American Primitive, Volume 1

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by John M. Miller (Old Time Herald volume 6, number 6)
Various ArtistsAmerican Primitive Vol. 1 – Raw Pre-War Gospel (1926-36) Revenant 206      http://www.revenantrecords.com

This remarkable collection is one of the first releases to be put out on guitarist John Fahey’s new Revenant label. Everything about the project is exceptionally well done. The CD design/packaging is simple, strong and visually arresting. The booklet accompanying the CD includes photographs and two sets of notes-the first, by Gayle Dean Wardlow, who has done much of the most fruitful field research into the Country Blues in the past 30 years or more, provides background on the various singers and players on the CD; the second, by John Fahey, discusses in a brief, dense essay the nature of American Folk Music, the differences between Roman Catholicism and the various American strains of Protestantism, and how those differences are manifested in the religious music of American Protestants.

Fahey also provides very interesting commentary on the performances on the CD. Sound quality of the CD is quite good, considering that the majority of the tracks are taken from very rare 78s, and you get 77(!) minutes of music. Although it is not made explicitly clear in the title of the CD, all the music here is from the black American gospel tradition. (I hope Revenant is planning to do a companion re-issue of white country gospel music from the same period.)

The family groups on the CD take varied approaches to their music. Eddie Head and his family do songs with a strong, almost hillbilly kind of beat, in which the guitar, playing in C, manages to simultaneously play raggy sounding runs in the treble while maintaining a boom-chang rhythm in the bass. The family’s singing might best be described as “free unison” in style, where the lead is passed around and everyone joins on the chorus. I have always associated their song, “Lord, I’m the True Vine,” with Rev. Gary Davis. Rev. I. B. Ware and his wife and son do a couple of numbers in which they are accompanied by a bottleneck guitar played in open D. Their song, “You Better Quit Drinking Shine” might be more aptly titled by its response line, “God Don’t Like It I Know.”

The four songs by William & Versey Smith transport you to another time and place. While William sings lead and strums a guitar in open G, Versey plays intricate tambourine figures and joins in with sung/moaned interjections. It took me a while to figure out that Versey’s part is not harmony singing in the conventionally understood sense at all, but rather a stylized vocal riff which comments in an affirmative way on William’s lead singing. Put another way, she sings the same “harmony” part, no matter what the melody is to the song she is singing, changing only her words to accommodate the different songs. Something of the same approach is taken by Mrs. I.B. Ware on “You Better Quit Drinking Shine” and by one of the Head family on “Tryin’ to Get Home.” It is an amazing way to approach group singing and I’m sure the sound will stay with me.

There are a number of great vocal and guitar numbers on the CD. Charley Patton, who must certainly be the person least intimidated by a recording studio in history, does “Oh Death” (“Soon one morning, when Death comes in your room”) with his partner Bertha Lee, and working under the pseudonym Elder J. J. Hadley does a medley of “Take A Stand,” “I’ve Been ‘Buked and Scorned,” and “God’s Unchanging Hand.” Blind Willie Davis does his own version of “The Prodigal Son” as “I Believe I’ll Go Back Home,” and his bottleneck work in open D is a revelation. Rev. Edward Clayborn shows a very spiffy open G style on “This Time Another Year You May Be Gone.” Dennis Crumpton & Robert Summers do a bottleneck duet (!) on “Everybody Ought to Pray Sometime.”

Bo Weavil Jackson (who also recorded as Sam Butler) does a slamming version of “I’m On My Way to the Kingdom Land.” If I had to select my two favorite songs from the CD, I would choose Blind Mamie and A.C. Forehand doing “Honey in the Rock” and Roosevelt Graves and his brother Aaron doing “Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind Standing on Jesus).” Accompanied by slide guitar and bell, Mamie Forehand starts out “Honey in the Rock” so shyly you can barely catch the words-as she gets into it she projects more, but as she was singing so sweetly, I could feel my heart breaking.

“Woke Up This Morning” is about the happiest piece of music I have ever heard. Roosevelt Graves plays an amazingly original guitar part of tremendous rhythmic vitality, capoed up in open G, flat-picking (I think), and playing bass runs, melody, harmony and chords all at once. In addition to his guitar, though, you also get Roosevelt’s great lead singing, and his brother Aaron’s funky tambourine playing and sneakily rhythmic back-up singing. When I hear Aaron’s time, it makes me laugh out loud, because Roosevelt can’t lose him.

In addition to the songs I’ve already described, there are a host of other numbers which stand alone: Joe Taggart’s “Been Listening All The Day,” a vocal duet with fiddle and guitar in which the almost Asian sound of the fiddle bears some similarity to Gid Tanner’s on “Down on Tanner’s Farm”; Jaybird Coleman’s and Ollis Martin’s screaming harmonica duet on “I’m Gonna Cross that River of Jordan Some of These Days”; Luther Magby’s “Jesus Is Getting Us Ready For That Great Day” with harmonium and, I’m pretty sure, tap dancing; and Austin Coleman’s “Good Lord,” recorded by the Lomaxes in Louisiana in 1934, which sounds like it came straight from Africa.

If you enjoy religious music you would have to be crazy not to get this CD. Given the quality of the music offered here and the number of songs presented, it is a great bargain. I consider a few of the cuts to be in the “life-changing” category. How can you put a price on that?

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