como

They are Angelia Taylor, Della Daniels and Ester Mae Smith, two sisters and a childhood friend from Como, Mississippi.  It was in that small Southern town that these Como Mamas learned the old songs, their voices harmonizing and shouting through the warm air drifting through Mount Moriah Baptist Church. From Como to Brooklyn, they were discovered by Daptone Records, and after a powerful a cappella debut, they’re now backed by Daptone’s Glorifiers band for their second full length, Move Upstairs.  “Oh yeah!”, their voices call and respond. They are voices heavy like the blues, but triumphant and holy.  “Get ready! Get ready!” The Mamas are counting their blessings, one rocking, grooving gospel song at a time. They’re singing along to a bluesy organ, a righteous drum beat, a fiery electric guitar.  They’re shouting. They’re celebrating. They’re giving it their all. 99 and a half just won’t do.

Move Upstairs will be released on May 19 by Daptone Records. You can purchase the record here.

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There are certain discoveries you make in life that downright throw you off your metaphysical balance; that completely rewire your thinking patterns.  I had encountered Dylan in high school, and though his music had left me shaken, it was nothing compared to the two cds of field recordings I found in my library’s dollar bin.  They were half of Alan Lomax’s Sounds of the South box set.  One cd consisted of spirituals and sacred songs; the other of old timey and folk songs.  They were all recorded in the Southern lands of Appalachia by unknown and aging men and women, discovered in lost towns and mountain hollows.  They sang with deeply strange and intensely moving voices; carrying on disappearing traditions that had been birthed across oceans and somehow, through their journeys westward, been transformed into something otherworldly. They played homemade instruments.  They clapped out bizarre rhythms as they sang of lost love, of the great beyond, of trials and tribulations.

Among this number was Mississippi Fred McDowell and his bottleneck guitar.  There on the second track of the sacred disc, emerging ghost-like from the recesses a lost era, comes the thumping rhythm of McDowell’s instrument.   You can hear his strings shake as his workman’s fingers move along the fret board, giving way to the aching voice of James Shorty, as the singer enters and bemoans,

I want Jesus to walk with me. 

I would find out later, upon discovering other albums and field recordings, that McDowell too had a singing voice; one that ached as it rejoiced; one that ebbed and flowed into his guitar notes.

Alan Lomax, musicologist and collector of field recordings, discovered McDowell in Como, Mississippi in the late 1950s.  Lomax and his companions had been recording a pair of local musicians throughout the day.  As the sky darkened and the music lessened, McDowell emerged from the woods carrying his guitar.  He had heard they were recording there that day and had just     finished bringing in his cotton crop.  Lomax described that first recording experience in his book, The Land Where the Blues Began:

Fred was a quiet, silky-voiced, stoop-shouldered fellow, eager to record.  That very evening he invited a couple of neighbors to help out- one man to play second guitar, and his aunt, Fannie Davis, to provide the wind section by blowing on a fine-toothed comb wrapped in toilet paper.  We recorded outdoors after dark, by flashlight.  No wind was blowing, and the katydids were out of season, so we could take advantage of the living quiet of open air and the natural resonance of the earth and the trees…When we played his recording back to him, he stomped up and down on the porch, whooping and laughing and hugging his wife.  He knew he had been heard and felt his fortune had been made.

Lomax would record the bluesman many times afterward, and in the ensuing years, McDowell would gain a venerated reputation in the folk and blues worlds.  He would go on to record numerous albums, eventually trading his acoustic guitar for an electric.  He would disciple up and coming blues artists of the late 60s and early 70s.  He would be courted by the Rolling Stones.

Amid this rush of popularity, McDowell recorded Amazing Grace, an album of gospel spirituals, with a group of performers called the Hunter’s Chapel Singers.

Like many Mississippi players, McDowell would play juke joints and dances throughout the week, then lead his church congregation on Sunday mornings.  He and his wife, Annie Mae, called Hunters Chapel of Como, Mississippi their home.   Together with his Aunt Davis, Grace Bowden and James Collins, all congregation members, they played and clapped and moaned through plantation spirituals and gospel laments.

