6 CD Boxed Set with 200 page book
Dust-to-Digital. DTD 1 CDBX
Brothers and sisters, my text for today is, fabulous music, fastidious production, first rate scholarship, exquisite remastering, and value for money. May they bring rich rewards to the record producer. I tell you my friends, that this convocation which I hold in my hand, is the largest, finest and most soul stirring anthology of the sanctified singing of the American South which has ever touched the hand of Man.
But just as the guises of sin are many and varied, then no less devious are the facades of record companies who plunder the pockets of the unwary. What I mean is, this release does not resemble in any way, shape or form, any previous CD packaging I ever heard about. The ark which I offer up for your perusal is a cedar wood box (from sustainable resources, I trust ?), with an engraving by Gustav Doré, showing the tower of Babel about to never get finished. Inside, there are two pieces of cotton, lest we forget the toilers of the field, and a sachet of silica gel, in case there's a great flood. There is also a lavishly illustrated 200 page book. It measures 8" x 5", has been cunningly contrived to look like an old time hymnal, and carries a wealth of supporting information. Most important of all are the package's six discs, for they are stacked out with the most ecstatic singing that was ever disposed from on high.
Friends, we are gathered together to assay this elucidation of the afterlife. First, though, I must cite its genesis. Lance Ledbetter is a young software professional, from Atlanta, Georgia, who is fired with a love of old time sacred music. He created Dust to DigitaI, specifically to engender this anthology. I do not know how deep his knowledge of the subject goes, but it's not that important. Realising the task before him, Mr Ledbetter did what any sane mortal would do, and summoned the elders.1
Fortunately, America is one country where first class scribes and scholars abound, and the erudition which has gone into this opus would certainly put old Nick in his place. I used the word supporting a moment ago, and that is because the information is devoid of waffle and pedantry and counterfeit scholarship. Consequently, the book is not just a worthy adjunct to the anthology, it is a good, if somewhat circumscribed, induction into the vernacular religious music of the American South. It includes introductory articles by Dick Spottswood and Charles Wolfe, and an introduction to Sacred Harp singing by David Warren Steel, plus a postscript by David Tibet. Warren Steel's piece has been inserted a bit further on in the book, so that it prefaces the notes to the first sacred harp track. But it's not so much the placement which I find odd, as the fact that the sacred harp is the only sub-genre to be treated thus.
Considering the scope of their subject matter, the Wolfe and Spottswood pieces are fairly brief. However, they complement each other neatly, and the novice will absorb much from both of them. Spottswood focuses on the growth of recorded vernacular religious music, and shows its interdependence with its more formal cousins. Wolfe's contribution contains a more general summary of the development of the race and country music catalogues; and he gives some interesting statistics, regarding the releases thereof.
As well as the broad brushstrokes, there is detailed information on the individual recordings. Each track has an entire page - two in some cases - and we are shown the title, discographical data, details of the song, the performer(s), and the composer, where s/he is known. Composer and performer data are often sketchy, but that is no reflection on the editor or his contributors. It simply mirrors the little that we all too frequently know. Textual transcriptions are included, and each entry is rounded off with a suitable bible reference. I must plead ignorance over the pertinence of many of the latter, but several look as though they just about fit where they touch. Moreover, I get the feeling that certain records were chosen to fit the quote, rather than the other way round.
Unfortunately, the discographical data turns out to be rather limited. For instance, with many group performances, it is not clear who is playing what. Record companies are not headlined and neither are catalogue numbers. Nor is it always obvious whether we are dealing with a field or commercial recording. Where the former are concerned, the collectors are also not headlined. Equally, considering the influence, which company executives like Frank Walker and Ralph Peer exerted over the development of southern music, I'm surprised that reissue companies seldom list the A&R man.
