A conversation with Art Rosenbaum

An interview from Georgia Music magazine with one of my old professors, Art Rosenbaum. How music and painting can be intertwined.


A Conversation with Art Rosenbaum

Art RosenbaumArt Rosenbaum, who recently retired after teaching at the University of Georgia since 1976, has been recording, writing about, drawing and painting pictures of America’s most notable players of homemade music for over 50 years now.

His first two publications are music instruction classics: Old-Time Mountain Banjo (Oak Publications, 1968); and The Art of the Mountain Banjo (Kicking Mule, 1975). He is also the author of Folk Visions and Voices: Traditional Music and Song in North Georgia, which was published by the University of Georgia Press in 1983. That book features Art’s drawings and paintings and photographs by his wife, Margo Newmark Rosenbaum. Art and Margo Rosenbaum also collaborated on a second book, Shout Because You’re Free; The African American Ring Shout Tradition in Coastal Georgia, which was published by the University of Georgia Press in 1998.

In October of this year, the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens will mount a retrospective exhibition of paintings and drawings by Art Rosenbaum that will be titled “Weaving His Art on Golden Looms,” a phrase which comes from a comment made about Art Rosenbaum by Georgia’s famous eccentric artist and folk musician, the late Reverend Howard Finster. It is the first major examination of Rosenbaum’s long career in art. Included will be some of his earliest paintings up through works completed in 2005. The exhibition will begin Oct. 21, 2006, and remain on view through Jan. 7, 2007. The Georgia Museum of Art is publishing a fully illustrated catalogue of the exhibition, and a video profile of the artist, produced by Art’s son, Neal, will accompany the show. Several programming components are planned, including gallery talks, panel discussions, and, of course, a banjo will be plucked now and again.

I recently spent an evening with Art Rosenbaum during which I asked him to recount some of the highlights of his five-plus decades of learning, playing, recording, and interpreting traditional American folk music.

[Here’s a part of what he said:]

I was born in 1938 way up in upstate New York. But I didn’t really live there long enough to have any memories of it. We traveled around a lot when I was real little. It was during World War II and my father was in the Army Medical Corps. He was stationed in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and Augusta, Georgia. So I have some very early memories of the South. In 1947 we moved to Indianapolis, and I grew up there.

I got interested in folk music way back in those years. We had Talking Union Song recordings in our home – songs that had been recorded by the Almanac Singers, Pete Seeger, and some of those folks. My father also knew some old street songs that he’d learned in Patterson, New Jersey, where he grew up. And even though my family was mostly interested in classical music, I heard a lot of folk songs from an early age. One of my father’s own songs was a version of “Four Nights Drunk” as it’s called in the South. He also sang parodies and funny songs. My father was a doctor, a pathologist. His parents – my grandparents – were both from Poland. They spoke Yiddish and Polish. My grandmother sang old Yiddish folk songs, and my father sang songs in English, street songs that mostly kids sang, like this one:

You could tell the boy was dying by the color of his breath,

His eyelids they were drooping in the mud (in the mud).

And the doctors all agreed that they could save poor Willie’s life,

If they stopped the circulation of the blood (of the blood).


So they gently dipped his head in a pot of boiling lead,

And then they slowly laid him down to rest (down to rest).

But the robbers came that night, and they came without a light

And they stole the mustard plaster off his chest (off his chest).


No more he’ll tease the cat lying on the front door mat,

Nor gently with his teeth pinch her tail (pinch her tail),

Nor rub her little nose up against a red hot stove,

For our darling little Willie kicked the pail (kicked the bucket!).


Art RosenbaumWell, that gave me some sense of transmitting songs from person-to-person – how folks sing songs just for fun of it. My father played mandolin. In those days kids often learned mandolin. There were mandolin clubs and banjo clubs. We also had records – cowboy songs, Burl Ives songs and so on. So I became interested in playing and singing folk music myself. I started playing the guitar when I was 11 and in high school I picked up the five-string banjo. I’d heard Pete Seeger play on records. Then a guy named Dick Loring came around to the Jewish Community Center in Indianapolis. He had somehow encountered the Carter Family and Woody Guthrie. The recordings I heard back then were Lomax’s Smoky Mountain Ballads, which had the Carter family plus Uncle Dave Macon and others. There was also the Harry Smith Anthology, which had just been issued. I never went through a period of getting to folk music through the pop performers like Peter, Paul, and Mary or the Kingston Trio. I was hearing the real deal!  I thought that stuff was the greatest thing I’d ever heard. Pete Seeger was my hero. He had bummed around with Woody Guthrie and he had learned banjo the way you’re supposed to – from old-timers. So I acquired his How to Play the Five-String Banjo book and bought my first banjo with $25 I’d won at the Junior Student Art Competition at the Indiana State Fair.

