(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Imagine, if you can, a gospel anthology without the song “Amazing Grace.” Or “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” or any number of other gospel songs that overexposure has robbed of their power.
I’ve been listening a lot lately to one of the most remarkable collections of gospel music that exists. Goodbye, Babylon is truly a box set in the strictest sense of the term. The six CDs and thick booklet of liner notes come in a handmade cedar box with a sliding top. The whole thing weighs more than two pounds. Genuine cotton bolls from the south are packed around the CDs. It is justifiably nominated for two Grammy awards at next month’s Grammy show and retails for just over a hundred dollars. And it’s well worth the price if you care at all about gospel music. And from what I sense these days, there is a growing interest in gospel.
Goodbye, Babylon was a labor of love by Atlanta music enthusiast Lance Ledbetter, who runs the tiny Dust-to-Digital record label and assembled the whole thing by hand. The title comes from a song of the same name recorded by Rev. T.T. Rose and Singers in 1930, which describes the fall of Babylon as punishment for its evil ways.
Many of these recordings are fairly obscure but were ironically preserved not by folklorists but by commercial record companies who wanted to make a buck and recorded a great deal of gospel cuts — albeit issued in small numbers — and did make money off the genre. “Where We’ll Never Grow Old” by Georgia’s Smith Sacred Singers sold almost 300,000 copies, although most religious releases were lucky to sell in the four figures — and not that many families had record players in those days.
Devoted in the main to Southern gospel songs, black and white spirituals and hymns recorded between about 1925 and 1950, the 160 cuts included here graphically depict the links between black and white church music of the time. Although some of the recordings were made in New York City, the majority were cut on location or in hotel sessions throughout the south. And they sound just that genuine.
Sacred harp singing, blues, country music, bluegrass, choir singing, family groups, quartet singing, holiness singing, oratory, string bands, New Orleans jazz bands, jump bands, sanctified jug bands — any method that the mind of man has devised to make a joyful noise unto the Lord is represented here. There is so much raw emotion stored in these recordings that I recommend against trying to listen to the whole thing at once — which I did last night. I was a tad reluctant to go to sleep after absorbing so many intense messages of heaven and hell.
Blind Lemon Jefferson is followed by J.E. Mainer’s Mountaineers, then by the Chuck Wagon Gang and then the Holy Ghost Sanctified Singers, then Washington Phillips and then the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet, then by Ernest V. Stoneman & His Dixie Mountaineers. Thomas Edison’s early recordings in 1928 capture some of the essence of Stoneman, a country pioneer who was eclipsed by the Carter Family (who also are represented here with such signature songs as “River of Jordan” and “Keep on the Sunny Side”). That kind of context shows to what extent black and white music were equally mingled in the church and in society.
One disc is devoted to eloquent and fiery black sermons, which were very popular on radio. The Rev. J.M. Gates of Atlanta preached many Christmas-themed sermons — not always themed as you might imagine, as well expressed in his famous “Death Might Be Your Santa Claus.” Equally famous was the Rev. A.W. Nix’s “Black Diamond Express to Hell.”
Thomas A. Dorsey, the gifted songwriter who wrote such hymns as “Peace in the Valley” and “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” first appears here in his debut gospel recording under his full name after working as Georgia Tom in the blues arena with Tampa Red and Ma Rainey. Such famed singers as gospel shouter Mahalia Jackson and blues legend Skip James nestle close to the prisoner known only as Jimpson, the one-man band known as Stovepipe No. 1, and the powerful street preacher and singer Sister O.M. Terrell.
Early radio broadcasts by the Louvin Brothers, Stanley Brothers, and Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys show their strong gospel influences. Hank Williams’ “I’ll Have a New Body” from his Health and Happiness Show radio program from 1949 has a vibrant, luminous quality missing from his later work. Then just on the verge of stardom, Williams was also just three years away from an early and tragic death that would end a tortured life. Throughout his short career, Williams devoted mush attention to gospel songs and in “New Body” sang, “I’ll have a new body/Praise the Lord, I’ll have a new life/No more pain, worry, sorrow in this wicked world of sin.” His intensity made it a great, listenable song.
As Dick Spottswood points out in his liner notes, Martin Luther almost 500 years ago told church songwriters “not to let the Devil keep all the good tunes.”