The illustrations are a treat and, as with the rest of the book, are extremely well laid out. The connoisseur will find artist photographs, record labels, record company adverts, and a host of other ephemera. Some display an endearing touch of whimsy. For instance, it's possible you've been kept awake nights, trying to recall the shape of the Sopwith Camel; that flying machine, so beloved of World War One fighter aces. If you have, then worry no longer. There's a picture of one right alongside the notes for Reverend J M Milton, The Black Camel of Death.
Let us repair to the discs. Unlike many anthologies, the contents are not divided thematically or chronologically, or by artist, or by region. Instead, the first five records are arranged by topic, as follows:
The recordings used for this anthology range in vintage from 1902 to 1954, with a single foray into 1960. That one takes the form of a contribution from Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers, and it is a pity that the vast amount of material recorded since 1954 has otherwise been ignored. Within that limitation though, the anthology draws on a fine mix of commercial records, with a good smattering of radio broadcasts and field recordings. While the pieces are predominantly well chosen, a lot of the material has already appeared on LP and/or CD. In particular, I couldn't see anything among the field recordings which has not been previously released, in either or both media. That may be down to prohibitive archive copying fees. If so, then I sympathise, but again the range of potential source material is drastically diminished. Incidentally, it would be helpful if, where re-reissues are concerned, record companies could specify the sources of previous releases.
In any event, Goodbye, Babylon rounds up many of the usual suspects, and Goodbye, Babylon follows a well trodden path. It is important to keep this in perspective however, since we are dealing with an introductory survey. Moreover, Mr Ledbetter has cast his nets widely and well. For every great fish which has swum into them, there are many more who are lesser known, and less widely anthologised; but who are no less worth hearing.
Both sides of the racial divide are well represented, and it was nice to discover that they are intertwined in the track listings. It's a rare thing to find a religious anthology which has been so effectively desegregated, and I dare say that the producer has left himself open to accusations of misrepresentation. We are after all talking about two parallel groups of congregationalists, who were kept apart by white prejudice and white enacted segregation laws. Nevertheless, it makes for great listening, and sets an example to an awful lot of the citizens of this planet.
However, if the black and white communities are honourably accounted, the set is found wanting in respect of other Southern ethnic groups. There is no Cajun music, no Tex Mex, and no Native American. Also, there is very little bluegrass, and very little jazz.2 Equally, whilst the set features a good spread of Jubilee quartets and Sacred Harp choruses, there are no ring shouts, and there is only one lining hymn. Even that one is not a very good example of the genre. Finally, in a survey, which is otherwise devoted to Southern US religious music, I'm wondering what that solitary calypso is doing in there. For that matter, I wouldn't have thought the Carter's Keep on the Sunny Side was the wisest choice in an anthology such as this.
Dust-to-Digital, apart, who will profit from the purchase? Well, there is no denying that the set has an important didactic function. If you are a school or a college, or maybe just someone who has latched onto the present interest in American roots, it is one heck of a way to find out what the American South sang about on Sunday mornings.
But even the cognoscenti will find plenty of reasons for buying. First of all, to reiterate my remarks about nets and fishes, it would be a rare collector who'd managed to acquire copies of everything on the track list. (See Appendix).
Secondly, the audio restoration has been carried out by Airshow Mastering, who displayed such prowess with Revenant's Charley Patton retrospective, and Old Hat's Down in the Basement. There are times, EG., with Sam Morgan's Over in the Gloryland, and the Washington Phillips tracks, where the clarity is just sparkling.
Also, as my previous remarks indicate, Goodbye, Babylon embraces a spectacular range of performance styles. Where else could you find a Mississippi convict rubbing shoulders with stars from the Grand Ole Opry? What other anthology would sandwich The Golden Gate Quartet between Flatt and Scruggs and Roosevelt Graves?
And there are plenty of surprises. For instance, who would have expected Frankie Jaxon, that arch exponent of the sins of vaudeville, to show up here as leader of The Cotton Top Sanctified Singers? When you've got your head around that one, the disc of spoken sermons includes a track by a certain Hallelujah Joe, whom blues fans will know better as Kansas Joe McCoy. The notes hint at a touch of hypocrisy over Kansas Joe's conversion, and I am inclined to agree.
