American folk modernist
Edited version of the text from Unit: Design/Research 01 – Ronald Clyne at Folkways. Anthology of Folkways album cover art featuring the work of Ronald Clyne (1925—2006).
The influence of the record label Folkways on popular music is far reaching. The label was founded by Moses ‘Moe’ Asch (1905—1986) in New York in 1948, with the aim of documenting poetry, field recordings, natural sounds and all kinds of indigenous music. Yet perhaps Folkways’ greatest claim to immortality is that under Asch’s direction it was responsible for recording the artists – many for the first time – who provided the catalyst for the American folk music explosion of the 1950s and 60s.
We only need to look at Bob Dylan to see the impact of Asch’s visionary label. ‘I envisioned myself recording for Folkways Records,’ he wrote in his autobiography Chronicles, Volume One. ‘That was the label that put out all the great records.’
Dylan’s appropriation of dust bowl aesthetics and blues outsiderism – much of it learned from Folkways records – altered the course of popular music. But he wasn’t the only major figure to draw inspiration from the musical heritage curated and preserved by Asch: The Grateful Dead, The Byrds, Ry Cooder, Bruce Springsteen and countless others have ensured that the molecular structure of American folk song lives on in contemporary music.
Even Led Zeppelin came under the influence of Asch’s label: in an interview about the making of Led Zeppelin III, Jimmy Page discussed the inspiration behind the track Gallows Pole: ‘It was a traditional song which stems from Lead Belly,’ he said. Yet Page didn’t find the song on a Lead Belly album. He found it on a Folkways recoding made in 1962 called Twelve-String Guitar: Folk Songs and Blues Song and Played by Fred Gerlach. How many other great records from the 1960s and 70s have their feet buried in the fertile loam of Folkways?
The Folkways catalogue contains over 2000 albums comprising unaccompanied field recordings from the deep South, whaling songs, early country music, bluegrass, sea songs, blues, Zydeco, Native American music, poetry, electronic music, instructional records and, as Asch said, ‘Anything that is sound, from Indonesian folk music to James Joyce reading his own poetry.’
For many admirers of Folkways, the covers were as evocative as the music itself. They were mainly the work of the graphic designer and illustrator Ronald Clyne (1925—2006). Clyne occupies a unique place in the Folkways story. Between the 1950s and 80s he designed over 500 covers for the label and is largely responsible for its distinctive look.
In a film that can be seen on the Smithsonian website, Clyne emerges as a mild-mannered, self-possessed man. ‘I tried to avoid going to an office,’ he says. ‘My main income was book jackets. They gave me a living and prevented me from going to an advertising studio and doing ads for toothpaste.’ In Moe Asch, Clyne found a patron who enabled him to avoid advertising: ‘Mo Asch asked if I’d do a cover for him. He knew that I was doing record covers for other people. I said sure, I’d be glad to… and he continued giving me more assignments.’
But even more than the regularity of his Folkways assignments, Clyne valued the creative freedom Asch gave him. In a book about Folkways, the writer describes the briefing process: ‘Sometimes Asch provided Clyne with a photograph that he wished to have incorporated into the cover art, but otherwise he rarely interfered or suggested changes.’
This was the autonomy that Clyne craved and why he remained loyal to Asch for over three decades: ‘He never mentioned price,’ said Clyne. ‘He never mentioned how fast I should do them, or what I should do. Nothing like that. Of all the work I’ve done commercially, that’s the one I enjoyed the most because I had freedom.’
Despite his remarkable track record at Folkways, Clyne doesn’t appear in any of the major graphic design text books. The AIGA website has only a few of his early book jackets in their archive; Meggs doesn’t mention him; and apart from a 2007 exhibition in Australia, he is an ignored figure amongst design historians and commentators.
Why Clyne is neglected is a mystery. It’s impossible to look at his Folkways’ legacy and not see an intelligent and individualistic designer deserving of greater recognition. Anyone who is in any doubt about Clyne’s worth need only look at some of the Folkways sleeves he didn’t design. Few if any of them stand comparison with Clyne’s sensitive formulations of type, image and colour.
Clyne represents the graphic soul of Folkways. And a major factor in his success is that, like all great designers, he had a great client. In Moe Asch, Ronald Clyne discovered the ideal client; and in Clyne, Asch discovered the perfect artist to give form to his remarkable sonic vision.
The full version of this essay can be found in Unit: Design/Research 01 – Ronald Clyne at Folkways. Anthology of Folkways album cover art featuring the work of Ronald Clyne (1925—2006). It is available here and from a few selected bookshops.