all day and talk music with people and whatnot. It was a store that specialized in, you know, it wasn't a Top-40 store. We had a book section and we also had a section for classical music and jazz and folk and other types of music more than just like Top-40 stuff. I certainly dealt with Folkways, I never talked to Moe Asch, but I certainly talked to the woman who ran the office and we'd order certain titles which we'd sell better than others.
CK: Why do you listen to music from cultures around the world?
JP: I'm always curious to hear new stuff. I must admit that there are certain types of music that I listen to more than others, like American roots music, but as far as "World" music goes I listen to a lot of the African stuff and Reggae and European stuff more than I listen to, say, Asian since I guess that's more of a stretch for me in terms of the music, or say Arabic music is different. But it's fun to sit down and listen to, and I think that it's great to have it out there for people to hear.
CK: There are currently record labels such as Sublime Frequencies releasing street musician field recordings and short-wave radio recordings from countries all over the world. These albums often lack liner notes, and frequently fail to give credit to any specific person or group who created the sounds that are heard. Occasionally, old Ethnic Folkways releases have touches of this lack of authorship and context, such as on certain American Indian or African recordings, and I once heard you posit about Harry Smith's seemingly intentional vagueness in the liner notes for his Anthology of American Folk Music. What is your take on including accompanying materials with an album? How do you feel about the views that A) a lack of presented text and context is a type of petty exoticism and Western laziness and B) that extensive ethnomusicological notes act as a mode of Western appropriation in themselves, doing little for those that are labeled and allotting a certain power to the labeler and his field?
JP: To me there's music as entertainment, which I don't think Moe Asch was about as much as music as documentation. Moe was also big on being the ultimate niche guy before anyone else. I mean, he would put out these esoteric scientific records and sell them to a really small educational market with science people and at the same time he's putting out, you know, New Agey crystals albums and he'd be putting out Moog synthesizer pieces and things, all going to specific people... but he wanted the documentation because that was really important to him.
I think it's something that's going to be a huge problem, the way things in the music business are going right now. because the debate we have around here is, between the 3000+ titles we own the rights to via Folkways and the other labels, there's about 40 some-odd thousand tracks and now we have all of our stuff out on I-tunes and MSN and stuff where there's no documentation whatsoever and all of these tracks are being disassociated from the projects they came from. Our stuff's not really entertainment so it's not doing anyone a real service to have this one tribal recording, this one minute and twenty-seven second piece floating around out there.
I've always thought that there's a lot of the niches that Moe did which doesn't make sense for us to do because someone else has already come along, you know, a label, you talk about Sublime Frequencies, people putting out some of the sounds and things, that niche is being served. Because when Moe was around, before Folkways, there weren't all of these labels. There were very few independent labels and then there were the major guys and it wasn't until about the 70s when you start getting all of these tons of other labels doing stuff, so people kind of took over those markets.
So I think when we take stuff on here we kind of think about, is this something that deserves the treatment that we give it, which is a historical booklet and a really in-depth analysis? Or is this person an active touring musician because we don't do tour schedules very well and things like that and they're better served by someone who is into that business. So I think that if you're doing ethnographic recordings, more documentation recordings, you really have to have those booklets in there. And since I've worked on a lot of liner notes over the years, I kind of feel like, even from what Folkways was doing before, we kind of went ahead and set the bar even higher and I hope that some other people have followed suit because of that.
CK: It seems to me that there is a distinct difference between Smithsonian Folkways and World Music labels such as Putamayo (Their motto: "Music guaranteed to make you feel good!"). Are labels like this performing a market-motivated watering-down of regional music, or is it just a natural progression of the melting-pot? Have the genres of "relaxation," "new age," and "fusion" music affected Smithsonian Folkways?
