Various - When I Reach That Heavenly Shore : Unearthly Black [Tompkins Square - 2014]
Here’s another archival tome of old blues, this time from Tompkins Square; a label who’ve put out several staggering albums of similar material. I’m reviewing a download version, but the package proper has three cds and a booklet. The booklet is perhaps less lavish than other projects I’ve seen, replacing any biographical details or commentary with a piece of scripture for each track; whilst this is neat and conceptually true, I must admit that half the attraction for me are the stories these albums resurrect and save - so in that respect, the booklet is disappointing.
The three cds give a glimpse into the range of black gospel song practice, as recorded between the years 1926-36; displaying the regional and stylistic variations to be found. The overall sound is, perhaps unsurprisingly, quite uniform: overwhelmingly vocal driven, with guitar accompaniment for the solo acts. However, many (if not the majority) of the tracks feature massed voices - whether of a “professional” bend, like the interlocking harmony lines of “You Gotta Live Your Religion Every Day” by Laurel (Mississippi) Fireman’s Quartette or the Fa Sol La Singers’ “Rejoicing On The Way”; or a more “raw” delivery: the raucous noise and jumping piano of “Everybody Will Be Happy Over There” by Elder Oscar Saunders & Congregation could easily pass for a drunken knees-up, albeit one directed by a preacher. Preachers play a strong role in the compilation, taking centre stage in several electrifying tracks. “The Devil Is A Fisherman”, by Rev. T.E. Weems, beautifully charts the slow crescendo that many of these pieces take; Weems starting off very formally and precisely, before building himself into a shrieking, hollering blues, around which other voices start up and encircle. In a similar vein, Rev. A. W. Nix bellows his gravelly vocal all over “Hiding Behind The Stuff”; whilst “Great Day Of His Wrath Has Come” (Rev. J.C. Burnett assisted by Sisters Lucille Smith & Fannie Cox) sounds suspiciously like a “staged” sermon in a recording studio - not that this diminishes Burnett’s power one iota! Moving away from this gruffness, “Heaven Belongs To You”, sung by the Primitive Baptist Choir of North Carolina, is a quite exquisite piece of vocal chant. Following a mesmeric, call and response pattern, the track has a melodic line somewhat detached from the rest of the compilation: if many of the tracks here strive for heaven, these singers sound like they’re already there. Theres’s a similar ecstasy to be found on Eddie Head & His Family’s “Lord I’m The True Vine” - an old favourite for these ears. Breaking the dominance of massed or group vocal tracks, there are various solo voiced pieces; often with more colourful instrumentation too. “Angels Rolled The Stone Away”, by Rev. D.C. Rice, has prominent mandolin, whilst Jubilee Gospel Team’s “Stations Will Be Changed” scoots along on accordion and guitar. The third cd opens with a track from the master of “colourful instrumentation”: Washington Phillips; no-one is really sure what exactly he played, but a possible answer is some kind of double dulcimer arrangement. Regardless, the results are always heaven-bound. Probably the stand-out traditional, “voice and guitar” blues is “I Shall Not Be Moved”, later on the same cd. Performed by Edward W. Clayborn (“The Guitar Evangelist”), its a strong, striding song of defiance against the Devil and worldly temptations. The compilation ends with another truly relentless sermon from Rev. A. W. Nix, ending perfectly with the word “amen”.
This is a good compilation, certainly; but I suggest it could have been better. It perhaps has less curatorial direction and guidance - vanity, even - than similar projects and is thus a little more difficult to digest. Where other compilations have divided cds by theme, or simply provided a wealth of background information, “When I Reach That Heavenly Shore…” merely presents the listener with a huge mass of tracks - its a tad unwieldy and unfriendly. The lack of text in the booklet, of course, encourages an appreciation of the tracks purely on sonic terms - this is often a good thing; but, for me, part of the power of hearing a song recorded nearly one hundred years ago, is its “foreign country” aspect: the window it gives you into a land and time very different to the present. This is why, as I said earlier, I enjoy the stories attached to the performers and songs: its an act of remembrance and celebration. In practice, this just means that you might have to “work” a little harder with this album, but it is worth it; there are some beautiful performances preserved hereMartin P