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V/A - Goodbye, Babylon

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Artist: V/A

Album: Goodbye, Babylon

Label: Dust-to-Digital

Review date: Apr. 16, 2004

The past 15 years have seen the loss of Harry Smith, John Fahey and Alan Lomax - three of the most important figures from the 20th century in preserving and documenting early American folk music. Fortunately, their legacies live on through the massive bodies of work they left behind and record labels like Fahey’s Revenant (which remains active), as well as through people like those at Dust To Digital, whom they influenced. A brand new label based in Atlanta, D2D enlisted the help of some of the same people who worked on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and the recent Charley Patton box set to create Goodbye, Babylon - the most definitive collection of early American gospel and religious songs to date.

Appropriately, the collection is lovingly packaged in a cedar box lined with cotton. There are six discs - five containing music and one disc of sermons, and a 200-page book with extensive historical and biographical notes (well worth the $100-plus price tag). The book and the overall collection is clearly inspired by Smith’s anthology, but the subject matter of the material unifies this set in a way that makes these items an even more enjoyable listening / reading experience.

Many listeners might be familiar with these songs. Having grown up in the South, where my father and grandfather preached in the United Methodist Church, I spent many a Sunday singing these songs out of a little brown hymnal - and a lot of these songs are still sung every Sunday in churches all across the country (“Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb?,” “I’ll be Satisfied,” “Standing in the Need of Prayer,” “Daniel in the Den of Lions,” etc.) Perhaps part of the purpose behind assembling this box set is to demonstrate the church’s role in helping to preserve these early folk songs.

The book contains text on each performer, like The Georgia Peach (a.k.a. Clara Hudman Gholston), who caused a social scandal in Atlanta when she married the Rev. T.T. Gholston shortly after the death of his ailing wife in 1930. The notes usually also list the church or religious group with which each artist was affiliated, as the majority of the artists here were also ministers or leaders of evangelical groups. There are tracks by some well-known artists active between the years of 1901-1960 (the period covered by Goodbye, Babylon), such as the Louvin Brothers, The Stanley Brothers, Blind Willie McTell, Flatt and Scruggs, Hank Williams, Mahalia Jackson, The Carter Family, etc.

On first listen, I found disc six, simply titled “Sermons,” to be the most striking. The sermons on this disc are probably unlike anything found at most neighborhood churches - except for denominations like the Southern Primitive Baptist, where this style of preaching is still preserved today. This disc documents African-American pastors only, some of whom achieved celebrity status for their passionate, sometimes sing-song delivery and an unending wealth of charisma. The disc opens with a sermon from Rev. J.M. Gates (who had the biggest African-American funeral in Atlanta before that of Martin Luther King, Jr.) titled “Getting’ Ready for Christmas Day.” The call-and-response style of his sermon, and of most others on this disc, is almost comical because the congregation interrupts him after almost every word:

Rev.: Ahhh, I want to give you a talk
Crowd: Yeah
Rev.: This morning
Crowd: Alright!
Rev.: from this subject
Crowd: Alright!
Rev.: Getting’ ready
Crowd: Getting’ ready!
Rev.: for Christmas
Crowd: Yes, sir!
Rev.: Day
Crowd: Yes, sir!
Rev.: The 25th
Crowd: Yeah
Rev.: Day
Crowd: Yeah
Rev.: of December
Crowd: December!
Rev.: You gettin’ ready!

The most startling sermon is so long it is divided up into two parts (in the liner notes we learn that he later recorded four more installments, not included here) - Rev. A.W. Nix’s “Black Diamond Express to Hell Pts. I & II.” could be seen as a companion piece to Dante’s Inferno. Nix describes a train ride into Hell, where each stop or station is for a different type of sinner. The entire sermon is delivered with incredible singing style, injected with such fervor that it could rival even the most famous of blues vocalists:

“FIRST STATION is Drunkardsville. Stop there and let all the drunkards get on board. I have a big crowd down there drinking, jumpsteady, some drinking moonshine, some drinking white mule and red horse. ALL YOU DRUNKARDS, you gotta go to Hell on the Black Diamond Train. The Black Diamond start off for Hell now. NEXT STATION is Liars Avenue.....”

I don’t intend to give the impression that Goodbye, Babylon is all fire and brimstone, because it’s not. The tone of the majority of the songs is decidedly uplifting - in fact, the tracks by the various sacred harp singing groups are some of the most joyous, carefree and pure music made before the Langley Schools Music Project record. You don’t have to be religious at all to enjoy this collection - the selection and mastering of the songs were all handled with great attention detail. The box set works on many different levels - viewed as a historic document alone, it is nothing short of monumental and a must-own for any fan of early American music.

By Daniel M. Gill

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