The Magazine

That Old Time Religion

From the March 29, 2004 issue: Goodbye, Babylon brings back early gospel music.

Mar 29, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 28 • By MATT LABASH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

WHEN I WAS A KID, my parents found Jesus, took to Him like otters to water, and left the more traditional churches of their upbringing to enlist as full-fledged evangelicals. Depending on where my military-officer father's assignments took us, we did turns in all kinds of nearly indistinguishable denominations, from Evangelical Free to Bible churches. But we spent the bulk of our time with the Southern Baptists. SBs, as we called ourselves, were steady and without pretense and highly egalitarian--yet still earthy enough to kick dirt on our charismatic, Pentecostal brothers, what with all their emotive pew-jumping and tongues-speaking. If we'd wanted people carrying on from the pulpit in languages we didn't understand, the SBs reasoned, we'd have become Catholics.

In the one-dimensional world of easy secular stereotypes, many mistakenly think that most Baptists have a bit of the snake-handler in them. But the only time I saw a rattler near church--behind the school building--one of the deacons killed it with a shovel. Being Baptist was actually much less dramatic than getting bitten by poisonous snakes. The articles of faith were easy to keep track of. Baptists generally believed that faith in Christ and His redeeming sacrifice earned you salvation, that you would evidence this faith by climbing into baptismal waters one time in your life to get dunked by a preacher in fishing waders, that you were to religiously attend potlucks to which you'd never bring a store-bought sheet cake, and finally (this one was open to some interpretation), that you would refrain from drinking, dancing, and especially drinking while dancing. If you lapsed, you could still ask forgiveness and were in no danger of getting your name scrubbed from the Book of Life. But you were taking your chances in gossip circles--gossiping being Baptists' official sport outside of church, and often inside of it.

The no-drinking-and-dancing planks never bothered me much. Although I've since made up for lost time with the former, I still cite the no-dancing rule, not for moral reasons, but because it keeps me from getting dragged onto the floor at wedding receptions during "The Electric Slide." What did bother me, however, was when my moderate parents briefly fell under the sway of peer pressure, as my youth minister called it. A fire-breathing band of aspiring church splitters (splitting churches between quarrelling factions also being a favorite Baptist pastime) decided rock'n'roll was Satan's theme music. Unlike other zealots of that time, they didn't conduct any record-burning bonfires in the church parking lot, or listen to Zeppelin albums backwards to hear Robert Plant pledge fealty to the Prince of Darkness. What the records said forward was bad enough for them.

This wasn't good news for me. In addition to suffering through the pop offerings of the day--from rock gods like Toto and Michael "She's a Maniac" Sembello--I also regularly dipped into my dad's old soul records, enjoying an introductory course in everything from the Motown sound to Ray Charles, to funkier stuff like War and the Jimmy Castor Bunch. When my parents decided it would be best to lock this vinyl gold away, I was forced, like thousands of Christian kids before me, to cop my music fix in the artistic wasteland known as "Contemporary Christian Music." The moratorium lasted about three years, and it was a dark time for all. Since the Contemporary Christian Music world didn't offer enough selection to be truly discriminating, my friends and I tended to gravitate toward those who'd made their bones in the secular world--closer to what we actually wanted to be listening to. It was our sincere hope that though they were singing for Jesus now, our new idols had once snorted their weight in cocaine and known arenas full of groupies. It was bad for the soul, we reasoned, but good for the music.

We liked Kerry Livgren because he'd cofounded the group Kansas, Joe English because he'd been a drummer for Wings, and Leon Patillo because he'd played keyboards for Santana. Never mind that I hated both Kansas and Wings, or that the Santana résumé-sweetener was nothing to brag about. Considering the band had sixteen lineup changes from 1966 to 1984 alone, it's quite possible that I played keyboards for Santana, and just don't remember.

WITH SOME EXCEPTIONS, the music tended to be too on-the-nose: saccharine and over-melodic, all light and no shadows, all gaiety and no grit. And when Christian artists tried to dirty themselves up, it was often painful to watch, such as when the hair-metal band Stryper came around in the mid-1980s (their name, they said, was an acronym for "Salvation Through Redemption Yielding Peace, Encouragement, and Righteousness"). Stryper released albums like To Hell with the Devil. They wore matching yellow-and-black spandex suits, making them look like bumblebees with Farrah-hair. They didn't scare anybody. Except maybe when they'd play bars, where they'd try to have it both ways by chucking Bibles at patrons from the stage, making the more pragmatic among us wonder how you're supposed to win people to Christ when you're making them spill their drinks.

