By John Cody
I’d heard good things about the CD box set, and before a note was played, I was won over by the packaging. Housed inside a hand-assembled cedar box, which in a nod to the music’s southern roots, includes cotton stuffed into the corners are six CDs and a handsome 200-page book that features essays, profiles of all the performers and songs, complete lyrics and relevant scriptural references.
For all the impressive packaging, it’s the music that counts, and as a primer for gospel music from the first half of the 20th century, Goodbye, Babylon is as good as it gets.
To some extent a sanctified companion to Harry Smith’s The Anthology of American Folk Music, Dust to Digital’s Lance Ledbetter has assembled 135 songs over five discs recorded between 1902 and 1960, plus a sixth disc containing 25 sermons recorded between 1926 and 1941.
Much of the U.S. was segregated when these recordings were made, but there’s no division here. It’s one Lord, one faith, black and white together. The variety of genres is extensive jug bands, jazz singers, bluegrass, gospel quartets, string bands, blues acts, sacred harp choirs, country singers and more, all singing straightforward songs about sin, death and redemption.
Some of the artists will be familiar to music fans the Carter Family, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Louvin Brothers, Mahalia Jackson, Hank Williams but the majority will be new to even the most learned collector. Arizona Dranes, Stovepipe No. 1, Blind Mamie Forehand and such may not ring any bells, but the quality never waivers. The music is fabulous, and it’s a joy to discover so many previously unknown performances.
The sermons are fascinating, many with a decidedly musical call-and-response sensibility that stand up to repeated listenings.
The roots of rock, soul, country, hip-hop and in some of the sermons, even stand-up comedy are all here. Some songs ended up retooled by the likes of Janis Joplin, who reworked Eddie Head and his Family’s ‘Down On Me,’ on her first album with Big Brother & the Holding Company.
The Rolling Stones did ‘You Got to Move’ by the Two Gospel Keys, the Blues Project covered Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘I Can’t Keep From Cryin’ Sometimes,’ and most recently Beck adapted Skip James’ ‘Jesus is a Mighty Good Leader.’
From the expert to the neophyte, if you’re interested in gospel music, you can’t do better than this.
Reaction has been stronger in the secular press than evangelical world. Quickly embraced by mainstream critics, the box placed on many critic’s year-end best of lists, and is currently nominated for two Grammy Awards (Best Historical Album and Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package). For all the plaudits, it has received minimal coverage from the Christian press.
Ledbetter posits, “I think it might have something to do with modern day Christian music being so different from what is on Goodbye, Babylon. Contemporary Christian music is a lot happier than the gospel music from the 1920s and 30s. The artists back then were singing about guilt and sin and the process of redemption, whereas most artists today are singing about heaven and joy.”
© John Cody 2005