One of my prized possessions is an old vinyl LP put out by the Smithsonian Institute as part of their Ethnic Folkways Library. The picture on the cover couldn't be more incongruous if they had tried; it shows a woman dressed in typical fashion for pre World War One middle class, a large Edison Roll player, and an elderly Indian man in full Plains Indian Regalia. The Healing Songs Of The American Indians were recorded in the field by Music Ethnomusicologist Dr Frances Densmore between the years of 1908 and 1927.
When she started out in 1908 ,she would have easily been working with men from the Sioux, Chippewa, Yuman, Ute, Papago, Makah, and Menominee nations who were remnants of the last non-reservation Indians; the last generation that knew a life other that of being at war or conquered. Whatever her reasons at the time for making these collections, they are now an incredibly valuable resource not just for non-natives, but natives too who are looking to find traces of the culture that less enlightened people tried to destroy after Dr. Densmore so steadfastly worked to preserve it.
But Dr. Densmore wasn't doing anything new, music anthropologists had been tracking down music and recording ever since Edison's wax rolls made it possible to record sound. It's one of the sadder commentaries on the nature of our society that there always seems to be something valuable on the verge of vanishing if it weren't for one or two people taking it upon themselves to do something about it.
In North and South Carolina you have the Music Maker Relief Fund not only recording the music but arranging the means to keep some of the original Blues artists alive and thriving with concert bookings and recording contracts. Document Records in England has been putting together hours and hours of programming tapes that the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) had devoted to early Jazz and Blues music. While in Chicago Delmark Records continually reaches back into its 55-years of archival recordings to find performers who otherwise would undeservedly be forgotten.
But when it comes to individual efforts there are few who can match the dedication of painter, folklorist, musician, and musicologist Art Rosenbaum who did his first field recordings among migrant workers in Michigan when he was a teenager in the 1950s and hasn't stopped since. Now the label Dust To Digital has taken on the task of compiling and releasing these miles of tape, whose quality ranges from mono to digital, in some sort of digestible format.
At some point in time Art's hobby began to be taken seriously and since he's become a painting instructor at the University of Georgia they have properly archived all his materials. It's been from these archives that Steven Ledbetter (I'd be interested in knowing if he was related to the late Hughie Ledbetter aka Leadbelly the blues singer) of Dust To Digital has pulled together the material for the first four cd set of Art Of Field Recording Volume 1: Fifty Years Of Traditional American Music
Along with the four discs, containing 110 tracks of music, is included a remarkable 96- page book with photographs of the various performers taken during their recording sessions, or sketches done by the artist of what it was like to record them if no photo was available. The photos were taken for the most part by Art's wife Margo, while all the illustrations are by Art himself. Art's drawings and illustrations are amazing for their attention to detail and the feeling of capturing a moment as it is happening; look at the picture in this review of him recording the Eller Brothers for a good example of that.
But it's the music that's important here and we should talk about that for a bit. First of all the four discs are designated as: Disc One: "Survey;" Disc Two: "Religious;" Disc Three: "Blues;" and Disc Four: "Instrumental and Dance." Think of the first disc as a sampler of all the action to get your mouth watering for the main courses and you'll get the picture clear enough. Although the "Survey" disc contains some gems you won't find anywhere else, including a couple of recordings he first made in 1957 when he was a teenager.
One is of a group of Mexican migrant workers singing an old revolutionary song called "Carabina Treinta-Treinta (30 –30 Rifle)" recorded in a general store. The other, a young migrant white worker Ray Rhodes, aged seven, sang "Fred Adams" in the traditional English/Irish Ballad style that had been practiced in the Appalachians since the first settlers set up their farms.
From there on Disc One surveys all the various types of music that Art has recorded over the years; banjo pickers, gospel singers, harmonica players, fiddlers, and almost any other type and style of what is called Americana music (in spite of it being Anglo/Irish, Scottish, African, and Canadian in origin). Disc Two maybe called "Religious" but it focuses entirely on Christian music so it might just a well be called Gospel, save for the fact that some of it just doesn't fit into any Gospel music you'll have heard until now.
For me one of the most interesting tracks was the recording done by the Sacred Harp Singing Group, with their unique style of singing and performing that has to be heard to be really appreciated. Their style of syncopated rhythms counted out by a chopping motion of the arm and replicated by voice is as elaborate as any choreographed dance.
What became obvious to me after listening to all four discs is the amount of care that was taken assembling the tracks to ensure as broad a representation of styles, voices, and people as possible. The decision to include some of the before and after dialogue on most of the tracks helps increase the sense of them being performed by folk playing the music they either learned at their parent's or grand patent's knees.
Equally as impressive is the dedication shown by Art Rosenbaum when it came to meeting and recording the various folk included on this disc. Some folks might not leave home without their American Express cards, but he doesn't leave home without a tape recorder and a microphone. For of those of you looking to start your collection of traditional folk music in America Art Of Field Recording Volume 1 would be a great place to start.
For those of you who have already started to establish a collection, Volume 1 can only enrich your experience. I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm already looking forward to the release of Art Of Field Recording Volume 2 , who knows what great surprise awaits us there?