In 2003, a cedar box appeared in my mailbox, with the words “Goodbye, Babylon” and an illustration of Babel’s famed tower on the front. I slid back the top of the box to find a thick book, a few clumps of Georgia cotton, and six CDs crammed with rare gospel songs from 1902 to 1960—blues, Sacred Harp, country & western, bluegrass, early jazz, a cappella quartets, you name it—the result of four years of hard work from Lance and April Ledbetter. The set, Goodbye, Babylon, received a Grammy nomination, and Bob Dylan thought enough of it to give Neil Young a copy. What was a one-off project turned into a record label, Dust-to-Digital, helmed by the Ledbetters in Atlanta, Georgia. I’ve bought some of their 60-odd releases myself, and the Ledbetters were kind enough to send more to illustrate what they’ve done to preserve American music. (They also have over a dozen releases of music from around the globe.) They preserve it by disseminating it, not merely by archiving it, virtually or otherwise. You can purchase MP3s and PDFs at Dust-to Digital’s website (www.dust-digital.com), but I can’t fathom why people wouldn’t want to hold these beautifully made items in their hands.
Various Artists: Voices of Mississippi: Artists and Musicians Documented by William Ferris. 3 CDs, 1 DVD, 120-page book.
This summer Dust-to-Digital announced their newest release, Voices of Mississippi, with three CDs, a DVD, and a book about documentarian William Ferris with photos and stories of the people he recorded. One look at the cover and I had to find out about the Black man (I capitalize out of respect) sitting on a dilapidated piece of porch furniture, boots untied, dress shirt on. There were several sculpted heads at his feet and one in his hands with sunglasses and human teeth.
The man turned out to be James “Son Ford” Thomas, singer, sculptor, and grave-digger from Yazoo County. He tells of helping his one-armed stepfather dig graves, and how he never could dig one faster even with two arms. He and his bright guitar open the Blues disc, and any guitarist could spend hours trying to tease out the tuning, ghost harmonies, and varieties of picking all within the same phrase. There are plenty more guitar delights: the famed Mississippi Fred McDowell is on three tracks, and Scott Dunbar’s fingerwork merits close attention.
As for singing, Walter Lee Hood’s voice on “Darling, If You Must Leave” is a showstopper, easily reaching a B on the treble staff. In “Stackalee and Billy Lyons” the singer and pianist, Maudie Shirley and Wallace “Pine-Top” Johnson, are so out of sync that it’s almost unlistenable. Louis Dotson’s track of bottle-blowing and vocalizing is trippy: at first, I thought it was a young woman, a pan-flute, and a saxophone trading notes. Most of the songs were recorded in the late 1960s with very clear sound.
The Storytelling volume has interviews with the Voices of Mississippi singers as well as Alex Haley, Bobby Rush, B.B. King, Allen Ginsberg, and Pete Seeger. Particularly telling is Son Ford talking about how he knows it’s wrong (in his Christian thinking) to play the blues, but how God would understand if it helps you get by. (I’ve lived that same crisis of conscience; my reviewing blues records should tell you which argument won out.) Fair warning: some of the stories get creatively R-rated.
The Gospel volume runs the gamut from The Southland Hummingbirds to the Clarksdale Church of God in Christ singing “Glory, Glory (Lay My Burden Down).” It’s a fairly standard congregational song propelled by handclaps, tambourine, piano, and electric guitar, but it turns into an eight-minute jam, the clapping patterns becoming more complex, the guitar taking off on solo lines, and the singers losing themselves in shouts, moans, and tears of joy. Tracks 1 and 10 are switched from what the book and sleeve say, but I like having “My Mother’s on That Train,” with its eerie onomatopoeia, as the opener.
One of the most fascinating short films on the DVD included with Voices of Mississippi is of Othar “Otha” Turner, one of the last practitioners of the fife-and-drum blues. It’s striking to hear blues and spirituals played on the wild, thin-toned fife. That sound belongs outside in the hills and mountains rather than in close quarters, where a guitar and harmonica flourish. Fannie Bell Chapman: Gospel Singer is a portrait of a family who would go from house to house, singing and holding healing ceremonies and mixing voodoo elements with the glossolalia and miracles of Charismatic Christianity. Green Valley Grandparents is a touching tribute to community elders who visited and played with special-needs children in a local institution, and to the children, who gained new skills and more independence as a result. Hush Hoggies Hush was right down my alley: four minutes of farmer Tom Johnson and the praying pigs he had trained. I’ve used this phrase from a Tennessee preacher before, but Dust-to-Digital epitomizes it: “We’ll treat you so many different ways, you’re bound to like one.”
