Quick Reads: Gospel/Blues/Soul Reviews      

Deep River of Song

  • Various – A Warrior On The Battlefield (A Capella: 1920’s – 1940’s) Rounder 1997
  • Deep River Of Song: Bahamas 1935 (Rounder)1999
  • Deep River Of Song: Black Appalachia (Rounder) 1999
  • Deep River Of Song: Black Texicans (Rounder) 1999

Three more titles from the massive Alan Lomax collection. As with the bulk of the series, these discs capture a sound long gone. Recorded on primitive equipment, it’s somewhat akin to taking an audio trip to a lost world. The majority of material was recorded during the early 30’s, a time when, owing to the availability of radio and phonographs, regional differences were just beginning to fade.

The Bahamas disc consists of accappella chanteys and anthems sung by spongers from Andros Island. These are the earliest recordings to come out of the region, in a style called ‘rhyming spirituals.’ Not tropical music as is popularly defined, and certainly nothing a tourist agent would use to entice potential travelers to tropical beats. Only 3 of the 24 tracks here have been previously released.

Black Appalachia treads more familiar territory. Subtitled String Bands, Songsters and Hoedowns, the disc contains quite a few upbeat numbers and instrumentals, although there’s nothing here that’s gonna end up on the Nashville Network. A Warrior On The Battlefield (A Capella: 1920’s - 1940’s)

The lyrics on the Texas disc may be about riding the range, but these were not the songs of Gene Autry or Roy Rogers. While you’d never guess from the western movies, it’s estimated as much as a quarter of all cowboys were black. Guitars and harmonica provide minimal accompaniment.

A Warrior On The Battlefield collects 25 samples of Accapella quartets between the wars. The style was evolving rapidly, and ranges from almost barbershop harmonies to the more sophisticated to jubilee style, most notably by the Golden Gate Quartet. The sound originated in the deep south, and by the middle of the century was at it’s most popular. With the practitioners now gone, the tradition continues today in Bluegrass. On the surface that may seem odd, but listening to this disc, outside of accompaniment, there’s not much difference between the Bethel Quartet Davis Bible Singers and Bill Monroe.

There Will Be No Sweeter Sound: The Columbia-Okeh Post War Gospel Story 1947-1962Various Artists: There Will Be No Sweeter Sound: The Columbia-Okeh Post War Gospel Story 1947-1962 (Legacy) 1998

A double disc set of semi-obscure African-American gospel groups includes The Mello-Tones, Bill Landford The Landfordaires, both at six songs each, The R.S.B. Gospel Singers with five, and nine others offering anywhere from one to four tracks apiece.

Outside of three tracks each from ‘47 and ‘62, all recordings were made during a five year period between ‘49-’53. Coming so soon after World War II, there’s a understandable sense of optimism. This was gospel music’s golden age, and all the world seemed to be right, at least for a few years. While the names may be unfamiliar to all but the aficionado, it’s still a marvelous introduction to a wonderful, almost lost genre.

Testify! – The Gospel BoxTestify! – The Gospel Box, Rhino, 1999

The real deal. Spanning 1942-1997, Testify clocks in at well over three hours. Boasting fifty tracks, a sixty-eight page booklet containing individual track notations, essays and photos, the package is veritable history lesson on black gospel music.

Formed in 1817, the African Methodist Episcopal Church was the first denomination established by and for blacks. While the Negro spiritual was already widespread, the style of worship employed here had more in common with the conservative white churches of the day. Post-Civil War, it was common for blacks to ignore their musical heritage, attempting instead to assimilate into mainline worship through Anglo-American hymns. A lengthy struggle existed between those who preferred Negro spirituals and adherents of the more staid European forms. A significant boost to the music’s stature came in 1895 when Czech composer Antonin Dvorak claimed that a truly indigenous American music existed in the black spiritual. It would take another decade before the music would begin to achieve widespread acceptance.

The first significant alternative to the conservative, less demonstrative Baptist and Methodist orthodoxy came about in 1906 via the Azusa Street revival and subsequent growth of Pentecostalism. The Holiness movement stressed the emotional side of the worship service, which was closer to African tradition. Musicians were considered to be exercising divine gifts, and experimentation in instrumentation and form was generally well-received, allowing unencumbered growth. Cross pollination meant boogie woogie rhythms could meet head on with praise lyrics. From the boisterous “Holy Roller” to the more staid jubilee quartet, this was the beginning of Gospel’s golden era.

One result of this creative climate was Thomas Dorsey coming to the church. Already successful as pianist, writer and accompanist for a number of blues singers, Dorsey began writing hymns in the 1920s, and was eventually accepted within the Baptist community. Later known as the Father of Gospel Music, he would continue to write the occasional risqué blues number. Thus “It’s Tight Like That” sits alongside standards like “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and “If You See My Savior” in his formidable catalogue.

The struggle between sacred and secular has always been a contentious issue. The same elements that made this music unique resulted in it’s wholesale rejection by more conservative members of the church. Whenever Christians try to incorporate contemporary culture into the gospel message they run the risk of being misunderstood. Conversely, for those willing to listen, the songs crossed all denominational lines, evincing the true power of music.

