by Art Chantry
yesterday a new friend gave me an old victrola – a beautiful cabinet model in a horizontal consul and all the fittings (even the tone arm is brass!) it’s a gorgeous thing ( thank you, sonya!) inside the record storage section was a small selection of early record albums. this meade ‘lux’ lewis album was in there. it’s quite an object.
back in the early days of record disk manufacturing, most of the shellac disks themselves were sold with generic plain paper protector sleeves. when the 78 rpm format was adapted to contain entire symphonies, there would usually be several disks used – front and back – just to contain the entire performance of a single symphony. these had to be combined into one commercial unit, so there was designed a perfect bound (‘book binding’) ALBUM (just like a photo album or a portfolio of art) with pages that were bound-in pocket sleeves. the disks would be slipped into the pages and the whole thing sold as one commercial item. this was the birth of the record album.
in time, descriptions and even advertising was added to the inside cover panels and those became known as ‘liner notes” (they were literally printed on the lining of the album covers.) in time, simple type descriptions foil stamped on the front cover of the package gave way to more elaborate and commercially attractive imagery. this became known as ‘album cover art.’ the man generally credited with INVENTING the idea of putting artwork on an album cover is conceded to be alex steinweiss. however, illustrative artwork and information had been printed on the paper sleeves since the beginning of the shellac recording disk. steinwiess was the first to introduce it into an early major record label in a flashy and noticeable way.
but, steinweiss wasn’t the only person doing record covers back in those early days at all. not by a long shot. as soon as the idea was presented in the market place, it IMMEDIATELY became the gold standard in that marketplace. virtually overnight every record label on earth was putting out record albums complete with beautifully imaged cover art and complex liner notes. a new industry (album graphics) was born.
this little record album dates from 1944 (WW2). it’s released on Asch records. moses asch was one of the people who founded Folkways Records in 1948. this is the label that went to extreme trouble to record early american blues and folk music (as well as world music, spoken word, poetry, instructional and even field recordings of people at work and even natural sounds of the environment.) among the people he recorded very early on were folks like woody guthrie, pete seeger and leadbelly. folkways went on to spearhead the folk music revival int he 50′s and 60′s and managed to find and record seemingly lost performers like dock boggs and clarence ashley and many others.
asch went on to help MGM records start the Verve label as well, releasing so many legendary recordings that you can’t list them all. when folkways was sold to the smithsonian, it became the backbone of ‘the smithsonian institutions center for folklife and cultural heritage’. basically moses asch was a pivotaly important dude in the preservation of and promotion of american music as we know it.
but exactly where ‘asch records’ fits into his history i can’t seem to easily find. this is from 1944, so it seems to pre-date the folkways label. or perhaps it was only RECORDED in 1944 and release much later? dunno.
but, what i think is way cool is this cover. it’s credited to “gikow” and is totally surreal. for a folk/blues pianist doing boogie woogie (like meade lux lewis) , it seems an odd choice thematically. but, then i noticed it supposed to be a ‘surreal’ piano. ok, makes sense, i guess.
hat typography! where in hell did the artist come up with that? dada? much too late. fluxus? much too early. so, the fine art world claiming credit for that type is difficult. it must have been some sort of advertising world commercial art gimmicky trick using lots of different typefaces mixed together almost randomly. where did she get the type to work with?
well, thank god for wiki. as much as i hate wikipedia, it sometimes becomes a great information source for just this sort of thing. it turns out this cover as created by a woman named Ruth Gikow, an abstract expressionist still working in figurative imagery at her prime. she also dabbled in surrealism early on. but, she was also part of the legendary ‘federal arts program’ of the WPA, where she became a renown muralist painter. and this was after she went to the cooper union intending to become a commercial artist and fashion illustrator. so, this person had an enormous amount of exposure to both the fine art dialog as well as the commercial art dialog.
during WW2, she also worked for an advertising agency and designer doing freelance commercial art projects and even textiles. in 1945, she stopped painting all together and became an art director at an advertising agency. for an idealistic woman painter/social activist, this must have been quite a comedown. but times were tough. you do what you have to do.
after the war she resumed her painting career and eventually became prominent enough to have her work collected by most of the major museums in the country. however, this little cover design for a primitive early 2-color record album project in 1944 betrays her commercial art roots. it really looks very little like the paintings that made her famous. the mere fact that it’s all crafted as commercial production art – including crazy inventive typography – points out how much of the lines between fine art and graphic design were ignored in the early days. it was very unlike today where there is a brick wall firmly constructed between the two.
…AC:i found an article that’s an interview with ruth gikow and lotte lenya discussing art together. so, i don’t imagine that ruth had much understanding of american folk/boogie woogie piano work. i think ruth gikow traveled in slightly other circles than will aim russell…