JP: Well, you know, we have some of the old titles we sell, and we only sell a handful because that's not really the niche we chose to be in. Again, I think that there are people out there doing that well, and they know the markets, and that's their niche, you know? Something like Putamayo is fine, they're fabulous for what they do, they sell a ton of CDs to people and they probably turn people on to some interesting stuff they wouldn't normally go for. But, I learned that in the larger world of people, and how they consume music... I used to do music for parties back when I was younger or even had my college radio show, and I was always trying to say, "OK, I'm gonna turn people on to some of these really obscure, neat things that they'll never hear and they're gonna really be psyched," but no, they really wanted to hear the lowest common denominator, they wanted to know what they already knew. That's how most people react to it. And so, labels react to that and they deal with it, and that's great for them, but you know, the kind of stuff we do really needs the documentation and a lot of people don't have the interest or inclination to sit down with all of the documentation. Another problem with disassociating tracks from albums and having them float about freely out there, is that I address listening to an album, and since I make a lot of albums and I put songs in order, and make certain sets and combinations of songs for a reason, I address them like that. When I sit down with an album I'll sit down with the booklet and go from beginning to end like I'm watching a movie. It's that kind of experience for me, whereas for other people, like say, my wife, just like something on in the background while they're doing something else. So it depends who you are. But we're there for one group of people who really want to learn and to be turned on to the full story.
CK: Is the Western consumption of these sounds as entertainment ethically sound? And is the Western anthropological analysis of these sounds by researchers and academics more permissible?
JP: I think it's getting better. I'm certainly not an ethnomusicologist but I hang out with them enough to know kind of what's going on. My old boss for 20 years, Tony Seeger, was one of the leaders in this, trying to take into context all of the other things that go along with people's lives that the music's associated with. It's not just existing in a vacuum whether it's sacred or a ritual or food, or whatever the thing is that goes on.
Tony went and lived with this Indian tribe in Brazil and spent years learning their language and it was probably 10 years of living with them and understanding everything about how they lived and their value system and the whole works before he really sat down and started trying to figure out what the music was. Which is sort of going from the extreme from before the beginning of recorded sound where you had Western musicologists trying to transcribe other countries' music in Western musical notation that lost all of the poly rhythms, lost everything that went with it, you know. So recordings became really important for that, but obviously you're never gonna know as much as the in-group.
The other thing that we're real conscious about is that we try, if we're doing a recording, to have the recording be made in front of that community, because if you take the music out, say of a tribal thing and you put them in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival out here and they're playing in front of predominantly American tourist types, they may play to the crowd.
We had a Cuban group one year, who was one of the, what's the thing down there that Ry Cooder worked on, Buena Vista Social Club groups, Compay Segundo, who spent the entire two weeks playing "Guantanamera" over and over. Because they knew they got an audience reaction out of that where as there might be some incredible music from back on the island that that they play for their own community, which was kind of what we really wanted to get at.
So the idea is that we try to make these recordings in the location, with the people in the right context.
CK: Is there much debate within and around Folkways regarding the ethics of packaging and selling sounds from cultures with completely different understandings of "music" from us? For instance, cultures who have no word for music and use rhythm and melody only in the context of ritual and worship.
JP: Yeah that's the one thing, you know, we're aware that there's a sacred connotation to things and this, but a couple of things we've taken out of the catalog that Moe Asch had because we were told that anthropologists documented this thing and the people would've never allowed it to be used for any sort of commercial exploitation, it was a sacred ceremony and this was pointed out to us, so we took it out of the catalog. And you've gotta watch what things get used for because someone can take it and use it for some kind of advertisement or something totally sacrilegious. The other interesting thing that comes to do with some of these places too is how, you know, you talk about the Western approach to analyzing 3rd world countries' music, but there's also this sort of Western capitalist assumption about money and the ownership of music and copyrights that doesn't necessarily exist in other cultures. In some cultures the music is owned only by the men and not the women, or other things like that, so OK, say you sell a bunch of records and you can't really send somebody a check because they don't have a bank, so what's valuable to them? Do you donate something to the tribe or the group of people as a whole, because some people believe that the music belongs to all of them and doesn't belong to whoever wrote it... You've got to think about these kinds of things when you're dealing with other cultures, you can't just
assume, "OK well, we're gonna send this obscure person from Borneo a royalty check." It doesn't work that way.
