Goodbye Babylon



As near as you will ever get, you are inside the music

Unlike other anthologies of so-called “old-time” music– Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music readily comes to mind as a valid choice of comparison– Babylon strikes a deified note of distinction based upon its unique organization and central theme. Whereas other collections of folk and gospel music may call upon the spirit to simply shine down upon the globe, Goodbye dually keeps one eye at all times on the music and the other toward the sky, never once forgetting that there’s both reason beyond reason and sight beyond sight.

Organized not by the Elements of the destitute race– as is Harry Smith’s previously mentioned collection– but into the multivariant portions of a typical sermon, the corpus of the collection lends itself to the more introspective and contemplative thoughts of the typical listener: An introduction encompassing all themes, an illustration of God’s justice in the Johnson Family Singers’ “Deliverance Will Come”, the separation of the wheat from the tares in Rev. Sister Mary Nelson’s New Testament-tinged glimpse of the Lord’s Salvation, “Judgment”, and a final plea to all those who still remain without true sight in the oddly ironic final disc, Goodbye, Babylon.

Add to this the unexpectedly non-preachy sixth disc of early 20th-Century gospel sermons– with such imaginatively titled works as “Black Diamond Express to Hell (Pt. I & II)” by the Rev. A.W. Nix and “Death Might Be Your Santa Claus” by the progenitor of the broadcast sermon, Rev. J.M. Gates– and you have a masterpiece so intimately connected to the dogged human spirit that it’s difficult to imagine a time when such a thread was not woven between Man and his God.

Not only inside it, you are it; your body is no longer your shape and substance, it is the shape and substance of the music.

More astounding than the sheer volume of songs collected within the Babylon box is the breadth of performers and performances that are covered and condensed into such a strongly supported theme. Culled from the catalogue of such former record company giants as Victor, Okeh, Vocalion and more, the disc brazenly tramples outdated notions of segregated “Race Music” (mainly blues and gospel) and “Old Familiar Tunes” (country, white gospel, and bluegrass) that dominated the commerce of music production at the time.

So successful is the set in this amalgamation that it’s often difficult to imagine a time when former-“Mole in the Ground” performer Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “Dry Bones” could not be found a stone’s throw distance from Skip James’ “Jesus Is a Mighty Good Leader” or Jimpson’s spiritual-like prison round of “No More, My Lord”.

Further evidence of implied ethnic harmony can be heard in the gentle juxtaposition of the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet’s impressive and oft-covered “Rock My Soul” sliding over the back of an imagined glissando into the markedly less-pigmented “There’s a Light Lit Up in Galilee” by Ernest V. Stoneman’s Dixie Mountaineers. A similar effect can also be heard between the laid-back “Christ Arose” by the Sheffield Quartet, and one of the true musical Rosetta Stones of the collection, the blues and gospel-inspired Thomas A. Dorsey achievement “If You See My Saviour”, a piano-driven number that doesn’t pave the road for the later R&B; tinged classics of artists such as Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Little Richard, but most assuredly clears a path.

Everything that is is holy.

A valid criticism of Goodbye, Babylon lies ultimately in its prodigious claim of comprehensive and empiric inclusion of all the music that may fall under such a description as “sacred.” To this claim, one might broach the subject of hypothesizing such foreign conceits as “other religions” to the stalwart and preoccupied Christian, or perhaps simply focus upon the idea that there is more to the American Christian mindset than what may be found south of the Mason-Dixon Line and east of the Mississippi. Insofar as the anthology does collect moments of the inspired Southern liturgical oratory, though, Dust-To-Digital has the rather novel boon of a true masterwork of sacred music on its hands.

Ultimately, to deny that this collection of doleful musings and backwood hollers is anything less than heavenly is to deny whatever higher being in which one may or may not believe. Add to this the fact that the label has created one of possibly five beautiful and lasting works of the digital media as an artifact, and you have a justifiably immortal assortment of both the divine and human condition– a call that might finally answer the lingering prompt, “Sing unto the Lord, all the earth; shew forth from day to day His salvation” (I Chronicles 16:23).

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