Art for anything that is sound

Unit Editions’ first newsprint publication unearths a selection of covers that Ronald Clyne designed for esoteric US record label, Folkways. The work, and the story of the label’s almost sacred mission, make for a compelling read

Unit Editions’ first newsprint publication unearths a selection of covers that Ronald Clyne designed for esoteric US record label, Folkways. The work, and the story of the label’s almost sacred mission, make for a compelling read…

Clyne, who died in 2006, made over 500 sleeves for the Folkways label, which was founded by Polish-born Moses ‘Moe’ Asch in New York in 1948. Under Asch’s direction, the label evolved into a fascinating repository for field recordings, spoken word, poetry and indigenous compositions.

The label helped to bring native folk traditions to a wider public and recorded, among others, Lead Belly, Burt Ives, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Bob Dylan was also a fan of the label’s output and recalls his early ambitions to record for the label, as a natural home for his music, in the first part of his Chronicles autobiography.

In one of two essays bookending the Unit Editions collection, Adrian Shaughnessy suggests that Folkways had the characteristics of “a social enterprise”, that it was almost “a non-for-profit organisation.” Clearly not in the business for financial gain, the scale of “musical bio-diversity” that Asch presented through his label is incredible.

There are the songs of the Ulster Orangemen and collections of Catalonian folk artists; psalms from Cameroon and modernist poetry from Charles Olson. Sir Edmund Hillary’s reminiscences of his mountaineering campaigns even made it onto vinyl – one of over 2,000 albums that emerged from the label.

If Folkways had a remit it was, as Asch himself put it, “Anything that is sound, from Indonesian folk music to James Joyce reading his own poetry.”

Yet however diverse and appealing Folkways’ subject matter was, Clyne’s creative work for the label has largely been ignored by design history. From the 1950s to the 1980s he designed hundreds of covers, working on sleeves for many of the recordings by electronic, avant-garde and jazz artists, in addition to the label’s folk releases.

Clyne was apparently an avid collector of art from New Guinea and Vanuatu and many references to ethnic art and design feature on his sleeves. Indeed, all of his cover designs have, says Shaughnessy, “an unpretentious, unselfconscious graphic purity” that make great use of two-colour printing on matt paper.

This production process was in part an economic strategy, but one that became an integral aspect of Clyne’s approach which remained un-showy, understated and, like the Folkways sound itself, authentic throughout.

Unit: Design/Research 01 – Ronald Clyne at Folkways is available now (£7.50 including p&p) from uniteditions.com. Editors: Tony Brook and Adrian Shaughnessy. Design: David McFarline and Claudia Klat at Spin. Project co-ordinator: Natasha Day for Unit Editions.

In 1987, in accordance with his wishes, Moe Asch’s family transferred the Folkways label to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, with the proviso that all 2,168 albums remain in print in perpetuity. (A quick search and I’ve already got some “Tuvan multiphonic throat singing” bookmarked). There is also a filmed interview with Clyne at the Smithsonian Institution site here, and more on Moe Asch at Ralph Rinzler’s Folklife Archives and Collections website, here.

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