A Shared Vision: WPAQ and Folkways Records

On November 16, 2016, Broadcast: A Man and his Dream was screened before a noon-time audience at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. This was the first international presentation of the film. Broadcast was shown under the auspices of folkwaysAlive! (fA) which is a folklore research unit at the University. The raison d’être of fA connects in interesting ways with Ralph Epperson’s life’s work at WPAQ.

folkwaysAlive! was founded 15 years ago. It is centered around the work of Moses (Moe) Asch, who founded Folkways Records in New York City in the late 1940s. Folkways was a remarkable label. Its varied and eclectic catalogue contains music that is off the beaten track. It released field recordings of American folk music, spoken word albums, sound effects records, and the like. The catalogue contains recordings from all over the world, long before the term ‘world music’ was in vogue. In time, folk luminaries such as a Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Jean Ritchie recorded with Folkways. Moe Asch had one child, a son Michael, who spent most of his professional career as an anthropologist at the University of Alberta. In the 1980s, Professor Asch arranged for his parents to donate virtually all of the Folkways catalogue to the University. At that point, Folkways had released more than 2,100 albums over a 40 year period.

Moses Asch (copyright Folkways Records)

Ralph Epperson and Moe Asch were in some respects very different men. Born in Warsaw at the beginning of the 20th century, Asch spent most of his formative years in New York City. His father, Sholem, was a celebrated Jewish author and playwright, whose work was known in Europe and the United States. Ralph Epperson, as Broadcast chronicles, grew up in the hardscabble hill-country of south-western Virginia.

However, both Epperson and Asch shared a fascination with electronics and broadcasting. Both studied electronics after high school. For both, an interest in the technical aspects of the field developed into an appreciation of the communicative power of radio and recording. Folkways Records, Asch’s third attempt to establish a viable recording business, was founded in 1948, the same year that WPAQ went on the air. Like Epperson, Asch’s mission was to provide a voice for those musicians and others operating outside of the mainstream commercial realm. I would be very surprised if the record library at WPAQ did not contain a healthy number of Folkways recordings. As Folkways’ reputation grew, artists of all kinds found their way to Asch’s cramped office in Manhattan, just as many southern performers would find a welcoming musical home in the studios at WPAQ. Each man became inextricably associated with their chosen passion: Ralph Epperson was WPAQ, just as Moe Asch was Folkways.

Both Folkways and WPAQ live on. As Asch’s health began to deteriorate in the 1980s, he sought ways to continue the company. It is now owned by the Smithsonian, and operates under the name Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. SFR continues to issue new releases. And true to Asch’s mission, the catalogue in its entirety is available for purchase. As Broadcast notes, Epperson’s WPAQ has spawned dozens of other stations over the years. Moreover, it remains on the air, as important as ever to the people of Mt Airy and environs. And it now streams on the internet. In fact, as I complete this post, I am listening to WPAQ while scrolling through the online Smithsonian Folkways catalogue. Pure bliss.

Bruce Ziff                                                                                                                   Professor of Law, University of Alberta                                                                      former Associate Director, FolkwaysAlive!

Bruce Ziff (copyright Bruce Ziff)

Special thanks to Bruce Ziff for sharing about Moses Asch and his work to record and preserve the music of world cultures through Folkways Records.  We appreciate Bruce’s commitment to not only promoting but playing and teaching traditional string music.  Our gratitude is extended to him and folkwaysAlive! for bringing Ralph Epperson’s story to our first international audience.

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