How does music ‐ or any cultural artefact ‐ assume significance for those who encounter it? Why does one sound or image come to matter, while others are overlooked or forgotten? The answer is not to be found in the sounds alone, but in the context and conditions in which they are heard. This article explores this argument by considering the case of The Anthology of American Folk Music, a set of recordings from the 1920s and 1930s, which has exercised an extraordinary power over popular music since its release in 1952. Using the arguments expounded by Robert Cantwell and Greil Marcus, and pointing to the uses of music in establishing national identities and mobilising social movements, the article argues for an understanding of music's significance that links social experience, aesthetic pleasure and political values.