Cultural anthropologists and music historians have been making what are known as field recordings ever since Thomas Edison invented his wax cylinders more then a hundred years ago. A field recording is pretty much what its name implies, any recording that's made out "in the field", or in other words, the home location of the people who make the music. A majority of the time these recordings are done not with public consumption in mind, but as a means of obtaining samples for future study and analysis or of simply having a record that will preserve a sound for posterity.
However there are also those who make field recordings for the simple love of the music and hearing it played in the way its been played for generation after generation. The sound quality of these recordings are obviously going to be inferior to anything that's been recorded in the studio, but the compensation lies in the immediacy of the performance and the connection between the performer and the music. In his introduction to the book that accompanies his Art Of Field Recording Volume ll on the Dust To Digital label, Art Rosenbaum talks about how the context of memory, history, and associations each performer has connecting them to the songs he recorded them singing makes them makes them resonate with an audience.
Art should know what he's talking about for the subtitle of the collection is "Fifty Years Of Traditional American Music Documented By Art Rosenbaum". With recording equipment in hand Art has travelled across America for the last fifty years listening and recording music on back porches, living rooms, churches, and anywhere else that people gather to play, listen to, or dance to the music that their parents and grand parents taught them. The four CDs of music that make up "Volume ll"; "Survey", "Religious", "Accompanied Songs And Ballads", and "Unaccompanied Songs And Ballads", not only show the amazing diversity of music that has been and is being sung across America, it demonstrates that personal connection between performer and music on every track.
There's so much wonderful music in this collection that it's hard to know where to start when talking about it. "Survey", the first disc, contains twenty-nine songs from all across America representing everything from French Canadian fiddle tunes found in New Hampshire, Fidel Martin playing "La Grondeuse" (The Scolding Woman) that was recorded back in 1967, to Tony Bryant playing "Broke Down Engine", an example of Georgia blues that was recorded forty years later in 2007.
This first disc can make your head spin a little because one second you might be listening to the Cajun sounds of The Balfa Brothers and Nathan Abshire from Luisiana, and the next your listening to a teenaged Kirk Brandenberger recorded in the 1970's playing amazing fiddle tunes and sounding wise beyond his years when he talks about how he's not so sure whether he likes the fiddle competitions that he keeps on winning because of the hurt feelings of those who lose. (I hadn't read the background information on this track until after I heard it, and I thought Kirk was a much older man when I heard him talking and playing. Not only did his voice sound like that of someone who'd lived for a while, his playing did as well.)
While the second ("Religious"), third ("Accompanied Songs And Ballads"), and the fourth discs ("Unaccompanied Songs And Ballads") each contain songs of a similar type, that doesn't stop them from being any less diverse than disc one. I have to admit that I've always preferred African-American gospel music to old-time country religious music, save a few exceptions. However after listening to disc two of this collection, I realize that was only because I'd rarely had the opportunity to hear the latter played by people with conviction. Listening to The Myers Family and Friends singing their version of Hazel Houser's "The River Jordon", originally written for the Louvin Brothers, you know these people feel what they are singing about as it sounds like each word is drawn out of their hearts.
Of course there are plenty of examples of the African-American style of gospel music we're most familiar with. My favourite on the disc is "Lets Have A Family Prayer" performed by The Travelling Inner Lights, but there's also some examples of older styles of African American gospel. "A Charge To Keep I Have" by Rev. Willie Mae Eberhart, Sister Fleeta Mitchell, and Eddie Ruth Pringle is done in the old style called "lining" where one person intones the words of a line and then the congregation repeats the line in song. This style of music also contains the unique feature of the congregation moaning the last line of the piece, which according to Rev. Eberhart allows an individual to feel the music deeper in their spirit. As listening to these three women sing that final line gave me chills I'd have to agree with her.
The last two discs contain music that probably more of us are familiar with, standards such as "Barbara Allan", "John Henry", ' John Hardy", and "On Top Of Old Smokey" to name only a few. But until you hear someone like Mose Parker sing "John Henry", growling out the lyrics and strumming and beating on his guitar like it was old John Henry's hammer, I don't think you can say you've actually experienced the song. I don't know any other way of describing what it was like to hear him sing it, except to say that if he didn't live through that experience he knew somebody who did.
It's easy to forget just how potent a single unaccompanied voice can be until you hear somebody like Mary Lomax on the final disc of this set. By no one's definition does she have a refined voice, or even one that's easy on the ear, but it's easily the realist voice you'll ever hear. Listen to her version of "Fair And Tender Maidens" and you'll understand more about a woman's broken heart than any poet could tell you and hear more real emotion than if you combined all the modern pop divas together.
Art Rosenbaum is not only a music collector he's also a gifted painter, (the painting earlier is one of his) and each CD cover as well as the box set's cover is graced by one of his works depicting people playing the music that he loves so much. For Art Of Field Recording Volume ll is nothing if not a labour of love. Why else would you wander the backwoods roads and into villages in the hopes that you'll find someone who not only plays music, but will let you barge into their living room with no introduction and record them? Reading the accompanying ninty-six page book, full of photographs and illustrations by the author and his wife and blurbs on each song and the people performing it, and Rosenbaum's descriptions of how this music is unique because of the love that each performer has for their music, you can hear his love for them and the music shine through.
Art Of Field Recording Volume ll is an amazing collection of music and people that can't help but make you feel better about the world. There are fewer and fewer people today who play music because of what the song means to them in terms of their family's history or the people who taught it to them. To have the opportunity to experience listening to that type of music is a rare treat and one that might not be available to us for that much longer. Thanks to people like Art Rosenbaum though we will at least have records like this one to help us remember just how good that music was.