I turned on the TV today and caught the last half-hour or so of a documentary about Folkways Records (now Smithsonian Folkways), a label that recording not just every kind of music in the world, but tons of spoken word albums and even albums of things like nature sounds and train noises. To me, the folk and blues albums are the really hot stuff.
The documentary was very interesting. They only identified the talking heads the first time they were shown, so I kept seeing a guy who wasn't identified (must have come into the show before I turned it on, in other words), and kept thinking, "That's some I know," but couldn't place him. And couldn't place him, and couldn't place him. Then I realized it was Richard Carlin, who edits and writes music books. I met Richard at summer camp when he was 15, and even though I've seen recent pictures of him, I still remember a skinny teenager with thick-rimmed glasses.
I always thought it was cool that at camp, Richard played the concertina, and was a counselor-in-training at the publications shop, a marvelous writer -- and now he still does music and writing. I love seeing someone stick with a passion (or two) all those years.
Anyway, it looks like everything from Folkways and Smithsonian Folkways is available for purchase or download. I think one or the other must have gobbled up some tiny folk labels along the way, because I found a favorite album (Clark Kessinger, Fiddler) which I could swear was on another label when I originally bought it, maybe County. You can download albums for 9.99 or songs for .99. It's absolutely amazing what's on there: children's songs, The New Lost City Ramblers, the early albums of Dave van Ronk, pretty much everything Woody Guthrie ever did, amazing folk compilations, jazz, Lightnin' Hopkins, Leadbelly. Malvina Reynolds...there's lots.
One caveat -- when you download, the file does not have a title or song info. An album will have the album title, but not the track names. (It comes with a PDF file of album notes, but you still have to type in the track names yourself.) A single song with have a numerical file name, and mousing over it will give you the artist's name, but not the song title. And only the song title appears on the download page. It's not *so* bad if you can recognize the song you're downloading and/or the artist, but when you're downloading things like instrumental fiddle tunes, it's a serious pain in the ass. I suggest writing down the names of individual songs as you purchase them. Otherwise, it's near perfect.
You can even download the Harry Smith anthology (the formal title is The Anthology of American Folk Music), a vast and wide selection of pretty much every kind of American folk music, collected as way-rare 78s by Harry Smith. I happen to have a hard copy, which is 6 CDs. (And if you want some fun, look up Harry Smith, who was a serious, brilliant, and nutty character.)
I am insanely happy with the Clark Kessinger album. He's pretty much always been my favorite fiddler, and I've really missed hearing that album. (I am still searching for two long-lost old-timey records: Art Rosenbaum & Al Murphy, and Alan Block & Ralph Lee Smith.) I also downloaded a track of Tony Trishka and one of The Red Clay Ramblers with Fiddlin' Al McCandless. I've been listening to a lot of old-timey (stringband) music again lately. I think I remember why I loved it so much as a teenager.