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

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."