The 500 Covers of Ron Clyne: A Prospective Look at Smithsonian Folkways Design

Ron Clyne (1925-2006) was a Chicago born, Brooklyn based freelance graphic designer and painter who fashioned approximately 500 Smithsonian Folkways covers starting in the mid 1950s. He helped establish the visual brand of Smithsonian Folkways record covers compriseof two tone typography complimented with photography on thick textured printing stock paper glued onto record sleeves. Clyne’s design aesthetic gave him a fair amount of artistic liberty, bringing a modernist perspective to Smithsonian design with his own interests in tribal arts, as he labelled “world” art, assigning culturally competent images to Smithsonian Ethnic Folkways recordings. He also designed record covers for labels such as Vanguard, and book jackets for various science fiction and fantasy publishers, such as Arkham House (Hurley, 2010). 

Moses Asch founded the Smithsonian Folkways label in 1948, and he maintained stewardship of the label until his passing twenty years later. Smithsonian worked with independent groups, artists, and non corporate advertising or music agencies. Smithsonian recordings are based on an archival preservationist ethic rooted in capturing the essence and feeling of the artist or group they are documenting. They promoted these ethics by recording artists and groups, using monaural analog field recorders which brought an anthropological research component into the field documentation process. Alan Lomax was one of Smithsonian Folkways better known ethnomusicologists, recording blues, jazz and folk greats such as Lead Belly, Josh White, Sonny Terry, the Golden Gate Quartet, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger, to name only a few. Lomax also documented international folk songs and rituals with recordings spanning the globe, enabling audible cultural sounds to be heard and accessible to people, bringing cultural awareness to inquisitive listeners.

Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways
Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways

Smithsonian Folkways released an average of a record per week over its 38 year span and stands today as an inspiration to audio archivists around the world. The label was/is anchored by staffs’ shared personal interests in cultural anthropology. Asch wanted the recordings to match the covers of the LPs and provide an authentic visual representation of the artist or group contained therein. Working prodigiously, Clyne was somehow able to keep up with the fast pace of releases, balancing typography, layout and images that embodied jazz, folk, experimental and international artists, while mirroring the diversity and inclusivity of Smithsonian recordings. An exhibition of Clyne’s work shown in 2007 at The Narrows Gallery in Melbourne, Australia displayed how expansive the range of Smithsonian recordings are culturally and anthropologically through cover design. Some of those featured were John Cage with music by John Tudor; Indian Music of Mexico played by traditional musicians and recorded by Henrietta Urchenko; Memphis Slim’s, The Real Boogie Woogie and Pete Seeger’s Folk Songs for Young People (Nixon, 2007).

Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways
Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways

In 2001 while visiting my friend Mark in Brooklyn, NY, I had the privilege to meet Clyne. Mark’s aunt was Clyne’s neighbor, and she arranged a meet-and-greet for us because we were both collectors of Smithsonian Folkways LPs. Upon meeting Clyne in his Brooklyn Heights home, I noticed his home was vastly modernist: furniture and art was conventional and clean; lines between windows, walls, and sparse woodwork provided symmetry between cabinetry, juxtaposed with white ceilings complimented by clear glass windows in his living room. Three museum-sized, floor-to-ceiling Maori statues were the main focal point in his living room. We were thoroughly impressed by his vast collection of Pacific Islander indigenous tribal art, positioned meticulously throughout the house. Clyne was proud to share each pieces’ historical context and meaning, providing a walking tour while lecturing about world, modern, and advertising art contexts. Clyne maintained a special archive of his LP cover art and showed us lithographs, including most of his Smithsonian LP cover designs. Clyne’s wife was graciously welcoming, wearing a long flowing gown while interjecting playful adlibs during Clyne’s history lesson. I asked Clyne where he found the images he used for his cover art because many of the photos appeared to originate from the country the recording was from. He said, “I found all the images for my cover designs at the New York Public Library and National Archive.” This was genius to me because the photos/images he found were mostly public domain so he didn’t have to worry about copyright laws. I also asked Clyne if he listened to each LP he designed a cover for, for inspiration to enable some insights into the ethnicity or culture on the LP, to help match an image. He stated, “No, I didn’t have the time.” He would look at the title of the record and find images based on origin. Our visit with Clyne was similar to the video posted by Smithsonian below.

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings has grown into a leading cultural institution providing education through music in cultural folklore, heritage, and oral histories. There are now Smithsonian Global Sound Libraries accessible online where listeners can search and listen from home or school. Playlists and themes can be made, and teacher resources are available to construct interactive curriculums expanding on geography, literature, and diversity from more than 160 countries globally (Smithsonian, 2018). Through music and design, Smithsonian Folkways has helped support and empower ethnic and cultural education around the globe while bringing obscure sounds to new audiences.

Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways



Hurley, Andrew W. (2010). Transparency as authenticity? Ronald Clyne and his cover art for Folkways.

Nixon, John. (2007). ARTSPACE

Smithsonian Folkways


Written by Karen Lee (Weekend Family Music Hour)






Weekend Family Music Hour
Weekend Family Music Hour has been with Freeform since the station was established. Opal (11), Ayler (9) and Karen (mom). We are so privileged to have an affordable family activity that brings us together with your family's lives and letting us share. We love reciting poems by Terry Riley, playing our Moog (Halloween!), selecting songs based on politics or societal challenges and Holidays! Check out our seasonal shows! Mostly ethnic, folk, rock, country, synth, disco, soul, experimental and jazz/tongue jazz.