Moaning the Gospel Blues: Folkways' “Music from the South” Series
Instead of the so-called "Golden Record," they should have just sent the entire Folkways catalogue up in that Voyager probe — even better, they should have sent an extra probe along, pimped out with a sweet hi-fi and a robot DJ eager to cue up every Folkways disc. What better way to show the breadth of human sound and experience?
And are you aware that eMusic has over 1400 titles from the Smithsonian/Folkways catalogue? Over 1400 Folkways albums! I know it's been said many times, but if Folkways is not the most judiciously democratic and thoroughly interesting label that's ever been launched, what is?
Of this veritable goldmine, the ten-volume Music from the South series makes me the happiest. I own half the series in the original vinyl versions, but as it was never officially issued on CD and the original 50-year-old LPs tend to be rather expensive when you can even find them, it's a complete treat to have them in bits and bytes, and living in my laptop.
The original liner notes state that the fieldwork on the project “sought to explore sources that would lead listeners back to the decades between the emancipation of the slaves in 1863 and 1900.” That particular time is of course a potentially rich and vastly undocumented era for vernacular music, from the end of slavery to the beginning of the recorded era. The roots of blues, gospel and jazz are somewhere back there; it's essentially the pre-history of modern music. “The collector, Frederick Ramsey, Jr.,” the notes continue, “endeavored to find old artists who had not yet been recorded, and with the single exception of Elder David Ross of New Orleans, he succeeded.” As projects of this sort go, these 1954 recordings come very close to ranking with Alan Lomax's 1959 Sounds of the South recordings on Atlantic. Lomax's own trek yielded some of the first recordings of fife and drum music as well as an unknown, middle-aged blues singer named Mississippi Fred McDowell.
In order to capture sounds and styles from that era, Ramsey predominantly recorded older people, aged between sixty and ninety-five. In a few cases (most of which are on Volume 8: Young Songsters) younger artists working in older modes — mostly moaning singing styles — were recorded. The recordings were made while traveling throughout Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, with grant money from the Guggenheim Foundation. Roughly two-fifths of the material consists of undiluted rural gospel at its most sincere and intense. The rest is delirious brass band music, field hollers, reels, rags, and all the kind of hokum and bawdy blues-ish songs that formed the repertoire of songsters back in the day.
This is classic field recording: Roosters, children at play, church congregations, passing automobiles and chirping birds can all be heard in the background, often clearest when the performer is just one or two people. Three full volumes of the Music from the South series (numbers 2, 3 and 4, plus six songs on other volumes) are devoted to an elderly singer who'd never been recorded before, the delightful Horace Sprott. He often gives lengthy and fascinating introductions to his songs, with information on where he first heard them and the like. If you do not get goose bumps listening to him sing “Steal Away Home to Jesus,” a song he learned from his mother, then it's a good time to check your pulse. Field recordings of any kind are often not “easy” listening, at least not at first. And that's not simply because of fidelity issues, or the way daily life has a way of intruding into the performances. When confronted with the sounds of a solo singer, particularly an untrained singer prone to moan “blue” notes, you basically have to face the singer full-on, as a person. It's a very intimate thing, listening to the naked sound of one human voice, and you have to be ready for it.
Much of the gospel songs on here are sung in a moaning style, one that relates to "lined-out" hymnody. Lining out is the practice of rapidly singing or stating the upcoming lines of a hymn for the congregation, by a song leader or preacher. Lead Belly is quoted as saying that this role was often performed by the “sisters in the Amen corner.” You can hear a lining hymn moaned by solo and group performers on Volume 7: Elder Songsters, where there are no less than three separate versions of the hymn on which Blind Willie Johnson based his infamous instrumental gospel blues piece “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.” My favorite version is sung by a woman named Mary Price, and if you listen closely you can hear her do both the lining part and then a deliciously melismatic moaning style of the same line.
The absolute highlight of the set is the Starlight Gospel Singers. Each of their nine songs start out in a moaning style similar to the lining and moaned hymns and hollers of their elders. What's amazing is the way they mix the then-contemporary wind ‘em up style of great mournful gospel quartets such as the Five Blind Boys and Highway QCs with the looser, more archaic moaning style. It's a wonderful collision of eras; I've never heard anything else quite like it. With the exception of an awesome but distorted recording of the group in concert made later, in 1982, and available on the Digital Library of Appalachia site, these are the only available recordings of the Starlight Gospel Singers. (More obscure titles from the Folkways catalog remain un-digitized, though presumably it's just a matter of time before everything is released. I personally can't wait for the release of Elder Charles Beck's super rare Urban Holiness Service album.)
Two other additions of exceptional quality are the near-complete recordings of the genial, New York City-based musique concrete/ collage artist/ contemporary sound ethnographer Tony Schwartz. A small fraction of Schwartz's recordings are of a religious nature, but his capturings of street evangelists and church services are wonderful, not to mention that his albums were compiled with such good will that they really do have a universal appeal. I also strongly recommend Nancy Dupree's 1969 album Ghetto Reality, essentially an inner city version of the Langley Schools Music Project, but with the kids writing their own songs rather than covering contemporary pop hits. The tributes to James Brown and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are brilliant, from the effective arrangements by Ms. Dupree to the absolute truthfulness of the lyrics: “Born in Augusta, Georgia — Jaaaames Brooown” in the former and “They muuuurderrred himmmm” in the latter.