The Old, Weird America Marches Onward


In much the same way that modern writers must drive through the gateway of Ulysses, there’s not a box set of culled folk music that can evade being measured against Harry Smith’s incantatory Anthology of American Folk Music, as released on Folkways back in 1952. Columbia-educated painter and amateur (in the classical sense of “for the love of”) field recorder Art Rosenbaum admits as much in the notes to the new 110-track Art of Field Recording Volume 1, emulating Smith’s non-academic arrangements while deviating from them in crucial aspects. Smith’s set was the summation of what had come before: America’s folk, blues, gospel, hillbilly, and whatever other pieces of 78-rpm shellac had avoided meltdown during World War II while presaging what would come after it, changing entire generations of listeners (see Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, John Fahey). His was a compendium of commercial, studio-captured music, however, whereas Rosenbaum—like Alan Lomax before him—went out to the parlors, feed stores, and congregations of his subjects.

Folk conspiracy theorists surmised that AAFM wasn’t just a collection of purt’ fine tunes, but also a magical spell, arranged by artist-alchemist-experimenter Smith in a very specific order so that the total effect of listening would be to alter consciousness on both a societal and individual level. It worked, but the presentation (as with any magic trick) felt staged: You mean that sharecroppers and bootleggers dug fields as well as Aleister Crowley, Pythagoras, and Kabbalic numerology? Regardless, the old, weird American ghosts captured in that biblical tome (“Dock” Boggs, Henry Thomas, Buell Kazee) were no longer mere folk, but transformed into folk deities, haunting the cotton gins, porches, and distilleries of an America now passed.

On the other hand, the hundreds of people documented by Art and photographer-wife Margo on Art of Field Recording all feel immediate and resolutely terrestrial. They’re also not constrained to the South, with small pockets of folk popping up in Iowa and Indianapolis. Here, Rosenbaum writes about being “immersed in living folk music traditions that were still growing from ancient roots.” Rather than conscripting one to an archaic Invisible Republic, this music lives wholly in the present.

Perhaps that’s because some of the performers here may still walk the earth, as these recordings range from the days of the Eisenhower administration to earlier this spring. Time itself is suspended, to where it’s impossible to parse either ages or eras. Take the opening two songs: Sister Fleeta Mitchell and Rev. Willie Mae Eberhart pray down Satan’s kingdom with great fire, never betraying their combined age of 188 years nor the fact that the tracks were recorded last year, whereas seven-year-old Ray Rhodes sang in 1958 about the last public hanging in Missouri (which happened in 1937). Songs are intrinsically tied to both play and work: Fairgrounds and accompanying hoots can be heard in the background. Henry Grady Terrell huffs and swings a pick ax as he recounts how “Old John Henry Died on the Mountain,” while Ida Craig’s sublime a cappella version of “Sit Down, Servant” is captured while she irons. Mary Lomax (no relation), an 80-year-old residing in the Blue Ridge foothills of Georgia, reveals a wide breadth of British and American ballads. She might just be your grandma.

She definitely reminds me of my own (who partakes in that other great American folk-art form, quilting). Art Rosenbaum, too, perceives this collection as “only a part of the great patchwork quilt of American folk music.” Shape-note choir recitals, Jew’s-harp solos, rancheros, fiddle tunes, “Hambone” rhythms beat out on the body, as well as paintings, photos, and charcoal renderings—such snatches of past and present exist side by side, like some great extended family. At one point, you can even hear Art’s dad sing.