CK: Involvement in the Smithsonian Folkways rereleases and collections of classic American music is a major focus of yours. I feel that you set an excellent example as someone working to preserve and disseminate music from his own country, which might otherwise slip through the cracks of time. How does being an American inform and affect your goals, and how you use your time and resources in regards to Folkways?
JP: Yeah, well that's kind of what I grew up with, and that would be the community I come from, plus when I was younger I started going to a lot of festivals where I'd hear American music first hand. I'd go to see Cajun bands play at bars. And of course you'd hear immigrant music by just sort of being around.
CK: How do you feel about the terms "World Music" and "Folk Music?" How would you define the two and their differences?
JP: Well, that's an endless debate. I think what you're talking about is record store bin titles, which depends on who's working there. I go into record stores and look in the World Section and find, you know, Cajun music... and this is all from the point of view of someone from the United States, but I go into most record stores and Hawaiian and American Indian music is in the World section, not the US section, Whereas I suppose if you're in Europe there's a section for German music, then all of the US music would be in "World"...
But it's a real vague thing, and I think that in the United States what a lot of people think of as folk music is sort of the folk revival, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary stuff. Where, say in this office, we refer to it more as ethnic community-based music, not made necessarily for professional reasons, more the Saturday night dancehall stuff... community-based music as opposed to full-time professional music. But if you go into a record store that kind of stuff if probably going to be in the Bluegrass or Cajun or World Music bin, so... it's a toughie.
You know, when we're putting all of the stuff on the internet these days, with all of these internet providers of downloads and things, depending on who they are, some of them only have 3 or 4 distinctions to go by, so you have to dumb down all of the categories to fit into these 3 or 4 pigeon holes, something vague like "World Music" which really doesn't help out a whole lot where if you want Qawwali music or Jùjú music you've gotta look through 100,000 hits or something. So yeah, I don't have a lot of faith in these overriding categories.
There used to be International sections in stores, which is probably the same thing... and then by country.
But now you have all kinds of stuff which is hybrid in-between, Afro-Celt, uh, what was that, the one that's like a Celtic band that plays with African polyrhythmic music, Afro-Celt fusion or whatever it is, there are all of these people like that running around now.
CK: Since the acquisition of Folkways by the Smithsonian, most new releases are either collections and rereleases of important music from the past or are albums of music being made today by various peoples from all over the world. I am curious about the nonmusical sounds which Folkways released such as the recordings of cable cars, junk yards, steam locomotives as well as interviews, plays, and stories. Though the label clearly focused much of its efforts on human music, Moe Asch also released a good number of these types of field recordings, historical testaments and instructional records. Why do you think Moe wanted to release so many of these types of albums and why doesn't Smithsonian Folkways continue to produce nonmusical sound recordings?
JP: You know, I don't know. When Tony Seeger was around we talked about doing more of them and that's when we did the reissue of the North American Frogs record and there's been a bunch of interest in that over the years, I mean, there's a whole Harpers Magazine piece written on that part of the catalog and there were a couple television shows made about it. I guess one thing to mention is that we have all of the old titles available and nothing's out of print. And we now have this robot system that works overnight making CDs for us and they're actually able to spit out these CD-sized facsimiles of LP covers with all the notes as a PDF on it. So we're able to keep pretty much all 3,000 titles, including "Sounds of the Junkyard" and " Watkins Grad Prix" and all that stuff looking like real records in print. And for the amount of sales they make, that's great because you can make them one-at-a-time. Whereas sometimes nowadays, as the sale of prerecorded music in stores is shrinking it's sort of hard to put out some of the things that are not going to break even. Because you have to make however many thousands of copies as a minimum. So I think that now with that ability to do this kind of robotic one-at-a-time desktop publishing kind of thing we probably could start doing more of those types of records. We did a record a couple of years ago, Steven Feld made sort of a festival in Greece where the people were... it was bells and also sound effects in the street which we were able to put out on a short-run. But we could get more into that now, there's more possibility to do it. But again, we just have to get someone to write the documentation and have it be a full book and everything. But Moe certainly thought that stuff was important, that part of the catalog.