I had to get out. So I went to my folks with all the theological profundity a fourteen-year-old could muster, asking them: How could a God who doesn't appreciate the beauty of the "yeah-yeah" echo in Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home To Me," or the Saturday-morning horns in Curtis Mayfield's "So In Love," be a God worth serving?

My parents, being reasonable people, didn't think God had bad taste. So we resolved to serve Him and still go back on the hard stuff. They took to listening to all the soft-rock hits of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. I became the eclectic paragon of musical refinement that I remain to this day.

But I take the long way around the barn to pose the question that has haunted Christians for centuries. Proto-Jesus rocker Larry Norman actually crystallized it in song once, asking "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?"--a question that purportedly dates back to Martin Luther, who asked it concerning his own hymnody when he was attacked for appropriating tavern songs. The understanding of Christian and heathen alike has been that when God banished Satan, He kept all the key stuff: the clouds, the mansions, the streets paved with gold. But as a sop for assigning Lucifer to an eternity in fiery darkness, he gave him most of the good music. Satan got the Rolling Stones and Robert Johnson. God kept Debby Boone and George Beverly Shea.

BUT A NEW SIX-CD BOXED SET, Goodbye, Babylon, shows God may have been slyer than originally thought--having held in reserve long-forgotten and recently discovered gems that have been dusted off by Lance Ledbetter, a twenty-seven-year-old Atlanta software installer and former deejay. Having become obsessed with sacred music from the early part of the last century, Ledbetter scoured the bins and collections of knowledgeable musicologists over a five-year period, enlisting help from everyone he could lay hands on, including his father, who pulled appropriate Scripture passages as companion notes for songs. He financed this labor of love on his credit cards.

What he came up with is 135 songs and 25 sermons--the largest collection of American sacred music ever assembled. Instead of relinquishing control to some major label, Ledbetter put the whole thing out on his own start-up label, Dust-to-Digital. It's an appropriate name for the time-consuming process of finding and cleaning up scratchy, hissing records. As Charles Wolfe writes in one of the many invaluable liner notes, the records, which predated mixing and multiple microphones, often cut in makeshift studios, were carried everywhere from coal camps to railroad yards to juke joints. But for the love of a few obsessive custodians, the music would've been lost forever, as most of the records were "worn out, broken, thrown away, made into ashtrays, used as target practice for local carnival-ball-throwing contests, plowed into landfills, or donated to scrap shellac drives during World War II."

What these salvagers have preserved is a gospel hodgepodge, everything from Sacred Harp singing to hillbilly romps to field-holler prison chants to front-porch blues to jubilee quartets to old-timey country to Sanctified-congregational singing to Pentecostal rave-ups. They all come down in a rain of clamoring tambourines and bottleneck slide guitars, clawhammer banjo-picking, booming jug band-blowing and barrelhouse piano rolls. The songs come from many traditions, though the overwhelming influence comes from both the black and white strains of Holiness music--which resulted from the merger of the Fire Baptized Holiness Church and Pentecostal Holiness Church in 1911. This came five years after the 1906 Azusa Street revival, in which the black Holiness evangelist William Joseph Seymour sparked a movement which church historians say resulted in thousands receiving the "Pentecostal baptism with the Holy Ghost with the apostolic sign of speaking with other tongues."

PENTECOSTALS had spent the first years of the twentieth century breaking away from the Methodists and Baptists from which they sprang, who just weren't cutting it worship-wise. Some Baptists would eventually catch up--Thomas A. Dorsey, an African-American secular musician who became the "Father of Gospel," was a Baptist--as was Mahalia Jackson. But Pentecostals rejected the starchy hymns, nonrhythmic accompaniment, and non-improvisational singing of these established denominations.

Those who became Pentecostals were a largely hardscrabble lot accustomed to having cosmic bricks dropped on their heads. This formed both their musical vernacular (derived from everything from mountain music to old spirituals) and perception of God (many blacks were still around who had lived through slavery). When it came to worship, Holiness types didn't play around. In both song and sermon, they portrayed a fierce God--One of redemption, but also of vengeance--not the simplistic elbow-patched grandpa, or open-armed hippie-Jesus of the modern superchurch soundtrack. In a 1930 song called "Memphis Flu," Elder David R. Curry, pastor of the Oakley Street Church of God in Christ, and his congregation sing over barrelhouse piano runs, handclaps, and interjections of "Praise Jesus!": Yes, He killed the rich and poor / And He's going to kill more / If you don't turn away from your shame.

