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V/A - The Art of Field Recording, Volume 1

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Artist: V/A

Album: The Art of Field Recording, Volume 1

Label: Dust-to-Digital

Review date: Nov. 29, 2007

For over 40 years, musician, author, teacher, and painter Art Rosenbaum has been making field recordings of American music, documenting the performances of amateur musicians in the overlooked corners of the rural United States. His recordings have comprised almost 20 releases in the past four decades, many of them on the Folkways imprint, but The Art of Field Recording, Vol. 1 marks the new release of just a fraction of Rosenbaum’s hours of tape. Perhaps it’s just another dent in his archives, but it’s still a significant trove of otherwise unheard music. Dust to Digital’s Lance Ledbetter, an Atlanta-based aficionado who started the label as a college DJ in 1999, gives Rosenbaum’s recordings the label’s usual treatment, with the set’s four discs accompanied by a book of photos, descriptions and annotations. The Art of Field Recording is as much a celebration of Rosenbaum’s work and enthusiasm as it is the music he documents, though Art makes certain it’s always the performers who are the recordings’ stars.

Rosenbaum’s collection is divided into four sections, one per disc. The first is a survey of the styles in the collection, followed by discs of religious, blues, and instrumental dance music. The accompanying book offers photos of the performers (often taken by Art’s wife, Margo), and background on the recordings that are, at times, as interesting as the music. For Art, the people responsible for the music are as important as the songs themselves, and this is reflected in the care to which he goes to describe the context of the music and the lives of those that made it. At times, one can hear Rosenbaum’s conversation with an artist, questions about the genesis of a song, or how the performer came upon their style. The music, often starkly simple, gains color from this additional information, making The Art of Field Recording as much a anthropological project as it is a compilation of music.

Created in the homes and natural environs of the artists, Rosenbaum’s field recordings – even those that are, by now, decades old – are surprisingly clear and unfettered by any grand obscurities of low fidelity. Tracks from 1961 mingle easily with those from 1981, the unprofessional, on-the-spot nature of the recordings a constant boon to the character of the music. It’s this characteristic that remains The Art of Field Recording’s greatest asset, that which can beguile listeners with little interest in these traditional American sounds. It’s details like Henry Grady Terrell’s pick-axe (he hadn’t sung in years and needed the accessory to bring out the spirit of the tunes) and little Maude Thacker playing her pump organ in person that make The Art of Field Recording what it is.

These musicians were either people who had never been recorded, or hadn’t recorded in years, with the occasional “celebrity” (Rev. Howard Finster, after all, performed for Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show), and these performances aren’t polished or perfect. Instead one gets the sense that Rosenbaum is preserving the music as it lived, aiming not for the flawless specimen, but instead searching for the true verve of the music as it flowed from those who performed it not for money or fame, but simply as a part of everyday life. Much of The Art of Field Recording contains music that may not have survived without these recordings; as traditions die out and generations pass, cultural memory can be obscured, and Art Rosenbaum’s collection is an important preservation of American musical history.

By Adam Strohm

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