smithsonian folkways recordings

for the record

playing for the man at the door

The self-taught (some would say obsessive) folklorist Robert “Mack” McCormick made hundreds of field recordings of musicians in the rural American South.

“Playing for the Man at the Door” box set

But “Mack’s Monster,” with over 590 reels of sound recordings, 165 boxes of manuscripts, and thousands of photos, negatives, playbills, and posters, was never released to the public—until now. How do we organize a treasure trove of content to ensure the authors’ passion and artists’ talent take center stage?

Playing for the Man at the Door, produced by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, is the first compilation of music drawn from Mack’s historic collection. It includes never-before-heard performances from musicians such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, Hop Wilson, CeDell Davis, and many others.

“Playing for the Man at the Door” with Mack McCormick in interior spread
“Playing for the Man at the Door” artist profile spread

Throughout the boxed set’s 128-page book, documentary-style photography supplements the essays, bios, and track notes to bring the artists and their music to life.

“Playing for the Man at the Door” Mager Johnson and Mance Lipscomb
“Playing for the Man at the Door” concert posters
“Playing for the Man at the Door” guitarist on the street

To celebrate this unprecedented release, this collection was designed in two formats: a 3-CD set and 6-LP set “full of gripping storytelling and arresting instrumentals” (The Guardian).

Available on the Smithsonian Folkways website.

Woody At 100 album cover with picture of Woody

woody at 100

Pretty much everyone knows Woody Guthrie and his iconic songs like “This Land is Your Land.” But for Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings wanted to paint a more comprehensive picture of Guthrie with a collection as rich as his legacy.

“Woody at 100” first page
“Woody at 100” sketch animation spread

To represent the direct nature of his music, Visual Dialogue used a never-before-seen photo of Woody at life size on the 12” x 12” cover. Inside the 150-page book, photos, artwork, lyrics, and artifacts help give context to the 57 songs on 3 CDs and show the breadth of Woody’s creative output.

“The Guthrie boxed set is perhaps the most ambitious indication of the continuing revitalization of Folkways records.”
New York Times
“Woody at 100” artwork by Asch
“Woody at 100” artwork

Woody at 100 was honored with a Grammy Award for “Best Box Set or Special Edition Package.” See Fritz Klaetke’s acceptance speech.

Available on the Smithsonian Folkways website.

“Woody at 100” disc one page
“Woody at 100” disc flaps

jazz fest

Since it’s founding by George Wein 50 years ago, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival—or Jazz Fest—has represented one of the defining celebrations of American music. Over those 50 years, pretty much everybody who’s anybody has performed on one of their stages. So how do you choose who to include in a boxed set? And how do you capture the feeling of Jazz Fest on the printed page?

“Jazz Fest” album cover
“Jazz Fest” flag title page spread
“Jazz Fest” foreward

The producer (and Folkways archivist) Jeff Place made the wise decision to focus on New Orleans-area artists who’ve been recorded live at the Festival. Luckily, there was also a treasure trove of great photography to accompany the music and give a sense of the experience of being on the festival grounds.

Available on the Smithsonian Folkways website.

“Jazz Fest” First 50 Years
“…if you’ve never been to the Jazz & Heritage Festival, this rollicking, spirited celebration of living, breathing music history shows you exactly what you’ve been missing.”
Tom Moon on NPR’s All Things Considered
“Lead Belly” box set cover

lead belly: the smithsonian folkways collection

Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, is one of the most fascinating characters in American music. From his discovery in prison to his genre-defying repertoire to his influence on musicians that continues to this day, Lead Belly’s life in music is truly unique. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings sought to present a complete picture in a definitive boxed set of his work.

“Lead Belly” title page

Working closely with the producer and Folkways archivist Jeff Place, we created a package that traces Lead Belly’s life verbally, visually, and aurally. The large format, 12” x 12” book (referencing the original LP covers) includes five discs of music that span the career of this legend.

Available on the Smithsonian Folkways website.

“The boxed set’s packaging is as extensive as its musical scope, with an oversize 140-page book containing multiple essays; dozens of photographs, many previously unpublished; and reproductions of session sheets, letters, newspaper clips and concert fliers.”
New York Times in its (review).

pete seeger: the smithsonian folkways collection

Following definitive Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly boxed sets, the Pete Seeger project represents the third and final release in the triumvirate of iconic Folkways recording artists. Featuring both classic and little-known songs, along with a massive collection of archival photos and documents, the challenge was to organize the immense creative output of Pete’s lifetime into a fitting tribute.

“Pete Seeger” box set cover
“Pete Seeger” title page

Echoing the life-sized, direct gaze of the Woody and Lead Belly releases, the straight-forward cover photo is of Pete along the Hudson River with typography referencing some of his classic album covers.

The essays (by Jeff Place and Robert Santelli) and song notes are richly illustrated and trace his career from first performing with Woody Guthrie and The Weavers to being blacklisted by Joseph McCarthy in the 50s to playing with Bruce Springsteen at Barack Obama’s inauguration.

Available on the Smithsonian Folkways website.

“The Folkways collection is the first time anyone has released such a comprehensive collection of Seeger’s material, which is hard to believe, considering his incredible influence on the area of folk music…”
No Depression (Winner of Grammy award for Best Historical Album.)
“The Social Power of Music” box set cover

the social power of music

From gatherings to protest to prayer, music has always been a catalyst for change and builder of community. Folkways Recordings gathered a collection of music that chronicles the ways music moves people. Visual Dialogue curated the imagery and typography that would reflect the stories of struggle, devotion, and celebration as told in the music. The primary typeface—Tre Seal’s Martin, inspired by the iconic “I AM A MAN” sign—conveys the spirit of songs calling for civil rights and social justice featured throughout this collection.

“The Social Power of Music” spread with National Mall gathering

jazz: the smithsonian anthology

How do you put the history of jazz in a box? Not an easy task, but one Folkways Recordings was eager to take on. Using the historic The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz as the starting point, a team of experts set about selecting songs tracing 100 years of jazz. The set needed to be more than the music and include track notes by 30 leading jazz writers and a treasury of rarely-seen photographs.

“Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology” box set cover
“Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology” title page

Visual Dialogue referenced the type and colors of the original Folkways JAZZ LPs in creating an entirely new design for Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology. The package combines a 200-page book with 6 CDs in a translucent slipcase, befitting what Time magazine called “the single best introduction to America’s first great musical form.”

“Reaction to the Jazz set has been phenomenal—the look and feel has been a big part of the instant impact. I really think you nailed it.”
– producer, Richard Burgess
“Friends of Old Time Music” box set cover

friends of old time music

Folkways Records began in 1948 and was a trailblazer in bringing folk, bluegrass, spoken word, and world music to the American public. Their original album cover designs were noteworthy for their bold use of photography and straightforward type, but when the Smithsonian Institution acquired the label, the design of CD packages became wildly inconsistent with no brand identity.

Friends of Old Time Music book
Friends of Old Time Music book
Friends of Old Time Music book
Friends of Old Time Music CD covers

Over 20 years and on more than 100 CD packages, Visual Dialogue has strived to re-establish a distinctive visual image for Smithsonian Folkways. Eschewing computer tricks or trendy graphics, we emphasize strong imagery and classic typography across a broad spectrum of musical genres, giving a new remix to the classic style.

“the revitalization of Folkways records”
the New York Times

project credits