Opening with Praise The Lord and Pass the Ammunition and Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’ both from World War II, temporal issues are addressed alongside the spiritual. The thread continues through the decades with civil rights concerns like the Fairfield Four’s Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around. Martin Luther King’s assassination brought an end to the optimistic perspective, and while the tradition continues today in acts like Sounds Of Blackness, by the early 70’s a darker social climate found better expression through mainstream acts like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.

Only half of the tracks included are from Gospel’s golden era. By disc three drum machines are common, and subtlety is an all-to-rare commodity. The understated feel so common initially is missing on the majority of recent material. Too many divas, and too few willing to just sing the songs.

While the track list is a veritable who’s who of Black Gospel, a few acts are conspicuous in their absence: no Soul Stirrers, Pilgrim Travelers or Sister Rosetta Tharpe. There’s also a few interesting inclusions, including R&B legend Laverne Baker teaming up with Alex Bradford & The Bradford Singers on Precious Lord.

Rhino released Jubilation!, a splendid three volume series in ’90, which is well worth seeking out, as only a dozen tracks are duplicated between the two packages. For the most part the previous set’s first two discs concentrated on black gospel from the 40’s and 50’s, along with a third devoted exclusively to country gospel. Though less encompassing, it makes for a more satisfying listening experience. Testify!, due to the wider time frame, suffers at times from a lack of cohesion. That caveat aside, both packages are highly recommended.

  • The Persuasions: On The Good Ship Lollipop, Music For Little People, 1999
  • The Persuasions: Frankly A Cappella, Earthbeat!, 2000
  • The Persuasions: Sunday Morning Soul, Bullseye/Rounder, 2000

The Persuasions: On The Good Ship LollipopThe Persuasions, hold a singular position in the vocal group pantheon. Now in their thirty-fifth year, they’ve worked with everyone from Frank Zappa to Joni Mitchell, sung doo-wop on street corners and recorded avante garde with Ned Sublette. Simply put, there’s nobody like ‘em. Barbershop it ain’t. Defying categorization, these three releases offer ample evidence of their versatility.

Lollipop includes some of the hippest versions of nursery rhymes ever waxed. The quintet makes everything sound good, so it’s no surprise that even the most rudimentary lyric ends up sounding like something bop monologist Lord Buckley would dig. Entirely a cappella, to quote an earlier album title, they still ain’t got no band. Time-tested tunes like ‘Teddy Bear’s Picnic,’ ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain,’ and ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,’ sit comfortably alongside a handful of originals, including ‘A Cappella Fellas,’ a theme song of sorts. Kids will enjoy this, but so should anyone who loves good music.

The Persuasions: Frankly A CappellaFrankly A Cappella is a whole other proposition. In 1969 the group was signed to Zappa’s fledgling Straight record label. The roster included Alice Cooper, Captain Beefheart and Tim Buckley – in hindsight, heady company, but at that time perceived as a laughable troupe of rejects, typical of Zappa’s eccentricities. An A cappella group fit right in. That he would undertake such a seemingly uncommercial endeavor, and turn it into a success, speaks volumes as to Zappa’s taste and foresight. While the Persuasions would go on to record for over a dozen other labels, they never forgot the fact that Zappa was the first.

The twelve tracks cover all phases of Zappa’s career, and while there’s not a stinker in the bunch, the earlier songs are highlights. ‘Theme from Lumpy Gravy,’ originally an instrumental opus, is particularly impressive. ‘Electric Aunt Jemima,’ ‘Tears Begin To Fall’ plus three songs from his underrated Ruben & The Jets (1968) showcase Zappa’s long-standing love affair with doo-wop.

The group performed ‘The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing’ as part of ‘Zappa’s Universe,’ a 1991 concert tribute marking the composer’s fiftieth birthday. Reprised here, the song is a typical example of Zappa’s intolerance for fundamentalists of all types. He was particularly vocal in his disdain for the religious right’s antics, and usually right on the money.

The Persuasions: Sunday Morning SoulSpirituals have always been part of the group’s concert performances and recordings, but Sunday Morning Soul is their first all-gospel effort. According to the liner notes, the disc is “a tribute to their faith as well as their roots.” Not that they’ve strayed too far – lead vocalist Jerry Lawson retains active membership in the New Hope Baptist Church Choir of Apopka, Florida – the town he was born in. The group took it’s name as an oblique reference to Christ having to persuade the people to follow his teachings, figuring it would take a lot of persuasion to make a living as musicians without instruments.

For the most part made up of gospel standards, including ‘Did You Stop To Pray’ and ‘Dry Bones,’ this is the material they started with, and it fits like a glove. A take on T Texas Tyler’s ‘Deck Of Cards’ is reminiscent of ‘It’s Alright’ a highlight from the group’s debut disc.

© John Cody 2000

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| April 16th, 2011 | Posted in Articles |
     

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