When I went off to college at Columbia I met a bunch of people who shared my interest in folk music. They played guitars and mandolins, and had varied backgrounds. There was a friend, Tan Gibbs, from Berkeley, California, who learned to play Mississippi blues from K. C. Douglas, a student of Tommy Johnson. Roger Lass was the first person I met who was a real good finger picker. There was a grad art student who was from Mars Hill, North Carolina – Clove Robinson – and he was a three-finger style banjo player. So we’d all sit around and play music on Friday nights. We’d drink cheap wine and play everything from “Mercury Ford Blues” to “Cumberland Gap.”  Somewhere along the line I met people like Tom Paley and John Cohen, who later formed The New Lost City Ramblers. John was an artist, so we had that in common. Back in the ‘50s, he was going down into eastern Kentucky to seek out old-time musicians, and he found Roscoe Holcomb. I found from that that you could go out into different environments and find music just like that which was being played on the recorded anthologies, but it was being played by real, live people. That was exciting!

In college, I worked summers at a hotel on Lake Michigan. The very first field recordings I ever made were in a little general store up there. There were some Mexican migrant farm workers who were playing corridos from the time of Poncho Villa. Subsequently I would go around to other migrant camps to record music. A lot of the workers were poor whites from North Carolina or Tennessee or Missouri. They followed the crops – the cherries, the blueberries. They were very much like the folks that John Steinbeck wrote about in The Grapes of Wrath. They didn’t have many instruments, but somehow we’d scrape together mandolins, fiddles, guitars and banjos and they’d play. I was about 17 or 18 then. They were very poor and they lived in tents, but they sang great old hymns and songs like “Soldiers Joy” and “Black Jack Davy” – and they did them all in fine style. That really animated the whole business for me. It was the kind of music that people made just for themselves – and they did it with an amazing energy, an energy that came out of culture rather than out of school or for the commercial world. They didn’t make music to make money.

The town where I grew up, Indianapolis, was a great blues town.  The first bluesman I ever met was Scrapper Blackwell. I rediscovered Scrapper Blackwell, but I honestly didn’t know who I had rediscovered – at least not until I was talking to a friend who was slightly older than me. I said, “Hey, I met this really great guitar player who said he made some records back in the old days. His name is Scrapper Blackwell.” Well, this guy, Ted Watts, just hit the ceiling! “You mean Scrapper’s living here?” he said. Scrapper hadn’t recorded for many years, and was not active as a musician anymore except for going around to play at house parties. But he still could play amazingly well, and he sang with a very poignant voice. I was very interested in acoustic country blues at the time. I’ll have to admit my bias. So that’s what I sought out.

After grad school I got a loft down near City Hall in Manhattan, south of the Brooklyn Bridge. As I tried to scrape together a living, I gave banjo lessons, guitar lessons, and occasionally I would sell some artwork. It was possible to live on a shoestring in New York in those days. I continued the music, but I was also serious about my painting and drawing. I was doing some figurative work which reflected my musical interests. In 1964 I got a Fulbright to go to Paris and I spent a year over there. The year I came back from Europe, I met and married Margo and we settled down in New York. We had first met at a party. She was working for the Welfare Department in New York and one of her co-workers was a banjo student of mine at the Folklore Center in Greenwich Village. She was a very serious painter and she also played guitar. So we were married and we had our son, Neal. I decided then that maybe I should make a better living, at least more than just what sporadic music teaching was producing. So I got my first teaching job at the University of Iowa. That was in 1968.

I came to Athens, Georgia, from Iowa, in 1976. I had met several Georgia musicians before I ever moved here. One that I had recorded in Indianapolis was Willie Williams, who played a little blues and also did some track-lining calls. I was aware, of course, of people like Blind Willie McTell and Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers. I was quite aware that Georgia has a very rich musical tradition. So I thought it was great to be here. I liked the town of Athens and I knew that Georgia was a fantastic place to hear music.

The first year – actually the first week – that I was here, I had a very good introduction to what Georgia folk music is all about. A neighbor of mine was a marine biologist who was working down at Sapelo Island, on the Georgia coast. So while we were waiting for our house to get ready to move into, we visited him down there. While we were there, we met some old-time Black gospel singers. So we were immediately able to get a feeling for the coast of Georgia. Then, the very next week, we went up to the Georgia Mountain Fair in Hiawassee. The moderator that day was a man named Fiddlin’ Howard Cunningham.

I remember so well that he said, as he announced, “Well, he’s not on the program, but I’d like to ask this fella’ here to come up and play a couple of numbers for us. His father was Gid Tanner of the famous Skillet Lickers. This is Gordon Tanner!” As Gordon Tanner played a couple of really terrific fiddle tunes, he noticed that I was hovering real close around, wanting to talk to him. I had had no idea before then that Gid Tanner had a son who was still playing those old songs. Gordon invited me to come out to Dacula, to the “Chicken Coop,” where they played every Friday night. They still do. So I went over there and we became great friends. It was then that I learned that as a 17-year-old kid he had been the lead fiddler on some of the greatest recordings that the Skillet Lickers ever made. Gordon was amazingly generous and kind and played music from the depths of his heart. He was a great craftsman who made wonderful fiddles and he was very inclusive of anyone who wanted to play with them. The Skillet Lickers were like that. Amazingly, I later found myself to be included in regular gigs with the present-day Skillet Lickers.