The Four Women Artists films open with Eudora Welty explaining storytelling’s place in Southern culture. In the three films that followed, I had trouble settling into the slow pace and the everyday details the quilter, needleworker, and painter talked about. They did remind me of a world, however, where visions and dreams direct people’s life and art. The fundamentalism of my youth pushed the ideal of an experiential, ineffable, personal relationship with God, but rigid doctrine and an anti-Charismatic bent shooed away anything too mystical. Dreams were skeptically viewed as avenues where the devil could draw us away from objective Bible truth. Even post-fundamentalism, I don’t have these experiences, but I often wonder what they would be like, and I wonder if people I grew up with had them but were afraid to speak of them. I don’t usually get this personal in reviews, but one of the purposes of art is to question or change the viewpoints of the observer, and Dust-to-Digital and these artists have succeeded.
Various Artists: Rawhead & Bloodybones. 2 CDs.
The children on Rawhead & Bloodybones recount grim stories of death and dismemberment; the title tale goes back to the 1500s, at least. Folklorist Leonard Ward Roberts taped the stories in the late 1940s and early 1950s in Dryhill (AKA Hell for Certain), Kentucky, and published them in South from Hell-fer-Sartin: Kentucky Mountain Folk Tales. The area’s isolation (I’ve been there several times) is one reason Roberts went there, back in the “hollers” where it’s so dark they have to pipe in sunlight. The background music—old-timey fiddle and banjo overlayed with post-minimalist Rhodes piano, pitched percussion, and trumpet—tends to obscure the speaking, sad to say. Berea College has many of Roberts’s field recordings on its Sound Archives website under the Leonard Roberts Papers link, but I wish they’d been included on a separate disc like the background music was.
Various Artists: Joe Bussard Presents: The Year of Jubilo—78 RPM Recordings of Songs from the Civil War. CD.
The Year of Jubilo, a collection of Civil War-era songs, introduces us to the eccentric, wonderfully opinionated Joe Bussard and his treasure trove of old-time music on 78s. Dust-to-Digital released a documentary about him that is now out of print, but another short film, King of Record Collectors, is on YouTube. Kevin Fontenot’s essay posits that Civil War veterans’ embrace of fiddle music helped legitimize fiddling—often viewed as sinful—and bring respectability to country music. There’s playing by Civil War veterans Captain M.J. Bonner and Henry C. Gilliland. The latter formed the Old Fiddlers’ Association of Texas in 1901 and recorded the first country music record (“Arkansaw Traveler” and “Turkey in the Straw”) five years before the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers would record for Ralph Peel. Bussard himself plays a mandolin on “Rebels Hornpipe.” “Dixie” is presented instrumentally except for one sung chorus, and slavery’s victims are given voice in a solid handful of tunes.
Lonnie Holley: Just Before Music. CD.
Lonnie Holley’s Just Before Music was recorded for Dust-to-Digital in 2010 and 2011; Holley is a self-taught found-object artist, and the album consists of his pentatonic, free-form musings over New Age-y keyboard loops and effects. “Mama’s Little Baby” is poignant and effective, journeying from the cotton fields to the industrial fields, from plants to plants. I suggest taking the album in bits, otherwise the sameness becomes wearying.
Various Artists: The Art of Field Recording, Volume 1 (Sampler). CD.
The Art of Field Recording, Volume 1 is out of print, but you can still get a sampler CD from it. Back to back we get Buell Kazee’s frailing banjo with nearly bi-tonal harmonies, bittersweet chords, and sudden dynamic shifts in Eddie Bowles’ “Blues,” Ralph Sheckel’s German-and-English comedy ballad, and “12th Street Rag” on fiddle and banjo. There’s a Mexican Revolution song recorded in Michigan, the inevitable Sacred Harp number (I can take about 30 seconds of coarse, punch-every-note Sacred Harp singing before I want to go positively profane on it), and a Danish accordion tune. So, it’s not all rustic blues and old-time country.
Various Artists: Where Will You Be Christmas Day? CD.
Penicillin might be the perfect gift for the person who has everything, but Where Will You Be Christmas Day? is the cure-all for the follies and excesses of Christmastide. You’ll recognize Lead Belly, Bessie Smith, and Lightnin’ Hopkins, but the Caribbean songs (by Lord Executor and Lord Beginner), Ukrainian fiddling, Italian bagpipers, and the astonishingly warm 1929 jazz of McKinney’s Cotton Pickers stand out.
Washington Phillips: Washington Phillips and his Manzarene Dreams. CD, 76-page book.
