An American song catcher
If you were strolling through an unfamiliar neighborhood and heard someone playing an old-fashioned song on a porch—maybe sawing on a fiddle or plunking out the blues on a guitar—would you pause for a while and listen? If so, you’ll take a shine to the 217 tracks that make up Art of Field Recording , a pair of four-disc box sets that capture this kind of off-the-cuff performance up close and personal.
If you’d walk right up to that porch, chat with the musician for a couple of hours, and then whip out a recorder and ask if you could document their music, well, you’re a lot like Art Rosenbaum, the guy who put together Art of Field Recording.
Even if you’re not either of those types, you still might find yourself drawn in by Rosenbaum’s work. He says the collections have been attracting fans who don’t usually listen to this kind of raw, unadorned music.
“There are people who say ‘This is really cool stuff’ who have not previously focused on this type of music or sound,” he says. “And that’s very gratifying.”
It’s a good guess that one reason Rosenbaum has managed to reach beyond an audience of grizzled folkies is the volumes’ beautiful packaging, featuring extensive notes about the musicians and songs; vibrant paintings of the musicians by Rosenbaum, an accomplished visual artist; and gripping black-and-white photographs of them by his wife, Margo Newmark Rosenbaum. Unlike some archival music releases, which can feel like a lesson, Art of Field Recording is more like a visit to the musicians’ homes.
You’ll hear the Eller family of Georgia sweetly harmonize on “Going to Georgia”; Kentucky banjo player Buell Kazee play and sing the Elizabethan-era British ballad “Barbara Allen”; and New Hampshire’s Riendeau brothers peel off the sprightly “Fred Rogers’ Reel” on fiddle and guitar. A few tracks even include snippets of banter and song introductions.
“It seemed totally natural to include a little bit of the conversation, with my sometimes naive or kind of dumb questions, and get some interesting answers,” Rosenbaum explains. “And it also effectively sets up the situation for listeners that they’re in a home or a back-porch environment rather than the studio environment.”
Rosenbaum attributes some of the box sets’ appeal to their release on Dust-to-Digital, the label run by 33-year-old hipster-turned-historian Lance Ledbetter, who in 2003 released his own archival opus, the six-CD gospel compilation Goodbye Babylon. (Both Goodbye Babylon and Volume 1 of Art of Field Recording were nominated for Best Historical Album in the Grammy awards; the latter won.)
“Lance has a good knack, being a younger guy himself, for finding a way of getting younger listeners excited about this type of music,” Rosenbaum says. “He started out just being a listener to the latest pop sounds, but then he heard some early recordings that got him very excited.”
While many people play or sing music in their homes, Rosenbaum isn’t looking for just any material when he sets out with a recorder. He seeks out what he calls simply old music or vernacular music—traditional songs that have been passed down for centuries. They might be from anywhere: jigs and reels from Scotland, field hollers and ring shouts from Africa, sea chanteys from all over. Some are dark, some are bawdy, and some are unabashedly silly: Could “Quit That Ticklin’ Me” by Buzz Fountain be anything but?
Art of Field Recording has led to inevitable comparisons with two towering figures of traditional-music collecting: field recording legend Alan Lomax and archivist Harry Smith. Indeed, Rosenbaum has an affinity for, and connections with, both men. He met and interviewed Lomax while he was a college student, and he says Smith’s 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music “blew my mind” when he borrowed it from the Indianapolis public library as a 15-year-old.
Rosenbaum is a different sort of collector than Lomax, though, focusing solely on old music and working not for the Library of Congress but in service of his own particular interests. And he doesn’t entirely buy the “Old Weird America” meme that has been attached to Smith’s work since rock scribe Greil Marcus coined the term to describe the supposed strangeness of the music.
“I really like what [music archivist] Nathan Salsburg wrote in his preface to Volume 2, that our collection reveals and humanizes rather than mystifies and mythologizes these old traditions. I think Pat Boone is weirder than Dock Boggs,” Rosenbaum says with a laugh, referring to the eccentric old banjo player brought to renown on Smith’s anthology.
“That doesn’t take away the strength or power of some of these old tragic songs or very intense blues. I mean, there certainly is this poetic and musical intensity—but the singers and musicians are human beings. They’re not mythical characters in some miasma of weirdness.”
Sometimes Rosenbaum sets out with a specific person in mind; other times he goes “shotgun collecting,” simply showing up somewhere and asking around for people who play old music. He didn’t start out with any grand plan to document the sound of America.
“I just wanted to meet people and learn to play directly from them, because this music excited me more than the kind of music that was commercially available,” Rosenbaum says. “So it became an adventure to go out and meet these folks, and the recording was just part of the encounter. Most people were anxious to share their music, even with a stranger.”
Rosenbaum hardly listens to any modern pop or rock, but he doesn’t live in a cave: He appreciates jazz and classical music and even harbors some affinity for modern but traditional-minded artists like Greg Brown and the band Corduroy Road. Give him a choice between a 10-year-old song and a centuries-old song, however, and you can predict which one he’ll go for.
In explaining his affinity for the old stuff, Rosenbaum refers to Sing My Troubles, a new film by his son Neil that documents Georgia women who are carrying on older traditions, including 83-year-old folksinger Mary Lomax:
“There’s a scene [in which] she’s singing ‘Lord Lovel,’ the Child ballad: ‘Lord Lovel stood at his castle gate, combing his milk-white steed.’ It’s like the language of 300 years ago. And she’s leaving a Waffle House restaurant in her Ford Taurus and waving. . . . So she’s a 21st-century woman, but she still loves singing those old songs and bringing them to life. They’ve lasted that long because they’re just that good.”