Referring to the gift of tongues--central to their theology--the Holiness types spoke of being "baptized with fire" (as opposed to their gentler cousins the Baptists, who stuck with water). And while there's no speaking in tongues on Goodbye, Babylon, it would be difficult for anyone listening to the holy roar of the Reverend Sister Mary Nelson on the tune "Judgment" to tell the difference: Well, all you hypocrite members / You wasting your time away / My God's calling for workmens / And you had better obey.

All of this strange and wondrous music comes in a package that itself lessens the pain of the $100 outlay required to own it. I've had it for a week, and already it is among my most indispensable possessions--right up there with my Complete Hank Williams box, my Stax Singles, and my '70s Soul Experience set, itself ingeniously encased in something resembling an old eight-track tape holder. The packaging is as beautiful as anything I've seen. The six CDs come in a slide-off wood box slightly smaller than the family Bibles salesmen used to peddle door to door. (Ledbetter contracted with a wine-box manufacturer.) The cover is adorned with Gustave Doré's Confusion of Tongues, a late-Victorian etching of the Tower of Babel.

OPEN THE BOX, and you are met with the smell of cedar, as if from an old dresser drawer full of lost treasures. It is packed not only with the disks and a two-hundred-page booklet intended to represent an old hymnal, but also with raw cotton, which Ledbetter, if he's not putting me on, told me was "handpicked from Alabama--my uncle's brother helped us out with it." The cotton is not intended to keep the box's contents from rattling around inside, but rather, as a note says, "This set is dedicated to all the artists who wanted their message to be heard. The cotton is a reminder of the struggle, strife and sorrow that so many of them endured."

These days, the figure of the ethnomusicologist has nearly become one of sport--the earnest white guy in search of The Source of All Things Authentic--looking for some gnarled old black man held together with nothing but suspenders, missing half his teeth and all his wits, preferably sitting on a porch, ready to throw down with a homemade instrument, exhibiting his primitive genius. These sleuths follow in the footsteps of John and Alan Lomax, who scoured the plantations and prisons of the South for Library of Congress field recordings, or Harry Smith, whose 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music is considered the genre's seminal work.

Ledbetter escapes this fate by concentrating on sacred music exclusively--which has been neglected by all but the most rabid collectors. Instead of the blues clichés we've become accustomed to as one collection after another rolls down the remastered assembly line (servicing one's big-legged woman, dusting one's broom, selling one's soul to dicey characters one meets at crossroads in Mississippi), Ledbetter's set has all the rawness and vitality of the blues masters. But lyrically, the artists he collects--many of whom were secular stalwarts who dabbled in or switched full-time to gospel music--are playing for much higher stakes.

THERE ARE ALL SORTS OF GRAND THEMES running through Goodbye, Babylon: deliverance and judgment, mortal expiration and eternal salvation. Many secular critics haven't quite gotten past the buckets of blood, alluded to in songs like "Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb?" by Da Costa Woltz's Souther Broadcasters, a 1920s string band. Or there's the number by Ernest V. Stoneman--Thomas Edison's favorite hillbilly artist--who, along with his Dixie Mountaineers, sing, Oh, the blood of Calvary's brow / I can see it flowing now. But to the church-steeped, whose ears are already acclimated, it's standard Sunday-morning viscera.

The more striking leitmotif is blindness. The collection boasts Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Roger Hays, Blind Benny Paris and his blind wife, Blind Alfred Reed, Blind Joe Taggart, Blind Mamie Forehand, and no less than four Blind Willie's (Davis, Harris, McTell, and Johnson)--the last of whom was blinded when his stepmother threw lye in his eyes during a fight with his father. And that's just the artists with "blind" monikers. There's also blind Roosevelt Graves and Brother (his brother wasn't blind, but had only one eye), and blind Jimmie Strothers (found by John Lomax in a Virginia state prison, where he presumably came to Jesus after murdering his wife with an ax).

So fashionable was it to be a blind gospeler, that it is said Blind Joe Taggart wasn't even blind, he just had cataracts. And then there was blind Arizona Juanita Dranes, an influential gospel singer who once traveled from Chicago to Texas with a note of introduction that read, "Since she is deprived of her natural sight, the Lord has given her a spiritual sight." Even nonbelievers have to give God points for consistency: He sticks with His blind people.