In 1966, the five of them travelled northward to Chicago, Illinois, to record the Amazing Grace album for producer Pete Welding.

The record begins as it ends, both mournful and joyous.  McDowell’s guitar is barely audible for the first two seconds.  A lone woman’s voice, probably Annie Mae, sings,

Jesus is on…

Then their small choir of voices arises, and together they finish the sentiment:

….the main line, tell Him what you want.

McDowell’s guitar grows louder, and follows them note for note, his strings shaking and ringing out.  Soon enough, someone begins clapping.

For the remainder of the record, these will be the only sounds that are heard: a lone blues guitar, weathered hands clapping out a sparse rhythm, and a group of souls crying out to their God in beautiful unity.

I’m going home on the morning train,

moans McDowell on one song.

You’ve got to move,

the singers repeat on another.

Elsewhere the guitar speaks first, playing the beginning few notes, and then those familiar words sound out…

grace, how sweet the sound,

that saved a wretch like me.

They sing the words slow and deliberately at first.  Then, very gradually, they speed it up, until they are clapping and ringing out in exclamation.  This is not the anthem you sang in church.  This one bends low, into the bone scattered earth, before it reaches for heaven.

There is a tendency in music to over say things; to fill up the empty space with noise.  We are convinced of the false belief that the more sounds and instruments we add, the greater our message; when oftentimes, the opposite is true.  If we added a piano or some drums to the early recordings of the Carter Family, or to the final gospel recordings of Johnny Cash, something deep would be lost.  The same can be said of Fred McDowell and his Hunter’s Chapel Singers.  Add anything and you take away.

There may be an unintentional rationality to the bareness of the recordings.  This stark sound carries with it a stark history. They are songs of distress, utterances of the oppressed.  McDowell and his companions are taking us on a hard journey across the expanse of African-American spiritual music.   But they are songs of hope also: hope for freedom today; hope for Glory tomorrow.

Those blissful, beautiful words, and the conviction by which they are sung; those dire guitar notes; are the same sort that shook the young me so many years ago, listening to McDowell for the first time.  The songs have seen death, burial and resurrection.  They have weathered persecution. They have lived on, into the turbulent years that followed emancipation, carefully and strenuously passed down by disciples of the tradition.   You can feel the weight of the songs with every guttural cry.  Yet, in triumph, these voices sing,

I felt like shouting when I come out the wilderness.

Amazing Grace can be found on Amazon.com or other cd/digital websites.

References

Lomax, Alan.  The Land Where the Blues Began.  New York: Delta Publishing, 1993. Print

Lomax, Alan. Liner notes. Sounds of the South. Box Set. Atlantic, 1993.

Szwed, John. Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World. New York: Viking, 2010.  Print

Welding, Pete. Liner notes. Amazing Grace. LP. Testament Records, 1966.

I’m laying on my bed, listening to Sister Gertrude Morgan.  Really, how can I be laying down under such insistence that I do something?  “Let us make a record”, she shouts as her tambourine rattles and crashes.  “Don’t you want to make a record?” she intones.  “Prophet Isaiah made a record!  Ezekiel made a record!  Peter made a record!”

A record for Sister Morgan is heavier and higher than any piece of scratched vinyl or mere compact disc.  Making a record is getting your hands dirty.  Making a record is standing on street corners, taking in strangers, and bringing about God’s holy kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

The fourteen songs of “Let’s Make a Record” are the only known recordings of the enigmatic street missionary.  They are bare and unadorned.  It’s just her and her tambourine, but with every striking word, with every shake of her tambourine, she consumes her listener in a great, righteous fire.  In the liner notes to the album, the writer says that Sister Gertrude “battered Time itself with rhythms that intensified as the spirit took her”.