Texas native Washington Phillips laid down 18 gospel songs for Frank B. Walker from Columbia in the late 1920s. Sixteen survive, the only record of the strange homemade instrument he called the manzarene, possibly fabricobbled out of a celestaphone and a phonoharp. It sounds sweet like a zither, and Phillips could handle a bass line, accompaniment fills, and counter-melodies all while he sang. I used to have Yazoo’s 1991 album of Wash’s complete 78s, but upgrading to Dust-to-Digital’s deluxe release with superior transfers and Michael Corcoran’s new research was absolutely worth it.
Pictures of Sound: One Thousand Years of Educed Audio: 980–1980. CD, 144-page book.
For my birthday this year, I treated myself to Pictures of Sound: One Thousand Years of Educed Audio: 980-1980, in which Patrick Feaster, historian of recorded sound, creates audio recordings from barrel-organ construction manuals, patent applications, visual representations of electromagnetic waves from lightning strikes, and manuscripts from the Middle Ages. It’s not for casual listening, but for a few heady hours spent with Feaster’s gilt-edged companion book in hand.
Various Artists: How Low Can You Go? Anthology of the String Bass (1925-1941). 3 CDs, 96 page book.
In How Low Can You Go? Anthology of the String Bass, the emphasis is on early jazz, something I usually like when I hear but don’t really seek out, so I was surprised to find I flat-out enjoyed this set the most. The bass is shown off as a particularly agile team player. Country fans will appreciate hearing Jimmie Rodgers’ “Waiting for a Train” with the bass part unattenuated. There’s some terrific harmonica work from Bobbie Leecan’s Need-More Band and even a solo on the chimes (with hand-muting) from Duke Ellington’s band. Disc 2 gets further afield with trips to Trinidad, Texas, and Hawaii. William Manuel (Bill) Johnson is honored for his pioneering contributions to ragtime and jazz. One of his groups, the Dixie Four, recorded in 1928, but their ripping piano solos and unusually strong backbeat sound presciently like rock ’n’ roll.
Various Artists: Ola Belle Reed and Southern Mountain Music on the Mason-Dixon Line. 2 CDs, 256-page book.
Ola Belle Reed and Southern Mountain Music on the Mason-Dixon Line is about one of America’s greatest singers and writers of folk and country music. Author Henry Glassie met Ola Belle in January, 1966; she had been playing bluegrass for years in the house band for music parks in Maryland and Pennsylvania, but her friendship with Glassie nudged her back toward her mountain-music roots. She gained some fame and awards in the second half of her life, and her song “High on a Mountain” became a bluegrass standard. Disc 1 has several songs Glassie recorded in 1966 and 1967, showing off her haunting voice and unique banjo styles. Disc 2 contains 34 tracks from her family and associated musician friends, all worthwhile, even if they don’t quite have her yin and yang of starkness and warmth. The book is perceptively written, perfect for any fan of bluegrass or early country music.
Macel Ely II: Ain’t No Grave: The Life and Legacy of Claude Ely. 360-page hardback book with CD.
Ain’t No Grave: The Life and Legacy of Claude Ely is about the Pentecostal Holiness evangelist best known for “Ain’t No Grave (Gonna Hold My Body Down),” which he wrote at 12 after recovering from tuberculosis. On the wild gospel recordings he made for King Records, he “thrashed the guitar in a murderous frenzy and sang as uninhibitedly as any white man ever sang.” Elvis, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash took note. After a stint in the military and some time in the coal mines, he dedicated his life to preaching, traveling in several Southern and Midwestern states. His great-nephew, Macel Ely II, based the biography on hours and hours of interviews with people who knew him or had heard him sing and preach. It approaches hagiography; the people interviewed had such fond memories of him that there’s nary a critical word spoken. My dad was a fundamentalist Baptist pastor, so I know the problems, church splits, and personality conflicts preachers deal with (and cause!) in our very similar, very intense branches of American Christianity, but there’s no mention of such things.
Ely’s companion disc has no singing from Ely himself: you’ll need Satan Get Back! on Ace Records for that. It does have a sermon, titled “Lingering Could Be Your Doom.” Like so many urgent calls to repentance (and I’ve heard thousands of them), there’s precious little about what Jesus did and a lot about what the preacher’s done and everything you ought to be doing. Being sold out for God mostly amounted to living up to certain “standards” like dressing modestly and avoiding alcohol and tobacco. Loving your enemies is rarely on the radar, nor is a crucified and risen Christ (see I Corinthians 2:1–5). In a sense, “Lingering” is a pitch-perfect introduction to typical fundamentalist preaching. Many people came to God through Ely’s sermons, and I respect the Pentecostal Holiness movement for being welcoming to minorities and to women preachers, but their music is what will stay with most of us.
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