Such physical impairments are a keen reminder that this is hard music made by hard people--singers to whom grace did not come cheap and who are not big proponents of today's prosperity-gospel, Prayer-of-Jabez rhetoric. In a song recorded at the Parchman State Penitentiary in 1940s Mississippi, a prisoner named Jimpson sings "No More My Lord," his rhythm section nothing but the sound of splitters thudding against wood on his work gang (at one point during the recording, a wood chip actually hits the microphone). Then there's Elder Effie Hall and Congregation, who did their version of Thomas A. Dorsey's "Take My Hand, Precious Lord." Dorsey, widely known as the father of gospel music, was a jazz and blues sideman who decided to walk the Gospel highway after composing his most famous song, which he wrote after locking himself into a room for three days after the death of his wife and son during childbirth. They are the songs of people who had accepted their lot and weren't holding out for a much better deal--at least not in this life: Precious Lord, take my hand / Lead me on, let me stand / I am tired, I am weak, I am old.

MUCH CONTEMPORARY CHRISTIAN MUSIC strives not even to mention the J-word--instead of naming the name of Jesus, they favor double entendres that could serve, depending on the listener, as either sacred music or generic love songs. But the singers on Goodbye, Babylon took their Jesus straight, without chasers or apologies. While plenty of the artists on the CDs are famous--Mahalia Jackson, Bill Monroe, Skip James--just as many are one-offers who, in addition to being coal miners or migrant farmers, were sisters and elders, deacons and reverends. Not viewing the church as a springboard to popular success as so many legions of R&B stars have through the years, they sang with conviction and without embarrassment, maintaining that the believer conformed to the belief, not the other way around. They were direct and raucous, and they put the "fun" back in fundamentalism.

They were groups like the Jubilee Gospel Team, who sang, in 1928, that Jesus will be your lawyer / He'll be your lawyer all the way. They were singers like Mother McCollum, who sang, over her own slide guitar in "Jesus is My Air-o-plane": Reeling and rocking, you can hide no sin / Jesus coming in His air-o-plane. They were stiff-necked dogmatists like Sister O.M. Terrell--a street minister from the Fire Baptized Holiness Church of God--who, with a wink, put everyone from adulterers to "snuff dippers" on notice, singing: You know the Bible right / Somebody wrong / God knows / You're wrong. They are people whose God often seems to have failed them, but who believe anyway--whose songs and wails and murmurs are often defiant affirmations. Death does not make them blanch or prevent them from tending the pressing business of "getting right," which explains sermons like Rev. J.M. Gates's 1926 Christmas pick-me-up, "Death Might Be Your Santa Claus," followed by "Will the Coffin be Your Santa Claus?" and the capper, "Will Hell Be Your Santa Claus?"

AS MUSICIANS AND VOCAL STYLISTS, they took a backseat to no secular artists of the day--and often, they doubled as the secular artists of the day. Legendary blues guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson, of Primitive Baptist stock, went so far as to record religious material under the pseudonym "Deacon L.J. Bates" to conceal his secular identity. They were singers like Brother Claude Ely, who in the Kentucky Holiness tradition, sings and plays the perennial Church of God in Christ shout, "There Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down," with a ferocity that suggests he was getting sawed in half while performing.

There are tracks of mysterious beauty, without equivalent in any of today's gospel, R&B, or country idioms. In a 1927 cut, Washington Phillips, in his laid-back Pop-Staples way, sings, matter-of-factly, Oh lift him up, that's all / Lift Him up in His word / If you tell the name of Jesus everywhere / If you'll keep His name a'ringin' everywhere that you go / He will draw men unto Him. Phillips, whose demise was long thought to have come in a mental institution, was found only recently by researcher Michael Corcoran to have passed on from head injuries sustained in a tumble down a flight of stairs at a welfare office in Teague, Texas. The otherworldly instrument he played is also the source of scholarly debate. Some think it is a dolceola, a portable baby-grand-piano-like instrument, of which only fifty are thought to exist today. Others who knew him said it was a zither-like instrument of his own creation. In any case, it sounds like a ghostly calliope from some half-remembered dream.

Then there are songs like "O Day" by Bessie Jones and the Sea Island Singers--as satisfying as music gets. Sung typically as a Christmas or New Year's shout after an all-night worship service, this version, recorded by Alan Lomax in St. Simon's Island, Georgia, in 1960, features voices twinning, yet not quite harmonizing. They overlap and swirl and loop around each other over a guitar, syncopated varying-tempo hand-clapping, and a fife that threatens to derail the entire process like a fluttering wheel on a runaway shopping cart, but which instead provides the perfect tension that holds it all together. It is infectious Holiness music, that when I play it--over and over and over again--sees my one- and four-year-old boys bounding through my door, clapping and dancing as if in some tent-meeting trance.

