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 or other cd/digital websites.


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.


Some time ago, my friend Matt and I walked a stretch of train tracks to an old railroad bridge.  It was around 10:30 at night.  We planned on hopping a train and riding it the 15 miles or so back to his house.  I carried a guitar while he toted a pouch full of supplies for recording and documenting our experience.

We came to the bridge, black beams and rusted iron rising perhaps 15 or 20 feet above the ground.  We slipped on gravel and clutched at beams as we moved downward, toward our hiding place under the bridge.   There was graffiti on the iron, and bits of litter and bottles among the overgrowth.   We waited for perhaps an hour.  I walked in circles, fingerpicking and singing old train songs.  Soon after, we heard it: a lonesome whistle, somewhere in the near distance.   Matt strapped the guitar to his back.  We stood on the graveled slope and watched.  There were more whistles, closer now.  After maybe 20 minutes, we saw it, speeding towards us.   We raced back to our hiding place.  We crouched low.  The sound grew louder and louder.  The bridge began to vibrate.  And then…a mighty roar as the great machine raced by, mere feet above us.

When the engine had passed, we ran up the slope and down the line of trains.  They sped past us, one after another.  I had never been so close to a speeding train before.  I stood frail against an uncompromising force.  The noise it made was like heavy wind and thunder.  You had to yell to speak over it.  For a moment, probably much longer, I was terrified.

The last car sped past and we began running after it, at full sprint, but it was too fast.  We stood on the tracks, catching our breath, as the train disappeared into the night, a fading red light.

For some time after, I thought about the great and terrifying locomotive and its place in the history of gospel music.  I had never taken the words as sincerely as I did on that particular night, where the great power rushed before my eyes like the angels of Revelation.  Many of those old songs recall the wrath and power of God breaking into our lives, whether we like it or not, drawing us into His reign, or leaving us along the tracks.

Murry Hammond, in his record, I Don’t Know Where I’m Going But I’m On My Way, continues those gospel traditions, often drawing upon the history of sacred music, chronicling various riders on their paths to heaven or elsewhere.  It’s not exactly a gospel record.  Not everyone chooses heaven in the end.  But for some of these lost travelers, a light does appear around the bend.  A faith is rewarded.

The album opens quietly, with the soft, pulsating strums of Hammond’s guitar, emerging as if out of darkness.  His voice, awash in reverb, soon follows.

What are they doing in heaven today?

he asks, not as Washington Phillips once did, with hints of joy, but as if the possibility of heaven is the only hope for a life marred with tribulation.

I’m thinking of friends that I used to know,

No longer living in this world below.

I’ve heard about heaven but I want to know

Oh what are they doing right now?

Hammond follows a road first paved by the Carter Family, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and the mountain musicians before them.  He interprets old songs and sings new ones that sound old.  When writing, he adopts ancient idioms.  His words, his patterns of language, like those of the old songs, are peculiar and often ambiguous.   The sounds of the record, the echo of his voice, the drone of his harmonium, are as ghostly and as mysterious as the mountains that first gave birth to the tradition.

Hammond, like the Carters, like Williams and Cash, is a man who stands in two worlds: the sacred and the secular.  He earns a living playing bass for the rock/alt-country group, Old 97’s, who specialize in songs about love, relationships, and yes, sex; and he is a committed Christian, attending church in Burbank, California when he can, singing of salvation often, and struggling, as we all do, to look Godward.

Of his faith, he says,  “I was one of the ones that you might say was ‘cornered’, where I felt like God was trying to get my attention.  He got it, and it came during a time of a particular valley I was in.  Even now that’s often how I get steered back into ‘the fold’ as it were, when I wander off and am in need of a re-pointing of my compass”.

Hammond, a native Texan, was born into the Southern Christian tradition.  His mother and father were both devout and deeply spiritual.   Prone to wanderlust at a young age, he fought against their beliefs with much energy, but with little success.  His journey of faith hasn’t been a straightforward path.  It has been, like the trains he so frequently sings about, full of sharp curves and dead ends.  It has moved through deep valleys and traversed cliff walls.  It has seen pitch-black nights with only dim lantern light to see by.  But through every misstep and back step, through every dark night, he has emerged again, wiser and stronger and further enveloped in the great mystery.

