For more than 50 years, Art Rosenbaum has carried with him the hymns and ballads, the whooping and clapping, the strumming and fiddling, the stories and prayers.
The retired University of Georgia art professor began recording folk musicians in the field as a teenager and never stopped. Across the Midwest and South, he noted names, talents and eccentricities while his recorder reels spun. Often, he made sketches, too.
At a camp after work one summer evening in 1958, his microphone captured a 7-year-old Southern migrant farm worker’s dark song about a drunkard who was executed for killing a marshal. At an Illinois tavern in 1976, an elderly woman shared her version of the children’s song “Twenty Froggies Go to School.” In North Carolina in 1989, cicadas chirped backup while a man sang an eerie old English folk song about the slaughter of a giant ram.
Rosenbaum became a caretaker for their music and, with it, their histories.
Over the past two years, Rosenbaum has shared his collection with the world. Compiling a greatest hits of sorts culled from hundreds of hours of his recordings, Atlanta label Dust-to-Digital issued two volumes of boxed CD sets titled “Art of Field Recording: Fifty Years of Traditional American Music Documented by Art Rosenbaum.”
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Volume I, released in fall 2007, won a Grammy in February for best historical album. Since then, Rosenbaum — never one to sit still physically or figuratively, even at 70 — has found his retirement is somewhat less leisurely.
“I joke I should become unretired and be not as busy,” he said one recent afternoon after taping segments for a show at AM 1690 in Atlanta.
Dust-to-Digital owner Lance Ledbetter said Rosenbaum’s approach to field recording is unusual. For one, he and his wife Margo — a photographer who often accompanies him — don’t work on behalf of an institution such as the Library of Congress, as many field recorders do. And with his sketches, her photos and their conversations with artists, sound is only the beginning of what the couple gather, Ledbetter said.
“They would spend time with these artists and record so much more than just music,” he said. “It was this really in-depth, 360-degree approach to field recording.”
The boxed set takes advantage of the couple’s other talents, offering photos, drawings and short biographies of the artists along with their performances.
The radio segments — broadcast on Wednesdays — give the station a chance to air snippets from Rosenbaum’s collection and give him a chance to talk about what was happening when he pushed the record button. Sometimes he plays an instrument and sings or brings in a guest. But sometimes it’s just Rosenbaum and a piece of music he wants to share, off-the-cuff.
This day, he recalled taking his wife and son to hear the congregation sing at a Baptist church in Oglethorpe in 1978. They ate hog jowl and watched as members took part in a traditional foot washing.
He also talked about his encounters with the Rev. Howard Finster, a well-known North Georgia folk musician and artist. While visiting Finster, Rosenbaum awoke one morning and looked out the window to see the preacher with a flask of whiskey cawing at the crows.
“He said, ‘I can mock all animals of the barnyard and forest,’” Rosenbaum said. He recorded Finster’s fine chicken imitation, which he played for AM 1690.
“People don’t hear this kind of thing on the radio, man,” teased Neal Cohen, music director for the station.
Absorbing Rosenbaum’s rich collection requires some concentration, Cohen said. “You have to work to digest it,” he said, adding that the payoff is a vivid impression of each performer’s world.
“You get a sense of place, time, the characters, the history” he said. “You can place the context of the music and what it means to the individuals.”
Rosenbaum’s field collection habit is an avocation, existing somewhere between hobby and profession. He is a visual artist by trade — an accomplished painter and muralist who studied and taught in France and Germany through the prestigious Fulbright Program. Folk music has often inspired his paintings, he said.
Rosenbaum grew up in Indianapolis and some of the earliest songs he heard were parodies sung by his father and Yiddish folk songs sung by his grandmother. He made his first recording in 1956 in Michigan, where he worked a summer job at a resort. His subject was a group of Mexican migrant workers playing guitar and singing at a general store.
“At first, it was like taking a picture,” he said.
He continued to record while studying at Columbia University in New York City and throughout his job as a professor in Iowa for five years. He played guitar and banjo and a bit of fiddle. In 1976, he came to the University of Georgia, where he taught for the next 30 years. He documented artists in Georgia and across the South.
“I knew that it would be a very interesting place to be with respect to this type of music,” he said.
Music has evolved over the past half-century. Rosenbaum said he didn’t just seek that which stayed the same — folk music is always changing, too — but instead looked for that which brought a history forward with it. Listening to traditional music, and preserving it, is a passion.
“From an early age, that was the music I liked to hear,” he said. “I was more interested in the people who had still carried on and cherished the older traditions.”