My interest has always been in the older layers of the tradition, and not solely because they are interesting links with the past. Whenever they’re performed in the voices and with the hands of gifted singers and musicians, they are not just artifacts of the past – they are a living, ongoing art form…and a very powerful one. I can’t think of anything more wonderful than to sit on Lawrence Eller’s front porch and listen to him sing those great old mountain songs and pick the banjo with love and dedication and verve. Lawrence never quit. He loved his banjo. “When I get the blues,’ he said, “I shear down on that thing. There never was a man who loves it more than I.” And you could tell that was true whenever he’d sing and play. He could go on for hours.

After we’d lived a couple of years in Georgia, we had an exhibition called Folk Visions and Voices at a gallery here in Athens. By that time, Margo had made a lot of photographs and I had quite a few drawings that had come out of our trips to record musicians all around north Georgia. She’d make photographs and I would sketch. At the opening of the exhibit, we invited Doc and Lucy Barnes and some of their friends who sang in the gospel chorus at the Greater Macedonia Baptist Church in east Athens. We wanted them to come because there were images of them in the show. The gallery, as it turned out, was in a building that had once been a cotton warehouse where Doc Barnes, when he was young, had loaded cotton for a dollar a day. So they came and they sang. They didn’t need to sing, they weren’t asked to sing, but they wanted to sing. It was an honor for us.

Folk Visions and Voices came out in 1983 in the form of a book that was published by the University of Georgia Press.  There were chapters on individual performers like Jake Staggers, an African American banjo player from Toccoa, family groups like the Eller Family, and the last chapter was on Reverend Howard Finster. Folkways records put out two companion LPs which are now available on compact discs through the Smithsonian.

Another interest of mine is coastal music traditions. I became involved, along with George Mitchell and some other folks, in picking up the skeletal remains of the Georgia Folklore Society, which had never been a big, active organization. But it did serve as a vehicle for some of the festivals that were being staged around the state. We began working with Frankie and Doug Quimby, who were members of The Georgia Sea Island Singers and the organizers of the Sea Island Festival. We helped them get some grant support for that event. The Sea Island Singers performed, and still perform, some of the old coastal style songs from the Geechee tradition. Frankie and Doug mentioned having heard of a congregation in McIntosh County where the old shout songs were still sung for Watch Night, on New Years Eve. So we approached Lawrence McKiver and others in that group and convinced them to perform at the festival on St. Simons. They were billed as the McIntosh County Shouters and it was there that they presented their songs in public for the very first time. I recorded that whole festival. Alan Lomax and his sister, Bess Hawes, were there. Alan had been involved with that tradition years before and Bess had worked closely with Bessie Jones, who had once been a leading member of the Georgia Sea Island Singers. Deacon Jim Cook, who was in his late 80s, was the spokesman for the group. He spoke just like a 19th Century orator. He was eloquent, just wonderful. And he really valued the tradition of the ring shout, which could be associated with Africa and their slave ancestors.

Subsequently we visited the ring shouters several times and attended their Watch Night Shout. To our knowledge, their community is the only one anywhere that has an unbroken tradition of observing the old ring shout. The ring shout is actually a physical movement that is similar to dancing, although the participants would never call it dancing because it is a form of worship that is practiced in their church. And it goes on to this day.

So then we put together an LP through Folkways Records called Slave Shout Songs From the Georgia Coast. Similar to the Folk Visions and Voices project, a lot of visual work came out of our field recording and interview sessions. I did a series of large-scale charcoal drawings and Margo made many photographs. Those were exhibited first at the Museum of Coastal History on Saint Simons, and then at several other places. That material, too, was developed into a book that was published by the University of Georgia Press.  It was titled Shout Because You’re Free: The African American Ring Shout Tradition in Coastal Georgia (UGA Press, 1998). The ring shout tradition has virtually died out everywhere else outside McIntosh County, Georgia, but its influence can still be found in much of African American music, and particularly in religious practices like modern gospel songs, which follow very closely the call and response patterns of the old traditional ring shout.

In the 1970s and 1980s, it was very exciting to still be able to find so many examples of strong continuations of the older musical traditions in Georgia. An often-repeated thing is that what we’re finding today is the last of the older traditions. There may be fewer and fewer practitioners of the older styles as time goes by, and the older styles may evolve into newer styles, but there’s still a lot of music in Georgia. Old-time band music, for instance, is being partially replaced by bluegrass, and newer gospel styles have come into the more traditional churches. But amazing movements like the fa-so-la tradition, which is still so very vigorous, particularly in west Georgia, continue on with great strength. I think people are coming to value that kind of thing more and more.


About Denis

A graduate of the University of Georgia’s Lamar Dodd School of Art; I have been drawing and painting ever since I can remember. I have always been inspired by the art of Romantic painters such as Eugene Delacroix, John Constable and W.M. Turner. I consider myself a modern Romantic seeking to capture the emotion or feeling of a subject above all else. Charles Baudelaire described Romanticism as "...situated neither in choice of subject nor exact truth, but in the way of feeling".
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