Rock and Roll Sermon; or, the Raw and the Cooked

Paul Harvey

One summer evening in 1992, I spent an evening hanging out at the Corner Grocery (I think it was called) in Oxford, Mississippi. I can’t remember what got me there, and there were just a few people present, sucking down beverages to fend off the stifling heat, but during the evening a solo guitarist set up and began playing. At first I paid just intermittent attention, but as the evening progressed I found myself hypnotized by his solo version of hard-driving, rhythmically intense blues of a kind I had never heard before (later, his son joined him on drums, and someone else played bass, not always in tune but full of enthusiasm –“TUNE THE BASS!” another patron kept yelling at the stage, reminding me of when I saw the great jazz singer Betty Carter start pounding on the piano of her accompanist in an angry show of what tempo she was wanting in the middle of a particular number). By the end of the evening, I was exhilarated. Another younger fellow from Poland happened to be sitting nearby, and I asked him what I thought. “The raw and the cooked," he said. He preferred the “cooked,” blues with more melody and studied technique, but as long as I was in Mississippi I figured it was a good time to eat the raw, blues tartare.

The guitarist was from the Clarksdale area, not too far away, and he introduced himself as R. L. Burnside. The name meant nothing to me then; little did I know that during these late years of his life he was about to go from being a local working man on a meteoric rise to cult figure status among younger blues-seeking hipsters, thanks in part to the efforts of Arhoolie Records and Fat Possum Records (the latter being the producer also of The Mountain by the Heartless Bastards, my current favorite rock-n-roll sermon about unfulfilled desire and our deep need for others to prop us up sometimes; thanks to the power of their lead singer's voice, they manage to make the cooked seem raw).

Some years after hearing him in Oxford, I walked by the House of Blues on Decatur Street in New Orleans, and saw that he was the headliner act that night. The show was already sold out – fine with me, I thought, for in 1992 I paid no cover and got a whole evening of music from him, just at the cost of a beer (or two, or five, or whatever it was).For once in my life, I didn't arrive at the party after all the cool people had left.

The Polish guy’s response has never left me, for some reason, and I often think of it when assessing my responses to musical CDs that come my way. And I was thinking of it again after blogging recently about the just-released CD and DVD set How Sweet It Was: The Sights and Sounds of Gospel's Golden Age. This CD compilation represents the best of “cooked” post-war gospel – with the astoundingly beautiful, sophisticated quartet harmonies, and subtle musical transformations throughout the songs. This is the cooked -- raw gospel processed through the voices of skilled performers with consummate technique, who produce great art in the process.

If Anthony Heilbut’s collection is the cooked, Fire in My Bones is the raw. From the website for this 3-CD collection:

The majority of this music has never been reissued on CD, or in any other form (most tracks were originally released on regional independent labels). Most post-WWII compilations of African-American gospel music naturally concentrate on the astounding quartet and solo vocalist sounds made during the music's Golden Age. Fire In My Bones attempts to address and collect more neglected sounds from that era (and on to the present day). Dozens of traditions are represented. Some go back hundreds of years while others seem to have been arrived at as soon as the tape began to roll. Field recordings and studio tracks are all mashed together, with solo performances next to congregational recordings, hellfire sermons next to afterlife laments. Leon Pinson, Elder & Sister Brinson & the Brinson Brothers, Grant & Ella, Straight Street Holiness Group, Theotis Taylor, Brother & Sister W B Grate -- these artists will now be just a little less obscure.

A few of the cuts here have been anthologized frequently, including Madam Ira Mae Littlejohn’s “Go Devil Go,” from 1947. But most of the cuts feature individual singers who put down very few tracks on record; in some cases, they made just one recording.

On the first disc, for example, is “Better Get Ready,” by the Elder Roma Wilson and family, from 1948. You have to love liner notes like this: “This recording of four interweaving harp players with Wilson’s vocals on top was made as a ‘test’ by a record shop owner in Detroit. It was then released as a Gotham label 78 without the awareness of Roma or his three young sons (who all backed up their father on harmonica on the record). Mike Seeger called it the ‘single most important selection by multi-harp players in existence.’”

The second cut, “rock and Roll Sermon,” features a hard-rocking Elder Beck from 1956 castigating rock and roll music with a musical fury that would put most rock and roll to shame. Another strange selection, "The Very Last Mile," by John Boswell and the True Sounding Boswellettes, features a "flanged-out" guitar that sounds like it should have been on the soundtrack for Pulp Fiction. Other cuts features fife-and drum corps, some women in a senior home singing some old standards, and lined-out congregational singing. All of the music dates from the post-World War II era, meaning it's much clearer and easier to hear (with much less fuzz and static to fight through) than the compilations of music from the 1920s-1930s such as the all-time classic anthology Goodbye Babylon.

The Village Voice has an excellent review of the compilation here; a brief taste:

As Fire in my Bones came together, the original intent—to thoroughly document and classify the fervent religious music lurking beyond the resplendent harmonies of the vocal quartets that typify gospel's Golden Age (which historically falls between the end of World War II and the rise of "rock 'n' roll")—was completely overwhelmed. Not only was there a lot of great music from that era, but it continued right on through the '60s and '70s and into the present age—the box goes as late as 2007. The set gives in abundance, beyond classification. The keening, traditional-blues slide guitar of Willie Mae Williams's "When the Sun Goes Down" stands alongside the nimble country shuffle of Reverend Lonnie Farris's "Peace in the Valley." Reverend Louis Overstreet's "Working on the Building" slowly turns into congregational ecstasy, while the reverberated stomp of the Abraham Brothers' "Spirit of the Lord" could pass for a garage-rock revival number without setting off any atheist alarms. And then there's "Rock 'n' Roll Sermon," which is too delicious to simply give away here.

So, by all means, eat the delicious haute cuisine offered for you in gospel compilations such as How Sweet It Was. But on some Tuesday night when your senses need some awakening, put on Fire in my Bones. It's the closest gospel equivalent to the evening with R. L. Burnside that I've found.

Addendum: Other short, fun reviews of the compilation are here, here, and here. An excerpt from the first one, which hits it exactly right:

Every unjustly maligned genre deserves a three-disc savior, and for modern gospel music—often considered the exclusive terrain of bright-eyed church choirs wrapped in matching robes, swaying on risers—the redeemer is Fire In My Bones, a collection of scrappy, distorted, burning good news.


Bland Whitley said…
Thanks for the stroll down memory lane, Paul. I lived in Oxford from '94 to '97 and caught R.L. Burnside and his even rawer Fat Possum labelmate Junior Kimbrough more times than I can recall (that's partly a product of my dissipated ways back then, but still), both at the relatively tony nightspots of Oxford (City Grocery is where you were) and at Kimbrough's juke joint in Chulahoma. What a unique and hypnotic style! Now, when I hear "cooked" blues, my only response is emotionless appreciation and a sudden desire to rifle through my cds for my copy of Burnside's "Too Bad Jim."

Popular Posts