So there are reasons in plenty for the faithful to rejoice, and there is material in plenty to convert the easily convertible. But this review has been compiled by one obstinately atheistical sin stained hack of a backslider. The acid test of infallibility therefore, would be to ask these recordings, whether any amongst ye failed to persuade me of the error of my ways.
I have to report that one or two were less than equal to the task. For instance, if the inquisition ever lowered me by the thumbs into a lake of boiling lava, I doubt they could persuade me to like Mahalia Jackson. Equally, the Johnson Family's earnest and clean cut delivery - clipped to the edge of four square - made me realise what the Osmonds might sound like if they ever got religion. And anything longer than two minutes and fifty seconds of the Reverend Claude Ely's frenzied delivery, would have had me screaming for the straightjacket.
Otherwise, these recordings are so bathed in the light of heaven, that pretty well all are pretty well equal. Even so, in footnote 2, I trumpet the praises of the Sam Morgan Band's wonderful Over in the Gloryland. Also, I must highlight Dock Reed's and Vera Hall Ward's singing of the words, which Martin Luther King would immortalise thirteen years later on the steps of The Lincoln Memorial:
Dock Reed and Vera Hall Ward were God's gifts to the spiritual, and they are firing on all four sanctified cylinders. I think it not inappropriate for me to compare this performance with that epochal 'I have a dream' speech of Dr King's.
Again, my comments about reissues of familiar field recordings notwithstanding, who could fail to be moved by the Parchman Farm convict, Jimpson, singing No More, My Lord. I've owned a copy of Murderer's Home (where the Jimpson track previously appeared) for almost forty years, and I count it as one of the most arresting pieces of singing recorded anywhere.
And if your memories of Josh White are limited to his days as a folksy nightclub entertainer, his 1933 rendering of I Don't Intend to Die in Egyptland will, I think, surprise you.
In part, then, it is the sheer quality of the material which makes Goodbye, Babylon such compelling listening. However, much credit must go to Lance Ledbetter for showing such excellent taste in selecting the material, and for showing such imagination in programming it.
Any terminal grubbles? Well, there were a few things I took issue with. For instance, in Dick Spottswood's piece, and in one or two other places in the book, the word gospel is used as a generic name for Southern US religious singing. Since gospel refers to a specific and widely understood sub-genre of the same, I think another term should have been sought.
Also, I was surprised to see a note of surprise over the fact that Jaybird Coleman was once managed by the Ku Klux Klan. I hold no brief for the Klan's hideous dogma, or for its terrorisation of black human beings. However, to express surprise at its relationship with Coleman is to misunderstand the nature of Southern society, and the role which the Klan invented for itself. The KKK was not opposed to black people per se. Rather, it was impelled by the belief that a free and equal Negro populace would undermine the entire structure of white society. The Klan therefore sought the resurrection and perpetuation of a white supremacist caste society, as its members imagined it to have existed in slave times. Its ideal was not a social order where black people were kept in a permanent state of terrorised repression. It was one where black people knew their place and willingly accepted it.
In slave society, music making underpinned white dominance. That is because it was the duty of slave musicians to provide entertainment for their white owners. By contrast, when the owners played music, they invariably did so for their own race, and they did so voluntarily. Therefore, music making had the subsidiary function of affirming the relative status of the two groups.
Furthermore, the social culture of the post-bellum South was to all intents and purposes, a quasi-feudal extension of slavery. It was a society in which many black people acknowledged the power of whites, by seeking their protection and patronage in return for services rendered. As with slave music, such arrangements existed for practical purposes, but they also effectively underpinned the message about who was subservient to whom.
