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The Art of Field Recording

Philip L. Graitcer

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Willie Mae Eberhardt and Fleta Mitchell
(Philip L. Graitcer)
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Most people think of folk music as a thing of the past. It seemed to disappear in the '60s when rock and roll and the Beatles swept the music scene. But if you search hard enough, folk music and the musicians who play it are still around. Art Rosenbaum has made it his life's work to find and record it. He's become the Indiana Jones of folk music. Independent Producer Philip Graitcer traveled with Rosenbaum to visit a few traditional musicians.

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Art Rosenbaum and I are visiting 94-year-old Fleta Mitchell. Everyone calls her "Mother" Mitchell. Mitchell lives with her pastor and singing partner, 78-year old Willie Mae Eberhardt, in a tiny one-story cinder block house just outside of Athens, Georgia.

Mother Mitchell's been singing gospel music in her church since she was two years old, almost a century ago.

Art Rosenbaum: We talked a lot about your starting out in music when you were a little girl, how you'd sing "Let Me Fly" and…

Fleta "Mother" Mitchell: …and "You'd Better Mind." I was so short, they'd stand me up on the table…they didn't have no piano then, and I stood up on the table and sang, "You'd Better Mind."

Mitchell's been blind since birth. She seems frail, bent over with age, and can barely walk. But as she sits down at the piano and fumbles to find the right keys, she becomes a living jukebox of gospel music.

Rosenbaum: Mother Mitchell, I remember first meeting you through Doc and Lucy Banes, and they said I had to meet you and your husband, Reverend Mitchell - that you were old friends and sang all those old gospel songs together?

Mitchell: That's right

Rosenbaum: And they said I had to meet you. They said that you sang all those old gospel songs together.

Rosenbaum has known Mother Mitchell for more than 30 years. He met her like he's met many musicians: by word of mouth. Rosenbaum does what's called shotgun collecting. He goes to a small town grocery store or gas station and asks if there are any fiddle players or banjo pickers around. Then he goes and knocks on their doors.

Rosenbaum: I wanted to record so I could learn…We took a little reel to reel monaural tape recorder to record his music so I could listen to it - like you take your little camera around to take snapshots of something you want to look at again.

What started as a hobby has turned into much more than that. Art Rosenbaum now has 52 years of field recordings, and recently, he's collected the best into two boxed sets. His first, The Art of Field Recording, Volume I, was nominated for two Grammy awards.

Mary Lomax lives in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. She's 80, and in one of Rosenbaum's recordings she sings a 250-year old British ballad she learned from her father called "Lord Lovell." For Rosenbaum, finding a living person singing this old ballad was the equivalent of finding the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Rosenbaum: There's this chain, these links in the chain as they go on. So the oral tradition is very important. Now Mary Lomax might sing "Lord Lovell he stood at his castle gate, combing his milk-white steed." Now that's before her time, and before her father's time to be talking about castles and milk-white steeds and lords and ladies, but the sadness of the story can speak to modern sensibilities.

Rosenbaum is on a mission to record the diversity of American folk music. He's recorded singing blueberry pickers in Michigan, shouters on the Georgia coast, and old time fiddle music.

Earl Murphy is a 91- year old fiddle player who grew up in Missouri.

Earl Murphy: My Dad played and I just started picking his fiddle up. Found a few notes on it. Learned how to play two pieces. Started playing a tune. …Prisoner Song.

As Murphy tunes up his fiddle, Rosenbaum reaches for his banjo.

As kids, Murphy and his brother played square dances in their hometown of Marshall, Missouri. Later he worked day jobs like stock yard wrangler or security guard while playing the fiddle on the radio or at night in the honky tonks.

Now his life is kind of lonely. His wife is in a nursing home, and to pass the time Murphy invites other musicians over to play, like guitarist Bill Ashley.

There's a reason why the musicians Rosenbaum records are so old. When they were kids, there wasn't any television or even radio; the family entertainment was playing music together. Rosenbaum says that process sustains the most pure and authentic music.

Rosenbaum: You learned music by emulation, not imitation. You wouldn't get somebody to sit down and say, "Now here's how to hold your hand," here's how to play this tune or that tune, you'd just hang around and hear it."

Now there are fewer people that are part of that person-to-person chain. Murphy's determined to keep the tradition alive. He's taught his grandson some of the old fiddle tunes, and they play together when he's in town.

And Rosenbaum's recordings will keep the music alive for the rest of us.

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Next week in Athens, Georgia, Mother Mitchell, Mary Lomax, and Earl Murphy will be playing at the release party for Rosenbaum's latest collection of field recordings, The Art of Field Recordings, Volume 2.

Comments

  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Fleta Mitchell

    From Southfield, MI, 01/16/2010

    My name is Fleta Mitchell and I live in Michigan. My family on my father's side is from Georgia. I wonder if we are related. Send me an email.

    By eve Abrams

    From LA, 01/26/2009

    Thank you! This was a fantastic story. I'm so glad this music is being recorded and so thankful that you did this story so I could know a bit about it. Well done.

    By Jan Witte

    From Duluth, MN, 01/26/2009

    Where can I buy these recordings?
    Thanks, Jan Witte

    By Philip L. Graitcer

    From Atlanta, GA, 01/25/2009

    Rosenbaum has spent his career as an art professor, recording and playing with traditional musicians as a hobby. Although some of his recordings of particular artists were commercially available in the 1970, he now has two 4 CD anthologies available on the dust to digital label (dust-digital.com)

    By willis marshall

    From MO, 01/24/2009

    Dear mother mitchel; As a white boy in the 30's in alabama it was my joy to sneak under the local black church to be thrilled by their music. We were presbyterian and they could not carry a tune. Did they know I was there ? I'm sure they did !

    By Emily Julien

    From Kirkwood, MO, 01/24/2009

    My mom told me about today's show on folk music because she knows I'm an amateur blues historian. This story brought to mind the days of Alan Lomax and his field recordings, of course he recorded for the Library of Congress. Does Art record for any specific organizations? Where do his recordings go, where are they collected? On CDs like the one that won the Grammys? I was just curious. It's really awesome to know that field recording is still being done. Guess it's up to those like me from the new generation to continue this, huh?

    By Tracy Dougherty

    From Rosemount, MN, 01/24/2009

    Thanks for your good work. I have truly enjoyed your show. I look forward to my Saturdays listening to you while I am gardening, cleaning the house, cooking, baking, whatever it is I am doing, I have you as my background. I rarely watch TV these days because I just don't find the quality of reporting as I do from the radio. Thank you again for your great work.

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