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.

Hello dear readers. I’m taking a few short paragraphs out of my regularly scheduled music reviews and write-ups to point you toward a few of my own music projects. I recently released two very different albums that you can listen to or purchase at the links below.

The first is a 70s-style rock and roll project we call “Killbuck”. The album was mostly recorded live onto a Goodwill-purchased tape recorder, at the end of a gravel back road, in a cabin in Killbuck, Ohio.   Matt Kurtz, John Finley, John King, Joe Farr and I collaborated over a love of dark sunglasses, Tom Petty and 3-chord rock songs. The result is our self-titled debut: 11 “heartland-soaked tunes full of Americana angst and Rust Belt blues”.

The second project is a new volume of hymns my friends and I recorded over the past year. Each of us took a different hymn to reinterpret and explore through our individual styles. All profits from the Harp Family Hymnbook: Vol. II will go to Mennonite Central Committee.

You can find Killbuck here , and the Harp Family Hymnbook Vol. II here.

2014-07-24 16.48.04

I dreamed about Ralph Stanley the day after he died. I was feeling ill. I crawled into bed and fell into a deep sleep. Over the years, I had visited his hometown a few times, circling to and fro across the caustic back roads of Clinch Mountain. I had once stopped at his house and knocked on his front door, hoping to shake the good doctor’s hand. No one came to the porch but a wandering dog. I read his book, bought his records. And I had stood before his brother’s grave, atop a mountain in the afternoon hours.

I saw Dr. Ralph on stage a number of times in those final years as well. He needed a chair to sit through those sets. His grandson and his band would do most of the work. But every so often he would stand up, he would approach the microphone, and he would drown the audience in that chilling mountain voice.

The dream was short. I found myself in some ghostly façade of the Appalachian south. My family was there. We rode bikes on roads that were too wide and too straight. I don’t remember if Dr. Ralph had even showed up in the dream—only that his essence hovered around it all. I parked my bike at the foot of the Ralph Stanley Museum. It was not the great Victorian house that sits on a hill in Clintwood, Virginia, but a lonely cabin on the side of a highway.

The dream came and the dream went.

I think I experience Dr. Ralph’s music a little differently than most of his fans. I admire the union of voices that the Stanley Brothers created when they sang, the craftsmanship of those bluegrass melodies, but really, I’ve never been much for bluegrass. And as important as his claw hammer banjo is to American roots music, it doesn’t give me pause, or hit me on the head like John Henry’s hammer. With Stanley, it has always been the cold hard lonesomeness that speaks to me. It is that voice, full of Primitive Baptist severity that I won’t forget.

Everything I love about Dr. Ralph comes to a crescendo of Appalachian simplicity on the traditional gospel ballad “Two Coats”. On the closing song from 1972’s Cry from the Cross, a lonesome fiddle floats along on a minor rhythm. Stanley’s voice is as serious as ever. He sings of salvation, of throwing off the old coat of worldly degradation and putting on a new, holy one. He pulls no punches. He adds no flourish or poetry. It’s the aesthetic by which he lived his life. What choice do we have but to believe every word of it?

The dream has since faded. The mountain and the road and the cabin on the hill are gone. Dr. Ralph is gone.

I hope that someday I will knock on a front door and someone will answer. I hope that someday, some light can be shed upon the fractured dream that we all walk around in. And I hope that Dr. Ralph has thrown off the old coat, and that the man of constant sorrow will sorrow no more.

 

Information gathered from Stanley’s autobiography, “Man of Constant Sorrow”.

Stained Glass 1

It was probably two years ago that I attended my first Sacred Harp singing.  The closest one I could find was in Columbus, Ohio, a two-hour drive.  The winter sun was beginning to set as I pulled into the empty parking lot of the borrowed Episcopalian church (which has no denominational connections to the group, or to the style itself).  Soon, somebody else arrived.  It was Eric, the group’s leader.  He let me in and I flipped through the pages of the Sacred Harp songbook as he set up chairs in a square formation.

The Sacred Harp has been around for roughly 150 years.  It’s origins are scattered across many southern states, but you can somewhat trace the tradition back to B.F. White and Elisha J. King in Georgia, who first organized the Sacred Harp songbook in 1844.  The two compiled melodies and lyrics that drew upon the southern style of shape note singing.  Within the style, notation is condensed to four notes, with a symbol representing each one (triangle for fa, oval for sol, square for la, and diamond for mi).  As each hymn begins, the choir “lines out” the song by singing the notes aloud, establishing the melody.  It’s an eerie sound, unlike anything else that I know of in sacred music (or in music in general).

White, King, and the wealth of singers and writers who contributed to the sacred harp tradition weren’t creating this new form of music from nothing.  They were absorbing years of sacred writings and hymns; songs that had travelled down mountains and over oceans; and they were transforming them into something much different.  The Sacred Harp songbook is a vast trove of ancient lyrics put to ghostly melodies.  Some of the words may have been contemporary to the first printings of the songbook, but many preceded the tradition by generations.

