Sacred and Profane 

"American Primitive" compilation of pre-war gospel released

"American Primitive" compilation of pre-war gospel released

Because no one encounters God face-to-face, good theology necessarily begins with an emphatic “no,” with those things that we don’t know and, therefore, can’t say about God. As such, all attempts to elucidate the content of the divine-human relationship rely on symbol and metaphor—on indirection.

In Protestant circles, nowhere is this imagery richer or more vivid than in black churches, where the truths expressed in worship extend well beyond the literal meanings of the deacon’s prayer or the preacher’s sermon. The same is true of black gospel music. As African American theologian James Cone notes, “truth is also disclosed in the movement of the language and the passion created when a song is sung in the right pitch and tonal quality.... The moan, the shout, and the rhythmic bodily responses to prayer, song, and sermon are artistic projections of the pain and joy experienced in the struggle of freedom.”

Rife as they are with unearthly groans and ecstatic call-and-response passages, the sanctified blues on American Primitive Vol. I: Raw Pre-War Gospel (1926-1936) (Revenant) certainly bear Cone out. From Eddie Head’s despairing “Down on Me” to Blind Roosevelt Graves’ triumphant “Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind on Jesus),” the performances collected here give voice to myriad aspects of the African American struggle for historical and spiritual liberation. Yet for all their religious content, these 26 sides aren’t exactly church music. Except for one Library of Congress field recording, all are commercial recordings made by itinerant musicians and street singers, several of them wolves in sheep’s clothing. Legendary bluesman and sinner Charley Patton, for example, appears under the pseudonym Elder J.J. Hadley.

Still, the “false witness” of Patton and other performers on the Revenant compilation hardly makes their contributions less inspired. Listening 60-70 years on, the motives of these singers and their record companies couldn’t seem more irrelevant. The way Austin Coleman and William Smith torture every syllable they utter, or the way patches of melisma uplift the melodic lines of Elder Otis Jones’ “Holy Mountain,” testifies to an enthusiasm rooted in a power deeper than words or logic. Whether sanctioned by the church or not, these artists express a profound desire for temporal and eternal transcendence. Most sound as if they experienced this freedom, if only momentarily, while in the throes of their strange, mesmerizing music.

Roughly speaking, the blues represented here is of two varieties—the brooding, country stylings of Patton, Bukka White, and Blind Willie Davis on the one hand, and the hot, syncopated rhythms of Blind Joe Taggart and the Rev. Edward Clayborn on the other. Several selections in the latter category even recall the dance tunes of such black string bands as the Mississippi Sheiks. But whether it’s a solitary blues singer echoing his vocals with crying bottleneck guitar, or street-corner shouters accompanying themselves with spoons or tambourines, all of the performances here exhibit such centuries-old African musical devices as call-and-response patterns, coarse timbres, and vocal slurs.

By virtue of its scope and depth alone, the Revenant collection is a first-rate document of prewar country blues. Indeed, as befits a label with a name that conjures apparitions, the inclusion of such phantoms as Davis and Graves qualifies as a revelation. Still, given the obscurity of most of the singers on the anthology, the real story here, to borrow a notion from pop critic Greil Marcus, lies in the secret history that these men and women convey. Many of them were destitute and disabled during their lifetimes. But rather than vanishing into the ether, these musicians remain very much alive through the three-minute traces of faith and resiliency that they left behind. And the very survival of their recordings further stands as a judgment against the society that consigned them to its margins.

Ironically enough, this same society continues to invoke these musicians’ power and presence through its cultural and religious institutions. In various guises, many of these songs—“Honey in the Rock,” “Lord I’m the True Vine,” “You’re Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond”—have shaped the worship life of churchgoers around the nation. Yet perhaps less apparent is the mark they’ve left on the vast storehouse of American popular music, whether blues, R&B, rock ’n’ roll, or soul.

Witness how the quicksilver melismas of the female singers on Otis Jones’ “Holy Mountain” foreshadow those of gospel legend Clara Ward and her famous protégé, Aretha Franklin. Or how Blind Mamie Forehand’s performance on “Honey in the Rock” presaged Janis Joplin’s wailing vocal style even as Eddie Head’s “Down on Me” resurfaced 37 years later in a Joplin-arranged recording by Big Brother & the Holding Company. And on “Good Lord (Run Old Jeremiah),” Austin Coleman sounds as possessed as James Brown looking for the next bridge—maybe more so—while the group vocals on a half-dozen other numbers here doubtless inspired the incantatory choruses of Funkadelic’s early-’70s recordings. Among others, this list could also include references to the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet and to Jimmy Page’s “dirty” guitar tones.

Revenant’s compilation is, of course, but one source among many that documents the antecedents that gave birth to rock and soul. Yet even as only part of the story, the indelible music made by the phantoms on this record affords listeners a shock of recognition that the oft-reissued material of more well-known artists no longer can.

Revenant founder John Fahey concludes his liner notes by raising the possibility that the impetus for this music was more diabolical than divine. “Underneath it all,” he writes, “I hear pan pipes tooting and a cloven hoof beating time.” Whether fired by the Holy Spirit or under the spell of Mr. Johnson’s devil, the creators of these sides indeed sound as if they tapped into some otherworldly power. In the process, they also achieved a certain immortality, although not necessarily their eternal rest.

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