CK: How has Folkways' transition from a commercial record label to one owned by an anthropological institution affected its output in regards to salability, accessibility and content?
JP: We're a nonprofit, so we just have to break even and not lose a bunch of money otherwise... you know... There used to be two record labels at the Smithsonian, one put out coffee-table boxsets like the Classic Collection of Jazz and stuff like that, and it was all licensed to other record labels and they started losing a lot of money so the Smithsonian basically just cut them out. Nowadays we just have to break even, so there might be something that we really really wanted to do, that we just couldn't, that we'd take a bath on, whereas Moe might've just gone ahead and done it. Moe existed on the margins, he was basically bankrupt at the time and he had two or three artists who sold a lot of records which covered all of the esoteric stuff. You know, scientist Doctor so-and-so would come up to him at a scientific conference where he'd have a booth and say, you know, "For my class I need 50 copies of Sounds of the bottle-nosed dolphin, I'll send you the tape," and so he sent him the tape and the booklet and Moe put it out and maybe he'd make up 100 copies, sell 50 to the doctor and the other 50 would sit on the shelf for the next however many years and he'd sell, you know, one a year or one every couple years. It kept going like that. So now with this ability to make stuff one-at-a-time in a more professional way I think we can actually start thinking about some of these projects that we just think need to be done.
CK: Has Folkways become more academic or intellectual in any way since the acquisition?
JP: Well some of those booklets in the old Folkways records are really hit-and-miss. I don't think there was any kind of jury, so it could be that someone who didn't necessarily know what they were talking about wrote the booklet. With the blues stuff I'll read the booklets and sometimes I find things that are totally wrong in there. Whereas nowadays we have a lot of people around the Smithsonian who are involved in professional anthropology and ethnomusicology organizations and know who the guy or woman is who's the expert on this country or this community within this country and we tend to go to them. So maybe it's a little more controlled that way. But we still do a ton of stuff, like we're out there doing kids records which are not necessarily anthropological. This new artist Liz Mitchell we have who's doing real well. And we do various other kinds of records too.
I work with mainly the US stuff, but again, usually if there's an artist that someone is a super expert on, for example with Woody Guthrie, well Guy Logsdon who lives in Oklahoma is the eminent historian about Woody Guthrie, so we say "We need to get Guy involved on this."
CK: The early to mid-1900s saw the popular rise of sound recording and playback. Many songs which had been passed down through generations were recorded so that they would not be lost forever, and as you mentioned earlier, recording was important for documenting the actual music whereas beforehand Western musicologists would rely on transcribing and lose all of the polyrhythms and other intricacies of the music. However it seems like something of a paradox because once the song is set down on wax or magnetic tape and can be replayed, there is no longer the absolute necessity for its oral transmission since it will always be available for listening. Do you think that the rise of folk-preservation recordings could have actually contributed to the demise of certain oral traditions, inadvertently rendering them useless as it attempted to champion them?