Some of her words are improvised, appearing as her tambourine, as perhaps even God, dictates.  Some of the words are ancient and have been drifting in and throughout spiritual music since the days of slavery, taking on new contexts with each succeeding generation.  She sings of John and his revelation.  She sings of Christ, the living bread.  She sings of Power.

Oftentimes, mid-song, Sister Morgan will start into a sermon: “So let us humble ourselves, dear ones, get ready for the new world.  Prepare yourself to live in that holy city.  That same city, that same kingdom, that Jesus was talking to His disciples about when He left them, gone on back to His Father.  Don’t forget it!  Amen!”

She became a familiar presence in New Orleans in the 1940s and beyond, easily recognized by her white nurse’s uniform (she was nurse to Dr. Jesus) and her unpolished, detailed paintings of Christ and the creatures of Armageddon that she created as visuals for her sermons.  Standing on street corners, dressed in perfect white, holding up paintings or playing her guitar, she would preach from Revelation; a mysterious figure with a mysterious past.

William A. Fagaly, in his book on Sister Morgan (Tools of Her Ministry) writes that she was “the seventh child of Frances and Edward Williams, born on Saturday, the seventh day of the week, on April 7, 1900 in Lafayette, Chambers County, Alabama”.  She was married for about ten years beginning in 1928, but strangely parted from her husband around 1937.  This might of had something to do with the transforming revelations she was intermittently experiencing.  In December of 1934, while alone in her kitchen, she heard the voice of God tell her, “I’ll make thee as a signet for I have chosen thee”.  Three years later, around the time of her separation from her husband, she heard the same voice say, “Go-o-o-o-o, Preacher, tell it to the World”.   She followed this voice to Opelika and Mobile, Alabama; and eventually to New Orleans, where she would spend the last 41 years of her life.

In New Orleans, she floated throughout the city, preaching and playing guitar on the streets of the French Quarter, taking in runaways and orphans as a missionary in Lower Gentilly.  After a few years, she opened the Everlasting Gospel Mission in the Lower Ninth Ward, a white house of peeling paint and red brick surrounded by a lawn of four-leaf clovers.

Inside the mission, you would find rooms coated in white paint or blanketed in white fabric, symbols of purity.  After being told in a revelation that she was the bride of Christ, she thereafter wore only white and decorated her home in white as a living example of her purity.

Hanging on the walls of her mission, sitting in corners, propped up on furniture, you would find blocks of wood, pieces of cardboard, Styrofoam trays painted over with Sister Morgan’s scenes of destruction and restoration.  Scores of angels drift across her canvases.  Winged beasts snarl and howl.  Great buildings of the New Jerusalem rise and shine like gold.  Scribbled sermons and verses fill every blank spot.  And amid the chaos, there is usually a painted Sister Morgan, holding a Bible, or a guitar, or clutching the hand of Jesus; or soaring over the mess in an airplane, her bridegroom beside her, steering.  “Jesus is my airplane”, she so often etched into her works in crude ballpoint letters.

Sister Morgan is probably known more for her paintings than for her music.  It was through an art dealer named Larry Borentstein that she became somewhat famous throughout the art world as a relevant and honest folk artist.  He opened his studio to the missionary, selling her works and giving her a corner to sing and play guitar.  He is also the man responsible for organizing the recording of “Let’s Make a Record”.

I know of few recordings more captivating.  There is true power in her words and delivery.  She has convinced me that though the Church might require two or more believers, gospel music can be ferocious and mighty with only one intense voice.

Sister Morgan died in 1981 and now lies silent in an unmarked grave.  Those who knew her recognized that she inhaled and exhaled the Holy Spirit with every breath.  They say she never had conversations.  She spoke only in sermons.  When listening to her recordings, I remember that.  I remember that the only thing that differentiates her songs from the rest of her life was a jangling rhythm…although, as I think about it more closely, I wouldn’t be surprised if her entire life wasn’t lived to something resembling a tambourine beat.

As for me, it’s time to get up.  It’s time to do something.

Information was gathered from William A. Falgaly’s book, Tools of Her Ministry

and the liner notes to Let’s Make a Record