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.