CD Selections for the Solstice Season -- Separating the Wheat from the Tares


I know what I want for the solstice season: the latest offering from the songcatchers and folklorists Art and Margo Rosenbaum, The Art of Field Recording, Vol. I, their latest 4-CD set (to be followed by Vol. II, according to the advertising).

Here is Ben Raitliff’s description, from Friday’s New York Times:


Every day the past of American music has a better future. Four years ago the Dust to Digital label put out “Goodbye, Babylon,” which some called the greatest anthology of American gospel music ever assembled. Now the label, based in Atlanta, has produced “The Art of Field Recording, Vol. 1,” four extraordinary discs culled from tapes recorded by Art Rosenbaum, a professor of art at the University of Georgia who has pursued musicology as a 50-year sideline. Obviously it isn’t definitive; it’s just one man’s work. But it’s a gold mine, an ark. There are string bands, acoustic blues, ring shouts, “hambone” chants, Sacred Harp and Georgia Sea Island singing, the “lined-out” hymnody of Southern churches, unaccompanied fiddlers and banjoists and jew’s-harpists. A great deal of it is spooky and blindingly beautiful, and the set owes its power to Mr. Rosenbaum’s judicious ear. Almost all of these performers, often recorded in their homes or churches — including members of the W. B. Thomas Gospel Chorus, above — transcend the clichés of their style. There will be more: Volume 2 arrives next year. (Dust to Digital. Four CDs. $69.98.) BEN RATLIFF

This new boxed set comes to us courtesy of the great outfit Dust-to-Digital, which previously put out my all-time favorite CD compilation of religiously-themed music. I’ve blogged before about Goodbye Babylon, a 5-CD compilation of great folk religious music from the early 1900s through the 1940s, plus one full CD set of 25 recorded sermons, mostly from the 1920s and 1930s. It’s classic from beginning to end, but for me the true find was the 1937 recording of Mahalia Jackson’s “God’s Gonna Separate the Wheat from the Tares.” This was one of four recordings the young Jackson made, which have largely been forgotten and eclipsed by the classic sides Jackson cut later (after World War Two) when her career (and that of gospel music as a whole) as a gospel singer took off. But for my money, the 1937 side from Goodbye Babylon was a revelation, with a power that hit me with the force of my first playing of Charlie Parker's "Cherokee," or Bruce Springsteen's "Incident on 57th Street." Like those recordings, the 1937 side from Goodbye Babylon captures Mahalia in her first flowering of talent, like seeing a lily first burst from its pod.

I’m expecting (hoping for) more of the same from the forthcoming Art of the Field Recording CDs. Since these are not formerly commercially recorded 78s now collected on compilation discs, but instead the fruit of the Rosenbaum's labor, it's harder to know just what to expect, but I can't wait to hear.

The first volume appears to be divided by genre, one per CD: “Survey,” “Blues,” “Religious,” “Instrumental and Dance.” Of course, the genres weren’t so readily distinguishable in earlier eras, with bluesmen such as Charley Patton recording under names such as “Elder J. J. Hadley,” in that case putting down the memorable two-part “Prayer of Death," which for me stands on a par with Blind Willie Johnson's haunting query, "What is the Soul of Man?" (the link takes you to Wim Wenders's contribution to the seven-part series on "The Blues" put together by Martin Scorcese a few years ago -- a bit too artsy for its own good, maybe, but it makes effective use of my favorite Blind Willie release).

So much of this music explores darkness, evil, and struggle, and is deeply shot through with almost medieval notions of God and the Devil battling it out on earth. Much southern religious history recently (including my own) has been about the way southern denominations propagated progressive visions of a New South, full of upright citizens who worked hard and behaved right at church (translation: no shouting, and no visionary conversions). Some have suggested that this conflict between this vision and that of the religious worldview of many rural southerners, white and black, defined the making of religious culture in the post-Civil War South.

But much religious history remains bound by printed sources and thus stays focused on what religious organizations and leaders said and did. That's fine up to a point, of course, but documents such as these CDs provide us a way out of a too-slavish devotion to the printed record, and a different way for historians to access religious experience in American history.

The dissertation from John Hayes just completed at the University of Georgia is the best exploration that I know about of the entire religious universe of the rural South through the first half of the twentieth century: “Hard, Hard, Religion: The World of Johnny Cash” (that’s probably not exactly the right title, so someone from UGA, please send me the final correct title). Hayes uses Cash, the man in black, as a take-off point to capture the religious mentalite of rural and small-town southerners, those who were left out of bourgeois denominational visions of the “New South," and those who expressed views of the world far more profound than in a thousand Moody-Sankey hymns combined. John, if you're out there, feel free to comment further for our blog readers!

These CDs capture that world in sound, and make up some of the most important documents in American religious history.

The full listing of tracks on the 4 CDs may be found here. With a compilation that begins with Sister Fleeta Mitchell and Rev. Willie Mae Eberhart's "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down," you can't really go wrong. Be blessed.


DEG said…
John's my good buddy and just down the hall from me. I'll let him know that you gave him a shout-out, and I'll see if I can get him away from organic farming long enough to post about his work.
Anonymous said…
Thanks, Paul.
The working title of the dissertation was the rather elusive "Johnny the Revelator." I changed it in the final version to the more descriptive and academic "Hard, Hard Religion: Faith and Class in the New South." A basic premise of the dissertation is that the recurring waves of outsiders looking south with fascination at a strange cultural fusion of poverty, religion, and music, have been on to something--something that remains in the shadows of the historiography. Folkloric engagements with this regional subculture have, it seems to me, contained three notable insights: 1) that the subculture was marked by the "racial interchange" you have sketched in Freedom's Coming, an interchange whose existence challenges what we think we know about the Jim Crow South 2) that the "folk"--primarily poor rural southerners, white and black--forged a complicated sensibility, precisely in their experience of poverty and social marginality, and that that sensibility speaks to modern and perhaps postmodern "blues" 3) that the subculture was almost entirely oral, perpertuated through story, sermon, and most lastingly, song. I've tried to run with those insights, recover that subculture for full display, and firmly contextualize it in the New South era.

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