I'd probably join them, if I hadn't been raised Southern Baptist. The lyrics, simple and repetitive, pretty much sum up the whole ball of wax, redemption-wise: Yonder come day, I heard him say / Yonder come day, it's a dying day / Yonder come day, it's a burying day / Yonder come day, I was on my knees / Yonder come day, when I heard him say / Yonder come day, that's a New Year's day / Day done broke into my soul / Yonder come day, well, come on, child / Yonder come day, Jordan roll.

IN A RECENT PIECE for the Washington Post, Eddie Dean, one of the great chroniclers of lost America--which isn't a crowded field--interviewed Dick Spottswood, who, at Ledbetter's behest, served as both music and liner-notes wrangler on much of Goodbye, Babylon. Spottswood, himself a Washington, D.C., institution as host of the local public-radio station's invaluable Obsolete Music Hour, is no holy-rolling Bible thumper. But he perfectly nailed the difference between the old and new sacred music: "It's not like contemporary Christian songs, which are all praising Jesus, with nothing about sin or guilt. They've turned Jesus into a very cheap, off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all Jesus. There's nothing of substance left, and the music reflects this sort of mindless cheerfulness. With the old-time gospel songs, like [the Monroe Brothers'] 'Sinner You Better Get Ready,' there are dark clouds and tragedy and death and all the unpleasantries you have to go through before you can stand in line at the redemption counter."

AS A KID, I would get chills when we used to sing the old 1899 Lewis E. Jones hymn, "There is Power in the Blood." The women, trying to out-falsetto each other, would sing "There is power, power, wonder working power in the blood of the Lamb." The men would double-time, walking a steady bass-line underneath, with "There is power, power, power, power, wonder-working power." And there is, in fact, power, listening to Jesus bleed into the Devil's music.

It's a sensation I get over and over again, watching secular artists reach up to address the sacred. The great ones often seem to get greater (as when the Rolling Stones sing "I Just Want to See His Face" and "Shine a Light"). The not-so-great often achieve greatness doing the same (the closing flourishes of Lionel Richie and the Commodores' much-overlooked 1981 "Jesus is Love" are some of the most pristine acts ever committed in a studio).

I was reminded of this during a recent re-viewing of The Last Waltz, the universally acclaimed 1978 film, in which The Band took a final bow by inviting tons of more famous stars like Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan to turn them into a backing band at their own farewell concert. In between all the high-wattage stage performances, which made the soundtrack, came a quiet moment. It is one of my favorite moments in The Band's history, and by extension, one of my favorite moments in music. At some flophouse, The Band, looking desiccated and debauched from Lord-knows-how-many-years on the road, were enjoying one of their last moments of total camaraderie. Keyboardist Richard Manuel sat in a chair, while Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko sat on an adjoining couch.

They seemed blissfully unaware that their best years were soon to be behind them. (Manuel, less than a decade later, would hang himself in a motel room.) And Danko, who played the loose bass lines and sang the yearning, desperate harmonies that crystallized their sound, looked beautifully doomed as always. (He would later lose a son and die prematurely himself.) Monkeying around for director Martin Scorsese, Manuel suggests the boys strike up "'Old Time Religion' for the folks." Robertson and Danko oblige. Robertson strums his guitar, while Danko, not even bothering to lift his fiddle to his shoulder, saws off the opening notes. Robertson sings it straight--give me that old time religion . . . it's good enough for my grandpa . . . it's good enough for me--while Danko, still fiddling, lays down some percussion, kicking tables and stomping floors as he echoes Robertson, while improvising "good enough" interjections around the song's nub. The whole moment is ragged and off-the-cuff and only lasts about forty-five seconds. But somehow, it is perfect. At its conclusion, with the spell broken, Robertson takes a drag off his cigarette--and admits, "It's not like it used to be."

INDEED, IT ISN'T. Which is why we should study and cherish collections like Goodbye, Babylon. There is something ennobling about watching fallible man--tired and weak and old, in Thomas Dorsey's words--stumbling around to find God in the dark. Vicariously, we take their ride, as men and women who knew difficulty hope that the best parts of themselves cross the goal line--that they, in the words of cataract-addled Blind Joe Taggart, get to the "great camp meeting on the other side of the shore." Meanwhile, we are left with the documentation of their struggle, the bottleneck slides and jug blows and handclaps of those who left the next best part of themselves behind on scratchy vinyl, pointing the way for the rest of us, still stumbling around in the dark.

Matt Labash is senior writer at The Weekly Standard.