Sitting in the recreation room of the church, I turned to one such adaptation.  It was a tune called “Idumea”, number 47b in the book.  Charles Wesley’s hymn, written in 1763, has seen many alterations over the centuries, none more notable than it’s sacred harp translation.  My favorite is probably Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton’s version, recorded in 1964.  It wasn’t a sacred harp performance, but it was very much inspired by the tradition.  As Carlton’s fiddle moans, Watson’s voice, full of Appalachian dread, utters the terrifyingly honest words:

Soon as from earth I go,

What will become of me?

Eternal happiness or woe

Must then my portion be!

Just as sacred harp has taken old songs, rearranged their melodies, and created something much different; artists since have been drawing on the songbook for inspiration, taking the words, taking pieces of the melodies, and adapting them into other music styles.  Watson and Carlton’s version of “Idumea” is an early example of this, and it seems to set a precedent for an album of sacred harp cover songs released in 2008 called Help Me to Sing.  Their reinterpretation of “Idumea” sits alongside reinterpretations by a number of modern-day independent and mainstream musicians.

Help Me to Sing was organized by Matt Hinton as a companion piece to the sacred harp documentary, Awake My Soul, which he and his wife, Erica, directed.  Hinton discovered the tradition when he was about 16.  Escorted to a singing, he remembers approaching the church: “You could hear the power of the thing before you entered the building…Twenty or thirty people sounded like a couple hundred people”.  He was immediately fascinated.

Erica’s grandmother was a sacred harpist as well, and when the two young college students needed a topic for a 10-minute film they were assigned to create at Georgia State, they were both in agreement on what it should be.  They filmed different gatherings and interviewed aging singers who were carrying on the tradition.  After they had finished the short film, Matt says, “We never stopped bringing the camera with us”, and in 2006, the full-length documentary was released.

Matt’s interest in music has always been diverse.  Sacred harp is not for the casual listener.  It is not instantly pleasant or easy on the ears.  It challenges.  It demands participation to be fully understood.  So I think it’s telling that at the same time that he was travelling to different singings, studying and documenting this uncommon singing style, Matt was also embracing other unconventional artists and styles as well.

In the late 90’s, when Daniel Smith’s Danielson Familie began making waves in the indie music world, Matt would give them a place to stay on tours down the East coast.  Through sacred harp, he met Tim Eriksen, the punk rocker/musicologist (a rare breed), who has studied and performed various forms of American folk music over the years, sometimes traditionally, and sometimes not so much (listen to the cover of “Idumea” by his band, Cordelia’s Dad, for instance). 

Matt was drawn to the unordinary, and through incidents of happenstance, he was building musical relationships that would eventually join him in his sacred harp experiments.  When he and Erica were searching for ways to expose new listeners to sacred harp, easing them into a tradition that can be jarring at first, Matt began to call upon his old friends, who would filter the lyrics, melodies and harmonies through the lens of their respective musical styles.

Each artist brings his or her unique sensibility to the project.  The Innocence Mission condenses the hymn, “Africa”, down to a gentle folk song.  Jim Lauderdale fits “the Christian’s Hope” with eerie Appalachian harmonies.  And Danielson, screeching vocals and odd melody shifts in tact, still sounds like Danielson on “Sermon on the Mount”.  But there is a beautiful movement to the album, as if each track were a step towards that promised land of Canaan that sacred harpists so often sing about.  Much of it comes from the words, which are drenched in the archaic poetry and mournful laments of the tradition.  But even beyond the words, there is a fire that lies behind them.  Many of the songs erupt into bursts of choral and instrumental lamentations, unconventionally capturing the emotion of the old harpists shouting out their joys and sorrow.

The album is strange, bleak, uplifting and mysterious…just like sacred harp; a tradition that, according to Eriksen, involves “an ongoing, sometimes tacit, sometimes heated but in any case dynamic, discussion about what it is and what it isn’t”.

Eriksen, who sings two songs on the record, has studied its history, teaches and sings it often, but struggles to find words that describe it appropriately.  Matt and Erica filmed a movie about the tradition, but would most likely admit that it cannot be captured through any medium outside of performance.  It has led all of them to many Southern singings and far beyond, as it led me through many secondhand recordings, books, and finally to that church in Columbus, where I had no choice but to experience it firsthand.

After I had flipped through the pages for a while, admiring the noted poetry as if it were an ancient art (which it almost is), the singers began to arrive and take their places at the square.  Quiet voices nimbly immersed in small talk soon gave way to an epic sound that shook the room. I sat among the basses and was timid at first, whispering the words, while the singers shouted and sang around me.  I had only listened to the style beforehand.  I had never tried to sing it, nor did I understand how to read and interpret the four shape notes.  But as the night wore on, and the music took hold, I began to see past my insecurities.  Matt was right.  There were only about ten of us in that square, but it sounded like an ocean of voices.  I lifted my own voice, decibel by decibel, until I was almost shouting with everyone else, the words crashing like waves while our voices ebbed and flowed together.  That is the mystery of sacred harp.  I was drawn in, my soul awakened.  That’s what it does to you.

 

Help Me to Sing is part of a 2 disc set that also includes the soundtrack to Matt and Erica’s film.  It can be found at most online retailers.

References

Eriksen, Tim. Email interview. November and December, 2011.

Hinton, Matt. Phone interview.  Sometime in 2011.

Steel, David Warren, and Richard H. Hulan. The Makers of the Sacred Harp. Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield, University of Illinois Press, 2010. Print

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.