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Goodbye, Babylon.

Goodbye, Babylon

6 CD boxed set + 202 pp. booklet. Dust-to-Digital DTD-01, 2003. US$104.95. <http://www.dust-digital.com>

In 1954 Harry Smith compiled a trio of boxed sets for the Folkways label, derived from the corpus of 78 rpm shellac discs documenting American vernacular music recorded during the inter-war period. Since that date there have been a number of similarly impressive anthologies: one thinks in particular of the stunning efforts from the Bear Family label out of Germany, and of those issues from the Japanese divisions of both Decca and RCA Victor. None, however, were as tangibly distinctive as the release under review, the format of which consists of a hand-crafted cedar box with four separate internal compartments and sliding lid (think old-fashioned pencil box on a much larger scale), screen-printed with the title and a pictorial representation of the Tower of Babel. One compartment contains the six CDs, another a substantial booklet, and the two smaller ones hold ears of cotton, apparently direct from the plant head, though first combed of their seeds. This organic matter serves to reinforce the statement made by noted scholar Dick Spottswood in his pithy 'Introduction to Gospel Music' that 'the music here is mainly from the South' (p. iii), a region whose fortunes and culture rose and fell on the production of cotton. I was also reminded somewhat of a coffin, which is appropriate, as much of the musical content of the massive collection of 160 religious-themed items is concerned with death--and subsequent resurrection, of course.

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While certain of the featured performers had nothing but sacred music in their repertoires, for many the religious material was but one genre among many that might be recorded at a single session. One typical example is the well-known Virginian singer Ernest V. Stoneman, who recorded extensively over a period of eleven years prior to 1934, and whose family later made quite a mark in the bluegrass field. His 1928 session for the Victor company, from which 'There's a Light Lit Up in Galilee' (CD 1, track 11) is drawn, included an Old World ballad ('The Spanish Merchant's Daughter'), four items from the common Southern vernacular stock, including one ('Twilight Is Stealing Over the Sea') tinged by Tin Pan Alley, a further gospel item, and a two-part musical skit entitled 'Going Up the Mountain after Liquor'. Numerous further examples could be cited from both sides of the racial divide, reflecting not only the personal effort required to satisfy the recording companies' insatiable need for fresh and unique material, but also, in a more practical sense, the resultant increased opportunities for paid live performances in diverse contexts.

Spanning the ethnic barrier over the period 1902 to 1960, with the vast majority emanating from the five years immediately preceding an era of curtailed recording activity caused by the Great Depression from 1931 onwards, the adopted format is sufficiently flexible to encompass hellfire sermons, burgeoning country-and-western (CD 3, track 27), formal concert-stage quartet vocals (CD 3, track 1), jazz from New Orleans (CD 3, track 23), proto-bluegrass (CD 3, track 10), and even a West Indian 'shouter hymn' (CD 2, track 29) with recognizable calypso influences.

Not all of the featured artists are as obscure as the anonymous members of, say, the TCI [i.e. Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company] Women's Four, the Jubilee Gospel Team, or the Tennessee Music and Printing Company Quartet. Hank Williams and his Drifting Cowboys were among the best-selling country aggregations of the 1950s; Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs will forever be remembered for the driving score of the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, and the Carter Family remain highly visible on the musical landscape by virtue of continual reissues of their vast output dating from between 1927 and 1941, and most recently via a popular film about the life of country singer Johnny Cash, who married into the family. Potential customers with more than a slight interest in the genre will recognize many familiar names, including the much-lauded Texas blues-man Blind Lemon Jefferson; those architects of modern bluegrass, Bill and Charlie Monroe; popular crossover singer Mahalia Jackson; one of the greatest of recorded songsters, Tennesseean Uncle Dave Macon; and the stunning ragtime guitarist the Revd Gary Davis.

While the bulk of the source stock is inevitably the commercial 78 rpm shellac disc, the compilers have additionally utilized a cylinder from 1902 (CD 3, track 1), sixteen-inch radio programme transcription discs (for example, CD 3, track 27), and several field recordings made by Alan Lomax, one from the classic 1947 Parchman Farm prison corpus (CD 2, track 16), the other from the culturally and racially diverse group of musicians assembled by Lomax in 1960 for a film about colonial Williamsburg (CD 1, track 27). On five of the CDs no attempt has been made to straitjacket the music, ethnically, culturally or chronologically, which works in their favour and enhances the listening experience. The sixth disc is devoted entirely to Afro-American preachers, a good number of whom reached a recording studio, and several of whose popularity was so great that, in terms of output at least, they were all but superstars. The genre, examined thoroughly by Paul Oliver in his seminal work Songsters and Saints, consisted of extemporized narratives on biblical themes--sermons, if you will, though abbreviated to fit the three-minute recording format--most often supported by snatches of ecstatic song and apparently spontaneous expression by accompanying members of the 'congregation'. The form served an important spiritual function for its original audience, but is not widely appreciated by modern devotees of vernacular music--at least not by those within my personal ambit, one of whom expressed disbelief on viewing my collection of several dozen such CDs on the Document label, including nine volumes (more than two hundred titles) by the Revd J. M. Gates alone.

The booklet is similarly a fine example of presentation and content. In addition to Spottswood, the prolific historian Charles Wolfe, who died earlier this year, contributes a short but lucid essay on the original source material. Each track is given at least a page, which includes contextual notes, song transcription, and a related image. The performer is pictured where an image exists, but record labels, photographs of the locality, or those depicting the context of performance, also do service.

One does not need to be a Christian--either devout or casual--to enjoy the music featured here. Atheists and agnostics within my ken are equally entranced by the often joyous sentiments, the uplifting melodies, and the vibrant musical accompaniments. Whatever your personal persuasion, this release is so impressive that it warrants your attention and support.

KEITH CHANDLER

South Leigh
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Author:Chandler, Keith
Publication:Folk Music Journal
Article Type:Sound recording review
Date:Jan 1, 2007
Words:1108
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