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Forgotten Songwriters pt.1: Ed Askew

Little is known about the reclusive folksinger Ed Askew. During the late ‘60s he recorded the psychedelic folk masterpiece “Ask the Unicorn” – his only album which has been released commercially until recent reissues – with only his ten stringed tiple accompanying himself. Little happened when it was released in 1968 by ultra-noncommercial ESP-Disk, the label which was best known for its free jazz releases and which is considered to be one of the most legendary independent labels of the ‘60s. Receiving barely any attention at all the record soon descended into obscurity even among the best informed enthusiasts of the in-crowd.

This in itself is not a unique story. It happens all the time. What makes this story worthwhile telling however is the fact that during all those years after its release its fire was kept alive solely by its unmatched and overwhelming urgency. His music proved so powerful that even time could not take it down. Slowly but surely more and more people started discovering the album. Word got around very gradually. It stole the hearts of listeners one by one. Something within this record made people fall for it like nothing before.

These are the kind of stories that should be told. Songwriters who are largely unknown to the public but have managed to find their place in the history of music, changing its landscape indefinitely and inspiring other artists for many decades without ever getting the deserved recognition. This small series of posts is dedicated to my favourite songwriters who were undeservedly forgotten.

Ed Askew grew up in Stanford, Connecticut after which he moved to nearby New Haven to attend Yale University in the early 60s. After having earned his art degree as a painter he briefly taught art at a high school in New York. It was then when he sent a demo tape to Bernard Stollman of ESP-Disk who quickly invited him to record his first record which would become known as “Ask the Unicorn”. The album received practically no promotion from the label – which was already plagued by financial difficulties – and quickly disappeared from circulation. The second album which Ed Askew recorded for ESP-Disk was never released – due to the eventual bankruptcy of ESP-Disk in 1974 – until the limited vinyl-only release on De Stijl in 2003.

When you talk about independent record labels you automatically talk about ESP-Disk. A New York-based record label, founded in 1966 by Bernard Stollman who was known for his almost spartanesque production methods and a strict no-retakes policy. With the motto: “The artists alone decide what you will hear on their ESP-Disk”; the label opened the door to a wide range of wildly creative sounds including Albert Ayler’s “Spiritual Unity” and is considered to be the most important exponent of free jazz. It is probably no coincidence that it took such a label to discover Ed Askew’s talents. And with our current discussion about independent music and its role in our musical landscape there could be no better example than Ed Askew’s “Ask the Unicorn”.

“Ask the Unicorn” contains a certain urgency. Like the recording of it was an act of desperation. The moment he starts singing and you hear his uniquely strained voice you immediately feel that he is frantically trying to tell you something extremely important. Part of this comes from a less romantic and more practical situation. The instrument which he is using, the ten stringed tiple, is notoriously difficult to master and takes so much pressure to keep it under control that you can actually hear his continuing struggles in his singing. The tiple – which he describes as an instrument shaped like a baritone ukulele – offers stunning arrangements to his harrowing psychedelic folk songs and challenges conventional structure.

“Little Eyes” was recorded immediately following the poorly selling debut. The record shares a similarity with “Ask the Unicorn” when it comes to his strained vocals and his use of the tiple but it also shows his newfound interest in the piano. And again all the songs were recorded in one continuous take.

Lyrically, Ed Askew manages to create emotionally engaging images with tripped out, dreamlike lyrics which effortlessly seem to flow from him. Often abstract and abruptly shifting, his lyrics possess a certain timelessness. He addresses still difficult topics in a way that was well ahead of its time, managing to strip down his songs to the pure and beautiful essence with poetic elegance.

After more than 35 years Ed Askew’s music is more relevant than ever, still able to mesmerize its audience. As David Shirley once truthfully wrote: “This is music that will endure.”

  1. Ed AskewFancy That
    Ask the Unicorn (ESP-Disk, 1968)
  2. Ed AskewMr. Dream
    Ask the Unicorn (ESP-Disk, 1968)
  3. Ed AskewPeter and David
    Ask the Unicorn (ESP-Disk, 1968)
  4. Ed AskewLittle Eyes
    Little Eyes (ESP-Disk, 1970 / 2003, De Stijl)
  5. Ed AskewCity of Glass
    Little Eyes (ESP-Disk, 1970 / 2003, De Stijl)
  6. Ed AskewLove is Everyone
    Ask the Unicorn (ESP-Disk, 1968)
  7. Ed AskewOld Mother Moon
    Little Eyes (ESP-Disk, 1970 / 2003, De Stijl)

Stream playlist

Further readings
Best indie albums
Ed Askew homepage
ESP-Disk homepage
De Stijl Records homepage
Interview with ESP-Disk founder Bernard Stollman
“The Ageless Poetry of Ed Askew” by David Shirley

update: Dec 1′ 07. You can now reach Ed Askew via his MySpace page.

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Category: Best Indie Albums, Folk

31 Responses

  1. ed askew says:

    WHEN I ARIVE remixed by Eoin aka DJ Wak

  2. ed askew says:

    i know,my fault. all is not lost however. this remix is up as a blog on my myspace profile. DJ Wak is 16
    and writes beautiful trance techno etc music. asked if he could try some stuff (bass / rythem track)
    on my song. i reworked the video
    somewhat and added his remix. still the same song. love it. ed

  3. squashed says:

    The Youtube clip (INDUSTRIAL BLAHNESS III/DJ Wak/Ed Askew)

    see more songs and writing here:
    http://www.myspace.com/ecaskew

    I am definitely feeling suprematist now. :D

  4. kenny - fife says:

    Bought “Ask The Unicorn” when first released. Thought I was in minority of one in loving this music. But ater 30-odd years Ed Askew’s music seems to be reaching new ears. I love the plaintive quality of his voice. The Tiple’s amazing sound adds a melancholy to the sounds. Just discovered “Little Eyes” and am moved once again by the emotion of the songs. The more I play it the more I enjoy it. Brilliant! Not to every0ne’s taste but as Leonard Cohen says -”..those with eyes shall hear..”

  5. ed askew says:

    thanks kenny
    check out RAINY DAY SONG
    http://www.myspace.com/spinninggold
    allthe best, ed

  6. ED ASKEW says:

    new Ed Askew record http://www.wildcatrecording.com/
    MY HEARTS BEATING

    free this month. sold as a download only in the new year.
    this is a very personal album. i hope people enjoy it.
    Ed

  7. GoPiano says:

    GoPiano…

    Hello :) I bookmarked this blog. Thanks heaps for this!… if anyone else has anything, it would be much appreciated. Great website Super Pianoforte Links http://www.de.Grand-Pianos.org Enjoy!…

  8. Laszlo says:

    And here he is. just found his newly founded youtube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/singercity40

  9. Kenny G says:

    Just caught Ed at the Rock & Roll Hotel in DC last night. oh, yes… oh, yes…

  10. Ed Askew says:

    hey, my band page website: http://eaband.tumblr.com/
    and new self release.. http://edaskew.bandcamp.com/album/laughing-in-the-light.
    i was going to send an email but couldn’t get the contact info here to work.

    have a good fall season everyone.

    Ed

The song makes its imprint
in the air, making itself felt,
a felt world. Here, there,
the stunned silence

of knowing I will not remember
what I heard;

futures that will never happen,
a fluidity we cannot achieve
except as a child
creating possibility.

This is the untranslatable song
hidden in the earth.

-Untranslatable Song [1]