On the Art of Field Recording, Vol. 2

Several months ago Lance Ledbetter of Dust-to-Digital invited me to write the preface to the second volume of their invaluable compilations of Art Rosenbaum’s many decades of field recordings. That volume is now available, and I’m posting its preface here. If you’re unfamiliar, or haven’t gotten around to spending time with the Art of Field Recording sets, I can say unblemished by the promise or hope of any personal gain that they are among the most wonderful and important traditional music collections to emerge in the digital age…!

(I plan on this piece of writing being the last reprise on my complaints with the legacy of Harry Smith’s Anthology for the foreseeable future.)

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The release of the first volume of Dust-to-Digital’s Art of Field Recording set last year was a cause for celebration, rivaled only by the ecstatic reception it was given in the press. Don’t misunderstand—there are many (some might say too many) vernacular music reissue projects every year, and many of them are very good, and provide happy coverage of otherwise forgotten or overlooked performers, regions, eras, or genres of American music. And of course those that are very good are very good regardless of how forgotten or overlooked they are by the press. But to see so many outlets positively kvelling (to use a word Art Rosenbaum’s grandmother might have used back in Paterson, New Jersey) over a four-CD set of field recordings made across 50 years by an art professor cum amateur folklorist was remarkable.

Most of the reviews of volume one made nearly requisite mention of Harry Smith’s landmark Anthology of American Folk Music, which for many also elicited a mention of Greil Marcus’ now all-too-familiar chestnut of the “Old, Weird America” that Smith saw his set mystically invoking. Rosenbaum writes below that he is “pleased and honored” to have his set compared to the Anthology. But, for all of its brilliant inclusions, juxtapositions, and revelations, the Anthology is in many ways Smith’s tribute to the tenacity of the record collector and his obsession with obscurity, rarity, and preciousness. It celebrates the highly collectible pre-war 78 and in the process rarifies not only those objects themselves but also their performers, pushing the likes of Charley Patton, Dock Boggs, and Columbus Fruge into some imaginary past of musico-mythological dimensions; a bestial, primitive, inscrutable place, filled with moans, howls, speech-in-tongues, and tribal utterances. We hear them, shiver, laugh, gape, and fall in love, but the Anthology keeps them distant and foggy, behind the cover’s presentation of the hand of God tuning a monochord.

The Art of Field Recording volumes take a different tack. They reveal, not obscure. While the music of both sets speak entirely and effectively for themselves, Art Rosenbaum makes clear his dedication to the undeniable living-ness of the songs, the essential, fundamental quality with which track after track is imbued. It takes fingers and toes to count how many songs end in laughter, a joke, or other gleeful outburst you can’t help but feel lucky to be let in on. And those of the sacred and the melancholy varieties sound so forcefully, throbbingly intimate that to listen can feel almost invasive, requiring the utmost gingerness and respect. These are performances which palpitate with organic presence, enduring with each listen as, in Rosenbaum’s words, “ever-renewing contexts, embodying time past in time present.” Listening to these volumes, it occurs to me how incomplete a portrait the commercial recording of rural American music painted in its pre-war heyday, and that, despite the years since of revivals, re-revivals, and “rediscoveries,” what Alan Lomax called the “deep river of song”—the living stream of musical inheritance, reinterpretation, and reinvigoration—can never be fully sounded. The best known performers included here—Scrapper Blackwell, Buell Kazee, Ola Belle Reed, Dewey Balfa; talents who have been if not exhaustively, at least thoroughly represented on prior releases—flow naturally and happily into voices who have been under-represented, under-appreciated, or often all but unknown. Why weren’t Doodle Thrower and his Golden River Grass regarded as one of America’s most original and thrilling bluegrass bands? Why haven’t there been albums devoted to Laurence Eller, whose voice is as singular and haunting as Roscoe Holcomb’s? Had Cecil Barfield run a juke joint, or perhaps lived in Mississippi instead of his native South Georgia, it’s easy to imagine him being as beloved and as sought after a subject for films and records as was Junior Kimbrough.

It’s Barfield that tells Rosenbaum, as you’ll read and hear, that in writing a blues, “What your heart do, your mind be right along with it.” Art reads this as an insistence on emotional primacy in creative expression. That’s a welcome approach to traditional music. It sees a partnership between the collective tradition and the individual artist, and Rosenbaum, an artist himself, explicitly understands his connections with the players of his field recordings as artistic connections. As he writes, these recordings speak, not “as quaint artifacts of the past, but as living art, renewed in performance, continuing to speak to the human spirit and condition.” If that’s not a definition of folk music, it’s indefinable.

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