The Old-Time Herald Volume 12, Number 5

Ray’s Dream: The Field Recorders’ Collective
By Norbert Sarsfield
courtey of Diane Alden

Field recordings are in many ways the lifeblood of old-time music. Consider all the iconic old-time musicians (and their tunes and songs) who were never recorded commercially and who live on for us through field recordings: John Morgan Salyer; Edden, Burl, Maggie, and Sherman Hammons; Henry Reed; Luther Strong; Ed Haley; the list goes on and on. In addition to documenting musicians whose playing would otherwise have vanished into thin air, field recordings tend to embody an essential quality in old-time music that can be missing in commercial recordings. Captured in the music’s more or less natural environment (taking into account the “observer effect” the introduction of a recording device can have), the rough edges, false starts, between-song banter, and pure raw energy of a good field recording can be the next best thing to experiencing the music live and in person. When I want to turn a friend onto old-time music, I almost always do so with a field recording, be it historical or contemporary.

All the more unfortunate, then, that until fairly recently it has often been difficult, especially for the recent initiate to old-time music, to track down field recordings. While labels like Smithsonian/Folkways, Rounder, County, and other smaller labels released important collections, the vast majority of field recordings of old-time music were not commercially available. Housed in academic archives or in the private collections of old-time music enthusiasts, hearing these recordings required traveling and gaining access to an academic archive, or somehow tapping into the informal tape-trading networks of old-time music collectors.

Today things are changing. On the academic front the Digital Library of Appalachia is but one example of attempts to ease access and facilitate dissemination of field recordings held by institutional archives. Outside of academia, the Field Recorders’ Collective is in the forefront of attempts to make privately held field recordings more readily available to the general public.

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