Folkways Records was founded by Moses Asch and Marian Distler in 1948 to document music, spoken word, instruction, and sounds from around the world. In the ensuing decades, New York City-based Folkways became one of the largest independent record labels in the world. The Smithsonian Institution acquired Folkways (part of the Moses and Frances Asch Collection) from the Moses Asch estate in 1987. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings was formed in 1988 to continue the Folkways tradition of releasing significant recordings with scholarly documentation, and keeps all Folkways recordings in print. It also produces new titles and reissues of historic recordings from Arhoolie Records, Blue Ridge Institute, Bobby Susser Songs for Children, Collector Records, Conversations with North American Banjo Builders, Cook Labs Records, Dyer-Bennet Records, Fast Folk Musical Magazine, Folkways Records, the International Library of African Music, London Library of Recorded English, the Mickey Hart Collection, Monitor Records, M.O.R.E. Records, Paredon Records, and the UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music. In collaboration with other companies, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings produces instructional videotapes and recordings to accompany published books and other educational projects.
The collection contains master and commercial copies of all the Smithsonian Folkways releases, paper business records and other materials related to the production of those recordings. Items include audiotapes, compact discs, video recordings, phonograph records and business records.