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V/A - Art of Field Recording, Vol. II

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Artist: V/A

Album: Art of Field Recording, Vol. II

Label: Dust-to-Digital

Review date: Mar. 19, 2009

There’s something wonderfully fitting about Art Rosenbaum’s field recordings finding release in a second volume: 107 additional treasures of traditional American music, recorded between 1956 and 2008 and spread across four CDs. In his preface to the set, Nathan Salsburg invokes Alan Lomax’s description of a “deep river of song,” and it’s an apt metaphor for this collection, which refuses to be bounded, rushing forth so effusively that it reminds us how constrained and arbitrary our ideas about musical legends and landmarks must be. It’s a realization that could just as easily depress – how much, after all, has been lost – but instead the collection insists on a different response, asking us to celebrate how much is here. It’s for this reason that the second volume of Rosenbaum’s recordings fits Lomax’s description even better than the first – one of the beautiful things about a river, after all, is that you can step in anywhere.

In searching for superlative ways to describe the first volume of Art of Field Recording, many critics drew comparisons with the Anthology of American Folk Music when in fact something like Arhoolie’s 40th Anniversary Box Set might have been more fitting. The Harry Smith set is better known, of course, and stylistically the comparison makes some sense, although Salsburg and Rosenbaum both gently stress the differences in the liners. It’s a point worth expanding on here, because it gets to the heart of what makes this collection special. Unlike Smith – who turned commercially released 78-rpm records into folk totems, carefully organizing them according to quasi-mystical principles – Rosenbaum’s selections are field recordings (the major, obvious difference), and they’re organized with a lighter hand, separated into the broad, inclusive categories of “Survey,” “Religious,” “Accompanied Songs and Ballads,” and “Unaccompanied Songs and Ballads.”

The key difference, however, is Rosenbaum’s refusal to mystify; he describes how a Sacred Steel recording (“Let’s Have A Family Prayer”) came about because a deaconess at a Sarasota church worked as a caregiver for his mother, and how a Riendeau brothers’ fiddle reel (“Fred Rogers’ Reel”) found its way to tape because of a random inquiry made in a New England community where he was spending the summer. Rosenbaum takes care to emphasize these details, and in so doing, he insists upon these performances – remarkable as they are – as possessing some vital quality of ordinariness. They are outpourings that are not, as we too often imagine art must be, a result of the forced, frictive energy of the city. Rather, they’re a result of a more patient knowledge, often an inherited one – found not only in the talismanic Delta, but in those forgotten towns that artists are taught to have to flee: the Franklin, Indianas and the Berlin, New Hampshires; the Wapello, Iowas, and the Mt. Lebanon, New Yorks.

“They reveal, not obscure,” Salsburg writes, in comparing these songs to the ones on the Anthology, and while that’s doubtlessly true and important, they also do more. They imply; they insist on themselves as representative samples – bright squares in an infinite quilt. They do so by constantly moving us to their periphery: Rosenbaum very purposefully includes tape from before and after the performances, so that Iowa fiddler Kirk Brandenberger is allowed to reflect on the ambivalence he feels toward fiddle contests (“the more contests you win, it seems like the more feelings that you hurt”), so that the Silver Light Gospel Singers can fire back at John Lennon for being bigger than Jesus (“If I came here and tried to be the Beatles, I’d be doing something that I’m not supposed to be. So that’s why I try to be straight, civil like.”), and so that University of Georgia professor Mary Ruth Moore is allowed sketch an artful biography of the man she learned “Billy Button” from – not the man who wrote it, of course, but just the man who taught it to her. Each song is also accompanied by colorful notes – such as the one about the fiddler who rigged his instrument with a trip-hammer and pipe barrel, and used it to murder his rival mid-dance – as well as photographs by Rosenbaum’s wife, Margo, and paintings and sketches by Rosenbaum himself (the charcoals are the best, with incidental marks that capture the flurry of fiddling hands, and bold contours that lend the subjects the permanence of Rodin sculptures). The effect of all of this is to insist on these performances as utterances: one of the thousands of times this performer has played this very song; one of thousands of different songs that this performer knows; the performer herself one of thousands singing out in farmhouse kitchens and community churches.

Yet each of these utterances is, of course, distinct. I have never heard anyone rake a guitar with quite the same gentle force as Indiana’s Scrapper Blackwell (“Goin’ Where The Monon Crosses The Yellow Dog”), or learned before of corn dodgers that can make a person’s joints loosen and knees pop (“Billy Staffer”), or encountered a braided harmony quite like the one between Rev. Willie Mae Eberhart, Sister Fleeta Mitchell, and Eddie Ruth Pringle (“A Charge To Keep”). On “Unaccompanied Songs and Ballads,” Rosenbaum strings together three short performances of “Black Jack David” (by Stan Gilliam, Mary Lomax, and 7-year-old Ray Rhodes) to show the myriad potential variations of a song – on the level of lyric, of melody, of inflection. Each one is startlingly different – and different still from the Carter Family version that sometimes seems definitive. The river of song is deep and long and very wide, Rosenbaum reminds us. We worry too often about crossing over – of locating origins, of finding monuments. The point should be to swim.

By Nathan Hogan

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