If you loved folk music in the 1960s—or just about any decade since the founding of Folkways Records more than 60 years ago—you’ll love The Worlds of Sound: The Ballad of Folkways Records, a one-hour documentary produced by Spark Media filmmaker Andrea Kalin.
This lively examination of the many well-known artists who recorded under this label features narration by popular folk musician Pete Seeger. It also features Mike Seeger in his last on-camera interview. Other musicians interviewed in the documentary include Sweet Honey in the Rock founder Bernice Johnson Reagon, the group Wilco, Jean Ritchie and over 100 rare music cues. Clean Cuts, the Washington, DC-based post sound house, did yeoman’s duty with the wide variety of music involved in the telling of the story.
Studio Daily spoke with filmmaker Kalin about the production of the documentary. She noted that key to the documentary was channeling “the gruff and maverick spirit of Folkways founder Mo Asch. “We had no money — only 10K for a music budget for a music film,” she says. “We ended up licensing 93 music cues on budget, which included securing major coups from Universal ($125 for a Dave Van Ronk cue), a highly subsidized deal with the Guthrie Foundation, a lot of begging and crying. We also had to chase down releases for the first time for cues across the world, or owned by a myriad of folks, that had scattered. Adventures included tracking down war vets hiking mountains, Catholic priests with no email access, only fax, professors in Jerusalem. It was as crazy as the label itself. We also witnessed the restoration of rare recordings which will be re-released by the Smithsonian.”
In addition to the “prickly process” of converting extensive archival material in an HD world, the production team also sourced obscure formats that had to be transferred and processed. “We featured a Jean Ritchie clip from the American Folk life Festival in the 1970s that was recorded on a 1/2-inch EIAJ (Portapak) videotape, an obsolete open-reel format that we had to send to Philly to get copied with grant money,” says Kalin, who notes that Folkways has about 500 of these, along with lots of 3/4-inch U-Matic tapes and 16mm and 8mm film reels that had to be transferred to HD.
“Working with the Folkways collection is audio archaeology,” she says. “In many ways, you can find or hear things in a digital domain that came in from the analog that are kind of anomalies. You can tell where they made the splice, for example.”
The film features the final interview with Mike Seeger before he passed away. “He sings to camera the song ‘Barbry Allen’ a cappella and talks about re-releasing a 50th-anniversary collection of the New Lost City Ramblers,” says Kalin. “We also have a rare interview with folk artist Jean Ritchie, who suffered a stroke months after our interview.“ The film also features some clips from Toshi Seeger’s personal film camera, as the Seeger family traveled the world with their kids. The footage is currently archived at the Library of Congress.
The filmmakers also faced a wealth of additional tracks, outtakes, and recordings, as well as Asch’s own collection of books and massive correspondence. “It’s a fascinating collection,” says Kalin. “Not everybody can find music that has disappeared from the world. It’s either the tapes are lost or, or the people have stopped making that music in some places. Recordings are the only place you are going to hear it.”
Worlds of Sound: The Ballad of Folkways Records has won numerous awards including the CINE Golden Eagle Award, Director’s Choice Selection; Black Maria Film & Video Festival, Special Jury Award/Cultural Television Production; and Worldfest Houston International Film Festival.
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