JP: Well, I think a lot of what you're saying here is very true. The advent of recording and recording technology changed a lot of things, I can site a bunch of examples of that but... in the early days of recording technology, when you think back to the person singing into the horn, which are the acoustic recordings before electrical, you certainly had to sing loud enough to vibrate the diaphragm to make the record, so the people who got recorded and were getting better known were the people who projected and sang in a very exaggerated loud voice. So in certain types of music people started singing that way. But then there's also the situation where if you look at things like longer pieces of music, for instance English ballads or long ballads, when they started putting them on records they could only put 3 or 4 minutes on a side, right? So people would create these abridged versions of "Barbara Allen" and record it leaving out two-thirds of the verses and those would be the ones that everyone would sing from that point on, and you lose 2/3 of the verses. There was a lot of stuff like that going on where things would change and of course when records got longer people started doing longer pieces again, so it's interesting. And I've talked to a few people, like John Jackson who was a great Virginia blues man who died a couple years ago and you know, you'd like to think that he learned all of his songs from the old guy on the front porch in this great oral tradition method, but no, the family had a 78 player and he was listening to Jimmie Rodgers 78s and John Hurt 78s and that's where he learned everything. So, perhaps the artists that got recorded on record, those songs got perpetuated and other people who didn't record necessarily, didn't.
One example I heard about is that once the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem really hit it big in the US singing Irish songs, I don't know if you know their records...
CK: I don't...
JP: Well they sang these Irish songs wearing matching white sweaters and were very sort of boisterous in a very sort of [Jeff does a brief yet spirited impression of boisterous Irish singing...] kind of thing. And they were singing all of these old Irish songs and there were people back in Ireland who were still singing them in these unaccompanied, droll kind of monotones, these little ballads and stuff, but once the Clancy Brothers got big all of a sudden all of the people in Ireland started playing them like the Clancy Brothers. And it sort of changed around. So yeah, I think recordings have a lot of affect and almost become set in stone as a permanent version.
CK: In what ways do you think the development of Western music and sound technology since the 1960s has affected local cultural music traditions around the world? For example, the prominent role that multi-tracking plays in contemporary pop music and its affect on more traditional musical cultures who are exposed to it, or the flux of consumer-grade recording equipment which results in vast amounts of recorded material being produced all over.
JP: I don't know about World Music and multi-tracking, because I know what I'm used to dealing with is was Moe Asch, you know and he barely even liked stereo, most of the stuff is one mic... I know for pop music, certainly there are people who, once multi-tracking came around started writing music in that way... where they would write something for one track and mix the tracks together and create the music in that way... certainly the sampling nowadays is exactly that. I'm not an expert on what the rest of the world is doing about that, but I know it's out there. It's not an organic thing written by people in the community as soon as it's a studio thing.
CK: What are some of your favorite recordings from the Folkways catalog that most people may not know about?
JP: Well, there's a 12-string guitar player from California named Mark Spoelstra who had these two records that I really really like who was briefly known in the 60s, he was a pal of Dylan's. Those are good records. I like some of the Eric Davidson field recordings done in Grace and Carol County, Virginia, down in the south, Gaelic fiddle type stuff. There's an interesting record that this guy Richard Sorenson, an anthropologist, made in New York with African-American kids in the street, in the hood as it were, back in 1959... and it's like hip-hop rap, with the bucket-drumming kind of stuff, but back in those days.... It's a of mixture of elements... sort of "Rockin' Robin" mixed with this real serious street, kind of gangster stuff. It's pretty interesting, happening that far back. [ed: the album is called "Street and Gangland Rhythms- Beats and Improvisations from Six Boys in Trouble" FW 05589]
I like Ralph Rinzler's "Irish Music in London Pubs" record, he got some really great singers, ones who used to sing pre-Clancy Brothers (laughs)... Sing the old songs. But there's so much, there's 3,000 records and I doubt I've listened to probably 25 percent of them.
CK: What projects have you most enjoyed working on?
JP: Well the Broadside one was good, so I was interested in that... It was something that I created almost out of, well Tony Seeger and I created the idea, but I pretty much came up with the whole concept and how it happened. And it was a situation where most of the people were still around and so I was able to track them down and talk to them about their lives, get firsthand accounts of their experiences.
