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V/A - Take Me to the Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography 1890-1950

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Artist: V/A

Album: Take Me to the Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography 1890-1950

Label: Dust-to-Digital

Review date: Jun. 4, 2009

The sea change in music consumption from public event to private pastime colors each of the selections on Dust-to-Digital’s new collection, Take Me To the Water. What was essentially community expression at its point of creation in the early parts of the 20th century becomes in the 21st a largely private listening experience shorn from its communal moorings. Even with the potential for housing in countless portable mp3 players or disseminated globally over the web, the odds of anyone hearing this stuff piped through mushroom speakers at the local outlet mall remain next to nil. An element of melancholy accompanies this endgame of isolation, but it’s one leavened by the passion and candor of performances that endure as potent tokens of time and place.

Topical focus for the set remains relatively narrow, hinging on the cultural and religious particulars of Immersion Baptism across various faiths. Even so, there’s a striking amount of stylistic diversity in the selections. A capella choirs alternate with old-timey string bands. Sermons intersperse with songs. Dock Walsh’s chiming slide banjo reconditions “Bathe In That Beautiful Pool” as a slow waltz. There’s even a slice of proto-Western swing in Billy Boyd and His Cowboy Ramblers’ gently mocking novelty piece “Sister Lucy Lee.” Washington Phillips’ “Denomination Blues, part 1” works well as a primer for immersion in practice. The lilting strains of his zither-like dolceola bracket a sung summary of the variances in immersion protocols while asserting a common denominator in the refrain, “But you better have Jesus, I tell you that’s all.” Essayist Luc Sante limns a far more detailed taxonomy of faith-specific traits and, coupled with the content of the sermons themselves, a layperson’s understanding is easily earned.

Twenty-five selections include multiple versions of several songs that underscore the edifying differences between them. “Wade in the Water” appears in four iterations ranging from the rough-hewn harmonies of the Empire Jubilee Quartet to the more reverential approach adopted by the Belmont Silvertone Jubilee Singers. Mose Mason, an obscure songster whose repertoire straddled secular and sacred fare, fashions a take on “Go Wash In the Beautiful Stream,” his simple guitar accompaniment framing loosely recited scripture. The Southern Wonders Quartet takes another stab at the song, their lush barbershop harmonies and vocal effects contrasting with the more quotidian cast of Mason’s version. Heavy surface static clouds the Reverend R.M. Massey’s impassioned queries to Baptismal candidates in his congregation on “Old Time Baptism, parts 1 & 2,” but the gist of his oratory comes through. Frank Jenkins’ ringing claw hammer banjo instrumental “Baptist Shout” communicates comparable devotion through highly divergent sound.

The set sits comfortably apart from past compilations not only in its topical concentration but also in the gorgeous visual component of a hardbound book containing 75 sepia photographs of immersion events collected over the years by Jim Linderman, a character who seems the perfect subject for a Harvey Pekar comic. Linderman treats collecting like a calling, and his finds have a resulting air of authority, stunning in their capture of bygone picturesque moments. From the wraparound jacket cover forward, the community complexity and spirit at the heart of baptismal occasions is on bold display. Annotations are periodically hand-etched into the imagery, but most are devoid of definitive provenance. There’s tranquility to many of the compositions, even those documenting large assemblies of participants. The placidity of the water in places reflects the congregants with a clarity that almost seems doctored in a few of the photos. Elsewhere, the surfaces take on milky hues, unconsciously suggesting the presence of shed sin mixed with the mud displaced by the baptized’s feet.

Faith isn’t a requisite for finding the power in either the visual or aural representations of this tradition. The transportive properties are immediate and lasting.

By Derek Taylor

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