The four-disc sets that comprise the two volumes of Art of Field Recording are equal parts music albums and historical documents recorded over 50 years by Art Rosenbaum, University of Georgia art professor and folk music fan from an early age. Each volume contains a disc offering a survey of different genres and a disc of religious music. Volume I, which won a Grammy for Best Historical Album, offers a disc of instrumental and dance and one of blues, while Volume II features two discs of songs and ballads, one without musical accompaniment.
The liner notes for each volume, filled with photographs and illustrations, are collected in 96-page books providing “commentary on every track, in the interest of giving background, context, and some insights to the performers and the material.” Rosenbaum reveals one condition for a song’s inclusion and that was it had to be learned through oral tradition. Most of the work here is previously unreleased while “a fifth have appeared on various labels over the years.” The majority were recorded in the field in South, Midwest, and Northeast United States with a few at public events.
Some songs appear multiple times, but with 217 tracks there’s room for different interpretations and arrangements. “Fox Chase” can be heard accompanied by banjo and later a harmonica. “Coal Creek March” is played on banjo 20 years apart in Georgia 1977 and in Ohio 1957, with the poor audio quality of the latter almost overwhelming the historical significance. “Black Jack Davy” is sung a capella 50 years apart. A standout a capella performance is from Athens, GA, 1981, as Henry Grady Terrell sings the work song “Old John Henry Died on the Mountain” while actually working as he uses a pick ax to keep the rhythm. Dogs can be heard barking in the background, and they aren’t the only animals to get in on the act as Bobby McMillion in Lenoir, North Carolina sings over chirping cicadas.
The age range of the performers swings from Sister Fleeta Mitchell in her 90s in 2006 on the camp-meeting style of “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” to seven-year-old Ray Rhodes, who sings “Fred Adams” on a farm in Allegan County Michigan, 1958. The latter is a surprisingly dark song for a young child about the last man in Missouri to be hanged publicly. Rosenbaum states most of the performers are no longer living, adding to the importance and value of this piece of this work.
Even if not a folk-music enthusiast, some of the songs will be familiar to listeners from their childhood, such as “On Top of Old Smokey,” “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round The Mountain,” and “Froggy Went A-Courting.” Disney aficionados should recognize “Steamboat Bill,” which was featured in the first Mickey Mouse sound cartoon “Steamboat Willie;” the Grateful Dead recorded “Deep Ellem Blues;” and every American surely knows “Yankee Doodle.” The impact of these songs can still be heard today as “Shady Grove,” played here by W. Guy Bruce, just recently appeared on Mudcrutch’s debut album.
The real highlight is the inclusion of the performers talking before and after the song, offering perspective, ambiance, and authenticity. When asked for a blue song, it’s charming to hear Jack Bean act the gentleman and refuse multiple times not wanting to offend anyone until finally relenting with “Ring Ching Ching”.
Art of Field Recording shows the importance and universality of music to the human spirit. Neal Patman sings “Mama Whoopin’ The Blues” while playing the harmonica, an impressive feat considering a childhood accident took his right arm. Rosenbaum’s first field recording, “Carabina Treinta-Treinta,” was at an Allegan County general store in 1956 performed in Spanish by migrant worker Epifanio Sanchez and others. Even Rosenbaum’s father, who helped plant the seed for this endeavor, gets in the act in 1962 with “One Saturday Night When I Came Home,” a version of “Our Goodman,” sung to “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” This collection can be appreciated as is or even more so for the door into the past it opens.