Art of Field Recording

art_of_field_recording2.jpgTitle: Art of Field Recording Volume I: Fifty Years of Traditional American Music Documented by Art Rosenbaum
Artists: Various
Label: Dust-to-Digital
Catalog No.: DTD-08

Art Rosenbaum is a painter and emeritus faculty at the University of Georgia who has dedicated the bulk of his life to collecting, documenting, recording, and preserving a vast range of American traditional music. This collection, the first of three 4-CD boxed sets to be released on co-producer Steven Lance Ledbetter’s Dust-to-Digital label, is, as Rosenbaum describes in the liner notes “only a part of the great patchwork of American folk music, to use Alan Lomax’s term – it represents where I have been, what I have heard, seen and had the opportunity and good sense to record.” Rosenbaum continues, “We call it ‘Art of Field Recording,’ not because it echoes my first name, but because it represents and presents the expressive art forms of traditional music as performed by those I have met and recorded over the years; and also because we hope our particular way of organizing, presenting, and yes, ‘packaging’ this part of America’s music will rise to the level of art, of worthy art.”

As you can probably already see, the 96-page booklet that accompanies Art of Field Recording is exceptionally detailed and thorough, and includes a Preface by Ledbetter describing the genesis of his collaboration with Rosenbaum, the story of Rosenbaum’s drive to document American traditional music, and a detailed statement about the philosophy behind the overall organization of the boxed set, the particular recordings selected for inclusion, and their relative arrangement on the disks. Much of this discussion is directed toward how Art compares with the monumental Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music. Key among the differences is that the Harry Smith anthology consists entirely of reissues of commercial 78rpm records made in the early 1920s and 30s, mostly from the American South; Art, however, consists entirely of Rosenbaum’s field recordings, based heavily in the South, but also diving into the Midwest and Northeast. The result is that all the features of performance context one can hope to capture in audio are present in Rosenbaum’s compilation – the spaces where people played, the conversations surrounding the elicitation of a tune, where someone learned this or that, dishes being scraped in the diner – this is all present in rich detail, and for the better.

The 4-CD set is organized into “Survey,” “Religious,” “Blues” and “Instrumental and Dance” disks. Every tune is accompanied by detailed notes in the booklet, including who the performers are, how Rosenbaum went about finding them, and items of interest about the pieces themselves. Each of these entries is also usually accompanied by a photograph of the performers (taken by Rosenbaum’s wife Margo Newmark Rosenbaum). The entire box set – from cover, to CD jackets, to booklet – is decorated with Art Rosenbaum’s unique paintings and sketches depicting the people he spent a lifetime recording. Highlights of the collection include a driving interweaving of harmonica and voice on “Mama Whoopin’ the Blues” by Neal Patman of Winterville, Georgia [Disk 1: Survey]; Ida Craig of Winnsboro, South Carolina and her solemn version of the spiritual “Sit Down, Servant” (accompanied by the sound of her ironing) [Disk 2: Religious]; Eddie Bowles of Cedar Falls, Iowa and his elegant “Bowles’ Blues” (Note: Bowles was born in New Orleans in 1884; be sure to check out his interview in the booklet that accompanies this entry) [Disk 3: Blues]; and Dallas Henderson of Indianapolis, Indiana on solo banjo with his harmonic-laden performance of “Lost Indian” [Disk 4: Instrumental and Dance].

Every tune in Art of Field Recording is a gem, and shine all the brighter because Rosenbaum’s love of music – and the people who do it – takes the listener on a journey into out-of-the-way American places where traditions are still created, re-created, and passed on down the line. People and the contexts in which they live their lives are a central focus in this collection, and that makes it different from other traditional music compilations. This collection is a worthy companion to Harry Smith’s classic set, and judging by this first installment, the two that will soon follow (Volume II in 2008 and Volume III in 2009) will be as well.

For further information, check out the following:

The Art of Field Recording promotional video, a five minute clip featuring some of the artists on the set.

Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University. Some of Rosenbaum’s massive collection of field recordings is deposited at this facility, which is the largest university-based ethnographic sound archive in the United States.

The American Folklife Center Some of Rosenbaum’s field recordings are also deposted in The American Folklife Center’s Archive of Folk Culture.

From My People: 400 Years of African American Folklore (An Anthology) offers a broad introduction to a variety of African American folkloric genres (including sermons, riddles, recipes, etc. as well as song lyrics).

Posted by Anthony Guest-Scott