As for living and working in the secular world, he says, “There certainly is a lot of opportunity for vice in rock and roll and I tend to give in to some of it, and other times shake myself out of it and look deeper, and higher.  The equation is an age-old one: the more worldly I live, the more unhappy and complicated my world gets.  Conversely, the higher I shoot, and the more I cling to a universal love, the happier I am and the better I treat people”.

Though not always autobiographical, there are pieces of Hammond in each of his characters.  They are all on various tracks, searching hard for something elusive or hidden, whether it be God or love or home or the unknown.  He has longed for each of these at some point in his life, and somehow found a few of them.

In the song, “Next Time, Take the Train”, Hammond sings,

Throw it wide and see no end,

Let no one fence or cage you in,

And realize where you have been, and why.

The traveller speaks of finding that place between where you’ve come from and where you’re going.  It is in this space that Hammond himself has found clarity.  He embraces the places and people that brought him here.  He embraces the faith that revived him, again and again.  But he is still intrigued and ever excited about the concept of the unknown before him.

*          *          *

Matt and I walked the tracks until 1:30 in the morning, waiting for another train to pass, but nothing ever came.  We talked about the past and the future for hours; the places we came from and the places ahead.  Driving home, I listened to I Don’t Know Where I’m Going But I’m on my Way.  The train had long rode on.  The world had grown quiet.  I parked the car and turned to the album’s final track, a song about heaven:

I’m gonna sail on across the wide river

Where my Lord has gone on before.

Where the long look behind turns to family there gathered,

To meet, and to part, no more.

I too grew anxious for that unknown.



Information was gathered through an interview I conducted with Murry Hammond.

I remember crying when Johnny Cash died.  Not at first.  I spent the morning in a sort of impassive state, travelling from school building to school building as if the world were an unfamiliar place.   I was at college, living alone in a dorm at Kent State.  I had come downstairs to the lobby and if I remember right, Cash was playing through the speakers, on the radio.  When I heard it, I knew that something was wrong.  I knew that Johnny Cash wouldn’t be on the radio on any normal day.  Sure enough, when the song ended, the deejay announced that the man in black had died.

It was a Friday.  Soon after, I ate and went to class.  I floated across the sidewalks.  I was quiet and blank.  After class had let out, I gathered my stuff, got in my car and headed home for the weekend.  I put the Johnny Cash mix I had compiled of my favorite songs into the CD player.  A few songs in, before I had reached the interstate, perhaps at “Big River”, I started bawling.

Though there were many sides to Cash, there are two that stand out distinctly for me.  The first is of the legend, the larger than life icon who sang of murder and sin with complete conviction.  He was a man, no, a mythological creature, who burned down forests in stoned rampages.  This Cash is universally known and worshipped as a rock star.  The monument of this Cash will tower over the world until there is no world.

The second side is smaller, less distinct, but probably more accurate.  This Cash was warm, thoughtful, and deeply spiritual.  He collected books on theology.  He made frequent trips to the Holy Land, studying the ancestors of his faith.  Those closest to him testify of this Cash and it was this Cash, who, near the end of his life, laid aside his black coat, his legend, and recorded what I believe to be one of his greatest contributions to American music, My Mother’s Hymn Book.

Cash had recorded a number of gospel records over his long career, but the 15 songs of My Mother’s Hymn Book (a collections of gospel standards like “I’ll Fly Away” and “Softly and Tenderly”) can be traced back to his earliest memories.  They are songs that gave strength to the Cash family as they toiled in the cotton fields of Arkansas.  They are what shaped the young J.R. into the booming singer that he would become.   And they are songs that Cash drew upon when he found himself in the lowest depths of his addictions.

Come home, come home

You who are weary, come home…

I can imagine him, in his darkest hours, when voice and body were wrecked, recalling those words.

…Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,

Calling, O sinner, come home.

     Cash’s drug problems have been reiterated often.  After making a name for himself at Sam Phillips’s Sun Studio, Cash moved to Columbia Records and very quickly became a megastar.  To endure the long hours of touring and recording, he began taking amphetamines.  The pills wrecked havoc on his mind and body.  He grew agitated and restless.  His frame became gaunt, his eyes sunken.

The deeper he sank into his addiction, the more unstable his behavior became.  In 1965, he famously busted the stage lights of the Grand Ole Opry with his microphone stand.  Upon walking offstage, he met the Opry’s manager, who politely asked him never to return.

Cash’s life continued its long spiral downward until, in 1967, he decided to crawl into the bowels of NIckajack Cave, in Tennessee, and await death.   For hours he moved deep into the labyrinth of tunnels, until the batteries of his flashlight died and the darkness overtook him.  He recalled in his book, “Cash: A Biography”, that as he was laying there,

I felt something very powerful start to happen to me, a sensation of utter peace, clarity, and sobriety.  I didn’t believe it at first.  I couldn’t’ understand it.  How, after being awake for so long and driving my body so hard and talking so many pills-dozens of them, scores, even hundreds- could I possibly feel all right?  The feeling persisted, though, and then my mind started focusing on God…I became conscious of a very clear, simple idea: I was not in charge of my destiny.  I was not in charge of my own death.  I was going to die at God’s time, not mine.  I hadn’t prayed over my decision to seek death in the cave, but that hadn’t stopped God from intervening.

In complete darkness, perhaps hundreds of yards, perhaps a mile, deep inside a maze of caverns, he somehow, miraculously, crawled back out.

He would continue to struggle with his addictions for years afterward, but through war and through battle, his faith would once again be restored, helped along by little miracles.

One such miracle happened in New York, probably sometime in the 1970s, when he and June Carter walked past First Baptist Church.  They decided to enter when somewhere in the congregation, a young voice shouted, “JOHNNY CASH! Johnny Cash has come to church with me! I told you!  I told you he was coming!”

The young boy, mentally disabled, had told everyone earlier that Johnny Cash would be coming with him to church that day.

Cash wasn’t shy when it came to his faith.  He wrote a book about Paul, whose conversion he identified with.  He made a movie about Jesus, whose life he tried, and often failed, to emulate.  “Walk the Line” sort of downplayed this side of his life, in favor of the legend.  Nickajack Cave isn’t even mentioned (which I always found odd, being that it’s such a cinematic event).  But there’s no doubt, from what he’s written in both his autobiographies, that God, the God of his mother, the God of his youth, was the ultimate redeemer of his brokenness.  And it was to this God, and of this God that he sang in My Mother’s Hymn Book.  Only this time, he had been around long enough to know the seriousness of the words.

I’m sort of ambivalent about many of the later records Cash recorded for American Recordings.  A lot of the songs are crowded with instruments and guest stars, where few are needed; and they seem to perpetuate the myth of Cash.  I suppose that’s why I’m drawn to My Mother’s Hymn Book, where the myth is forsaken.  The producer, Rick Rubin, and the engineer, David Ferguson, are doing what musicologists like Alan Lomax and John Cohen and Mike Seeger did in the middle of the century.  They are capturing an important voice before it’s gone; documenting a musical tradition before it is lost to history.  The only things we hear on the record are the simple strums of Cash’s guitar, and a voice that still booms like thunder; that says, with all certainty,

Though all hell assail me, I shall not be moved.

     Of the 40 plus albums that Cash recorded over his life, he called this one his favorite.  He sings from a worn book of hymns that his mother passed on to him.  He sings of the faraway shore and of life eternal.  He sings not as the legend or as the undying outlaw, but as a man humbled and frail before his God, the weight of death and glory on his shoulders.

I think it was this Cash that I cried for so many years ago.  It was this human Cash that I understood.


Information gathered from Cash’s two autobiographies, “Man In Black” and “Cash: the Autobiography”, as well as the liner notes to My Mother’s Hymn Book.