shytone  books  music  essays  home  exploratories  new this month

music reviews

Negro Religious Field Recordings 1934-42 (Document)

Don’t like gospel, eh?

Fine, you still need this, though...but, lest you also be thinking that this sounds far too scholarly for your stereo, just let me - briefly - run through the highpoints of this outstanding release:

1/- the three most awesomely powerful recordings of neo-African music ever made in the USA. That is, the 1934 ring shouts by Austin Coleman & group, which're mentioned in every detailed discussion of the roots of African-American music. And they're brilliant! Pounding feet, vocal masking, polyrhythms & heterophony. Turn it up & you are guaranteed to frighten the neighbors. This, I promise you…

2/- the best examples of deep Southern roots Pentecostal rhythmic interplay you'll ever find. In particular, you've got the Church of God in Christ - complete w/thee funkiest acoustic rhythm guitarist you'll ever hear. Despite the fact that he seems to be playing the ancestor of all those fucked-up, stove in & just plain rooted old guitars that feature so prominently in all blues biographies - just after they finish w/the cigar boxes - this unnamed genius is one of the purest masters of rhythm I've ever heard…And then, if that wasn't enough, there's the raucous stomping and radically archaic jazz of Rev. McGhee's bunch from just down the road.

3/- Not to mention Bozie Sturdivant. Part falsetto angel, part strained & growling testifier - and all passion - his [definitive] version of “Ain't No Grave Can Hold My Body Down” has been legendary in gospel circles since it first came out in the late forties. And it can still raise the dead…

I've carefully eschewed hyperbole here.

Because, these performances are, quite simply, that good. And the rest isn't much weaker. From the grassroots quartet stuff of the Four Stars & the Union Jubilee Quartet, to Junior Turner Johnson's aching solo vocal/harmonica improvisations, there's not a weak track here.

And that's even more remarkable when compared to the unstructured group black religious recordings made in the twenties. Because - w/a few glorious exceptions - they just don't compare. Whilst Blind Willie Johnson [and several of the other street performers] can still tear down anyone's building, the bulk of black church recordings from the 20s just fail to connect w/modern ears. Not so with this stuff. Miss it, and you may just imperil your very soul…

John Henry Calvinist