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Apr 23, 2009

Two ardent fans are working to preserve a Southern folk tradition.

By Cameron McWhirter

As Tony Bryant makes his way to the center of the stage, it’s clear there’s still some life left in the Southern folk music scene.
Bryant, a master of the “Atlanta-style” of old-time acoustic blues, comes from a long line of singers from the area. His grandfather, Curley Weaver, recorded in the 1920s and 1930s, and his mother, Cora Mae “Sweet Petunia” Bryant, performed songs she learned from her father and his friends.
But Bryant isn’t the only one working to keep the music of his childhood—and the region’s past—alive.
While much of the South’s traditional music has been lost to the passing of time, a small contingent of ardent musicians and music lovers are working to preserve this vital vestige of America’s history and heritage.
The effort has an unlikely leader: a soft-spoken, cherub-faced 30-something named Lance Ledbetter.
Ledbetter hails from Lafayette, Ga., and his interest in Southern traditional music borders on religious.
In 1999, while a student DJ at a college radio station in Atlanta, he discovered old gospel recordings on thick, heavy 78 records.
The music changed his life.
For the next five years, he worked to build his own record label, Dust-to-Digital.
His first release was 2004’s Goodbye, Babylon, a six-CD box set featuring an astounding collection of out-of-print gospel music delivered in an elaborate wood box stuffed with hand-picked cotton.
Ledbetter went into debt to finance the collection and had no idea if it would succeed. Looking back, he says he just hoped to sell enough copies to recoup some of the money he had invested.
Goodbye, Babylon was nominated for a Grammy Award, and the set sold well throughout the U.S. and across Europe. The success allowed Ledbetter to release more compilations of rediscovered music.
But it was 2008’s Art of Field Recording, Volume 1, a four-CD collection of folk recordings compiled by the legendary Art Rosenbaum, that put Ledbetter’s label on the map.
Rosenbaum is a fine arts professor at the University of Georgia and a well-known muralist, painter and illustrator.
But that’s just his day job.
For decades, the 70-year-old has been collecting folk recordings, visiting small towns across the South and Midwest and hunting down traditional records in parlors, attics and churches.
He has also recorded thousands of performances, capturing the music at its most ephemeral and—to the ears of many—its most beautiful.
In February, Art of Field Recording won a Grammy Award for best historical album. That same month, Dust-to-Digital released a second volume of Rosenbaum’s material.
Bryant’s performance is part of a concert the pair hosted to celebrate of the record’s success.
And as Bryant exited the stage to a chorus of whistles and applause, it was evident that the music they had all gathered to celebrate was in good hands.

For the Love of Song

Throughout his career, Art Rosenbaum’s varied projects, passions and pursuits have remained admirably difficult to categorize.
Born in upstate New York in 1938, he was raised in New Jersey and educated in New York City.
Early on, Rosenbaum’s interest in art and music led him to Greenwich Village’s vibrant Beats and folk scenes of the 1950s. It was also around this time when he first heard Harry Smith’s seminal Anthology of Folk Music, which fueled a lifelong passion for playing and recording the music of various American folk traditions.
Today, Rosenbaum is a well-respected muralist and illustrator, whose works hang in museums and galleries across the country.
He is also an educator, having served as a professor at the University of Georgia for over three decades before retiring a few years ago.
But it is music that has always been his true passion.
An accomplished musician, Rosenbaum taught himself to play the banjo as well as a number of other instruments. He has performed solo and with bands at folk festivals across the country, as well as with some of the world’s top folk artists.
Rosenbaum has released three CDs of his singing and banjo playing, and played banjo on the score to Paul Newman’s classic film, Cool Hand Luke.
But he is best known for his field recordings. For five decades, Rosenbaum has crisscrossed the U.S., seeking out and capturing the songs of everyday people, from Mexican day laborers in the Midwest to traditional “Ring Shout” performances in black “Gullah” churches of the coastal South.
But these aren’t the folk recordings audiences have come to expect, in which singers perform sanitized ditties in sterile recording studios. Instead, Rosenbaum takes his recording equipment to the source, capturing performances in homes and churches and on street corners. In many, you can hear children shouting and birds chirping in the background as elderly artists sing ancient ballads.
Rosenbaum has produced 14 compilations of these recordings and two books. But it was Art of Field Recording Vol. I, which was released in 2007 on the label Dust-to-Digital, that garnered him his first real acclaim—as well as a Grammy for best historical recording.
In addition to his commercial recordings, Rosenbaum has donated thousands of recordings to archives at the University of Georgia, Indiana University and the Library of Congress.
He currently resides in Georgia with his wife, renowned photographer Margo Newmark Rosenbaum.

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Hello ! I read and listened with great interest to this article. I have been loving American music (Jazz, blues, Gospel, country, protest songs, etc.) for a long time and this re-discovering of old records is amazing. The name – Ledbetter- reminded me of a certain bluesman I like very much ! I sometimes connect to “Red Hot Jazz Archives” whenever I wish to hear some good old music…I remember having heard Kid Ory on tour in France some 50 years ago. Go on searching ! Kind regards. Max.

May 7, 2009