In his recent autobiography Chronicles, Vol. 1, Bob Dylan writes, "I envisioned myself recording for Folkways Records. That was the label that put out all the great records." It was from Folkways — the life's labor of founder Moses Asch now archived at the Smithsonian Institution as Smithsonian Folkways — that the erstwhile-surnamed Zimmerman discovered the charms of folk music, the peculiar plucks on Martin frets, the chords and sentiments that hung impossibly long like a pregnant pause that must have felt familiar to the Minnesota-bound boy, his world a perpetual sheet of white.
Woody Guthrie, the troubadour's troubadour, a man who traveled the country selling hardship the way others did balms and tonics, was the first to grab Dylan by the ear. "My life had never been the same since I'd first heard Woody on a record player in Minneapolis a few years earlier," he writes in Chronicles. "When I first heard him it was like a million megaton bomb was dropped." And so Dylan proceeded to drop the bomb on us — "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" both more specific and allegoric than Woody dared, the "darling young one" being Dylan speaking to himself through Woody, the boy who would be king.
There was more than Woody. Lead Belly, Big Bill Broonzy, Mike Seeger, Doc Boggs, Doc Watson and names long forgotten. Songs passed down by key, lyrics changed by necessity, sentiments that were never altered. And while Dylan was certainly a student of folk, he was not long for it. His lens was always wider, and even his tastes within Folkways show that. There's no common thread between "Betty and Dupree" and "Barbara Allen" aside an authenticity of experience, perhaps this catalogue's ultimate trump.
Dylan documented his love of Folkways in Chronicles, and the Smithsonian, in turn, has created this compilation. These are some of his favorite songs and musicians, the individuals who spurred him to his own creations, the ones to whom we offer thanks. For more on Dylan and Smithsonian Folkways, you can check out an entire Dozen of his favorite material, and you can also tune into Martin Scorsese's Dylan documentary No Direction Home. Use those, and this fantastic compilation, as gateways into the deeper crannies of Smithsonian Folkways.