Finally, it was a cornerstone of white Southern belief, that Negroes were unable to run their own affairs and needed white guidance to keep out of trouble; yet another presumption of white superiority. In such a social climate, there was nothing surprising about the Ku Klux Klan managing a black musician. It was simply an affirmation of Klan ideology.3
I'd also take issue with Ken Romanowski's description of Jimpson's No More My Lord, as a song for co-ordinating group activity. This is a solo performance with no chorus, and I can only hear one axe. So it obviously isn't a group song; and its function cannot have been to co-ordinate the dangerous action of group tree felling. Rather, the regular fall of the axe makes it sound like one man chopping wood on his own, and using the song to pace the work and dispel monotony.
Finally, there are two editorial problems which need pointing out. Firstly, the book suffers from a lack of annotation, which at times becomes annoying. For instance, Washington White's (Bukka White's) staggering I am in the Heavenly Way has a female backing vocal from someone who, the notes tell us, has been credited as "Miss Minnie". Since the recording was made in Memphis, people may wonder whether this was Memphis Minnie. It certainly sounds as if it could be she, and the recording was made while she was still living there. A logical place for the curious to start checking would be with the source of the quote, but it is not given.4
Secondly, although the tracks are listed on the CD envelopes and in the text, there is no discrete track list. Also, the book would have benefited from a performer and song index. As it is, the fastest way of locating individual tracks or performers is probably via a word search, on Dust to Digital's site at www.dust-digital.com
But shortcomings like these are mere flaws in the canvas, and there is no end of errant souls ready to smear anyone's masterpiece. Indeed, the fact that this project was planned, co-ordinated and overseen by someone with so little experience, makes it all the more remarkable.
My preamble mentioned value for money, and I understand that Goodbye, Babylon retails in the US for around $100. In Britain, prices I was quoted ranged from £90 at Red Lick, to £99.99 at HMV. For a six CD set, that does not sound like outstanding value, even allowing for the book and packaging. However, those six CDs contain 160 tracks, which represents a very generous average of 27 tracks per disc. If it is written that record producers have to short change buyers on playing time, the word obviously hasn't reached Dust To Digital.
In closing, it is only fair to point out that I have done no more at present than play the discs and read the book. That is another way of saying that this release is destined to become a classic, alongside the Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music, and similar milestones in our understanding of vernacular art. Like all classics, its finest features will only become apparent with the passage of time.
In the interim, if you are in the habit of starting a busy morning with a bit of music, you will need to guard against the sin of indolence. Try that with almost anything from this set and you will be glued to the Victrola for the rest of the day.
Fred McCormick - 28.8.04
2. That latter omission is explained by the fact that, in jazz terms, religious music was chiefly the province of New Orleans marching bands. Unfortunately, early 78s of the same almost resemble the fabled hen's teeth. Nevertheless, the New Orleans revival of the 1940s and early '50s is well documented on commercial and field recordings, and they include a significant amount of sanctified material.
The paucity of early recordings of New Orleans marching bands becomes all the more poignant, in the light of this set's sole example; the wonderful Over in the Gloryland, by Sam Morgan's Jazz Band. Anyone who is captivated by this ensemble can hear their entire output on Azure AZ-CD-12. That output consists of only eight tracks, but the disc is completed by a further sixteen recordings of the almost equally splendid Papa Celestin's Original Tuxedo Jazz Orchestra.
3. A good account of the caste system in the post slavery South is given in John Dollard, Caste and Class in a Southern Town. Yale UP, New Haven, 1937. For a history of black slave musicians see Dena Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals; Black Folk Music to the Civil War, Illinois UP, Urbana, 1977.
4. In case anyone does start looking, I should point out that the riddle is probably unsolvable. Memphis Minnie's biographers, Paul and Beth Garon, speculate that it was probably she, pointing out that she was in the studio the day the White recording was made, but they can produce no definite evidence. Woman with Guitar: Memphis Minnie's Blues, Paul and Beth Garon, Da Capo, New York, 1992.