The Guthrie stuff was good. I've done about 40 records now, and the first ten or so came out of when I used to have more time to sit in the back room and do the actual physical transfer of old glass discs... digitizing them and going through, and all of these discs are very poorly marked, so you go through and every so often you'd find some amazing discovery that you didn't even know was on that record, and that was always a trip, and so that lead to all of those Guthrie and Leadbelly records. There were times where, for instance, I found the version of "This Land is Your Land" that had one of the two controversial verses in the middle which no one had thought Woody had ever recorded. And that was just on one of these discs.
CK: You must've found some treasures during the archive's recent move...
JP: Well, moving, I've pretty much been through all of those discs before, so if anything moving just mixed everything up and I have to put it back together again. But I have a pretty good handle on what's here already, you know, inventories and things. So if I decide to do a record, for instance I'm working on a piano blues collection at the moment, I know who the piano blues we'd have are and I go back and look and see what kind of tapes are in the back room and might find some unreleased Memphis Slim or Willie Dixon live stuff back there and pull the tapes out and we digitize them and I go listen, looking for certain tracks or certain music. So yeah, that's always fun.
CK: What enthralls you?
JP: Oh geeze, I don' t know. I guess, this is true, having as many records as I have at home, my wife's like, ya know, "you can't possibly listen to all of this stuff", "do you ever listen to any more than once?" "why do you need all of these things?" And the same thing here... usually I'm listening to music all day everyday here and it's usually something different... it's this insatiable interest in hearing something different and finding out more about all of these things I don't know about. You know, always thirsty, never able to quench the thirst... But it's not a bad thing, for instance I was just listening to Benny Goodman and Charlie Christian off of a 1940 some-odd radio show, then I listened to a bunch of Hawaiian lap-steel guitar music, and then we were listening to an interview with Paul Burlison who was one of the great rockabilly guitar players. So, that's a typical mixture, you know(laughs).
CK: You mentioned the Blues Piano collection you're working on, but what else is in store for you in the coming year?
JP: Well the three I'm working on right now are that one, then not a Broadside-type thing but a single CD set of protest music and a third disc, you know, you always hear about the child ballads and British ballads that immigrated to the United States and North America and stuff, but this is a CD of original ballads written within the United States about historical events, things like John Henry, John Hardy, Wreck of the Old 97, that kind of stuff, so that's one. I'd still love to do a John Jackson, the blues guy I mentioned earlier, CD of his. We have a ton of material and he was a great musician that I happened to have known who was way underrepresented on recordings. In his career of 40 years I think the guy made maybe 6 albums. So I'd love to do something with that too. But, I've been on kind of a roll, I figured out that by the end of this year I would've worked on 23 albums in the last five years, so... (laughs) I did a Classic Labor Songs, Classic Fiddle Collection, Classic Railroad Songs, a CD of songs about money that just came out. That's all in the last 6 months pretty much.
CK: And what's in store for the future of Smithsonian Folkways? And the world's music in general?
JP: Let's see, what's in store for the coming year and years, well I'm intrigued by being able to do more of this desktop publishing one-at a time, getting more out there. We're out there looking for more extinct collections of recordings, we're talking to a few people now who have collections of tapes... The other thing we're doing, worth mentioning for the sake of world music, we have a new website called Smithsonian Global Sound. ( www.smithsonianglobalsound.org) And what that is, is all of the tracks that we own the rights to. But we're trying to get partners in the sense of archives all over the world. Right now the first few partners we have are a world music archive in India, and the Hugh Tracey Collection in South Africa who are putting their stuff up, but ideally some point in the future we'd have the Phonogramm Archiv in Vienna and we'd have all of these people all over the world who have recordings putting it in there and trying to get people to do documentation and notes and features and sort of comparison things of different instruments in different countries and make it into an incredible encyclopedia that people can interact with. All for free. It's up there already, so that's going to be fun, trying to get more material on this thing.
CK: Thanks so much Jeff.
JP: No problem, let me know when it comes out! Actually, send it to my home address because what they do here is they microwave all of our mail to keep us from getting anthrax and it pretty much does a number on everything that comes in, the paper looks like it's aged 100 years and it melts CDs and cassettes...