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Folk musician shares generations of music
"Self Portrait with Panama Hat" by Art Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum, a former art professor at the University of Georgia, performs Saturday at AthFest.

AthFest 2009 schedule

Art Rosenbaum
When: 1:20 to 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: AthFest stage at Hull and Washington streets, Athens
How much: Free

Traditional folk music is usually heard on someone's back porch, not at an outdoor stage as part of a large music festival like AthFest.

But for the first time, Art Rosenbaum, former art professor at the University of Georgia and longtime folk musician, will be playing at AthFest, held this weekend at various venues in Athens.

Rosenbaum plays banjo, fiddle, guitar and harmonica, and has been listening to and learning the traditional styles since he was a teenager. He'll be performing tonight at the Flagpole AthFest Music Awards at the Morton Theater in Athens and on Saturday at the Hull Street stage.

"What I do, which I've done ... since I was a teenager, which is over 50 years ago," Rosenbaum said, "is to try to learn from old-timers, either records or in person when I could, and document music that people were singing on their back porches or churches and all and learn how to play banjo and guitar from old-timers that had had the music handed down in their families."

He doesn't write music, but instead plays songs that have been handed down over many generations.

And he's spent a lot of time learning the music with musicians such as Scrapper Blackwell, an early blues recording artist from Rosenbaum's hometown of Indianapolis, and Pete Steele, an old-time banjo player and coal miner from Kentucky. He also said he's been influenced by North Georgia players like Gordon Tanner, son of one of the founders of an early North Georgia group called the Skillet Lickers. Rosenbaum has lived in Georgia since 1976.

It was his own family members who piqued his interest in singing what he called hand-me-down songs. His father sang songs he learned as a child and his grandmother, who was from Poland, sang Yiddish folk songs.That time spent listening to and learning from back porch musicians earned him a Grammy last year for best historical album. The compilation album "Art of Field Recording Volume I: Fifty Years Of Traditional American Music Documented By Art Rosenbaum" includes a variety of traditional music played by many artists and recorded not in studios, but in the natural setting where traditional music is played.

Rosenbaum said he's always gravitated toward the traditional style.

"Some would say that it's really accessible. You know, you hear a tune a couple of times and you can repeat it," Rosenbaum said. Melodies are sometimes simple, but they also stand the test of time. Some songs are as old as 300 years and tell stories of lords and ladies of England, infidelities and murders from that time.

"They've kind of survived because the stories are really, really vivid and exciting," he said. And like all good art forms, the music and lyrics have "layers of depth and meaning and poetry."

And despite that traditional style later influencing music such as rock, blues, gospel and country, Rosenbaum said he most enjoys the older music. "I tend to be proud of having been associated with players of downhome music," he said. "Not only because it influenced mainstream music but because it's magnificent powerful music in its own right. ... There's some kind of power in that kind of voice that maybe you don't find in a lot of commercially-generated music"

For his AthFest performance Rosenbaum said he hasn't yet picked out his songs, but likely will play some blues, maybe a fiddle tune or two and several mountain banjo tunes.

"(I) try to make them fresh. That's kind of a paradox, but they're old, I've done them a lot," he said. "But I try to revive them and put the requisite energy into them"

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