Graded on a Curve: When I Reach That Heavenly Shore: Unearthly Black Gospel 1926-1936

Tompkins Square’s excavation and compiling of 20th century American gospel continues with When I Reach That Heavenly Shore: Unearthly Black Gospel 1926-1936, 3-discs selected by esteemed record collector and producer Christopher King. Containing assorted vocal groups, guitar players, small bands, and ardent preachers with responsive congregations, the assembly is extensive and details one aspect of the post-slavery pre-Civil Rights black experience in America. The 3CD is out now; gospel loving vinyl nuts mark your calendars, for the 3LP hits select indie shops on Record Store Day this coming April.

When I Reach That Heavenly Shore is the fourth multi-disc various-artist gospel comp released by Tompkins Square, and when sets devoted to Bessie Jones and Arizona Dranes get factored into the equation, (with respect to Dust-To-Digital) the label sits at the head of the African-American gospel reissue class.

It’s definitely not a growth industry. This collection in particular is at a remove from the contemporary religious mainstream, and as the title of this and previous Tompkins Square gospel items show, the enterprise targets their product to the intersection of the musical and the historical (which is where this writer has a small but personable residence).

Well maybe not entirely, for Christopher King has chosen to forego the expected scholarly notes, instead including appropriate thematic verses of scripture from his father’s 1939 King James Bible. While dispensing with variations upon the phrase “very little/nothing is known about” probably made King’s decision easier, his approach is worthwhile in its reinforcing how these selections weren’t created for fringe music aficionados and that many of these pieces exist outside prevalent notions of artistry if not necessarily entertainment.

While distinct, King’s method brings to mind Harry Smith’s mystical scheme on the Anthology of American Folk Music. By now, some may have grown weary of constant comparisons to that set, but as three performers overlap, it’s a fitting association once again. Anybody having absorbed the second Social Music portion of Smith’s program will have a general idea of When I Reach That Heavenly Shore’s heft.

The tunes of Henry Thomas, Rev. D. C. Rice, and Rev. J. M. Gates all differ from Smith’s picks, which in Gates’ example is unsurprising; not only is “Dead Cat on the Line” decidedly strange (as its social function never wavers), but it’s also basically a reenactment of a sermon, lacking the musicality Smith and Moses Asch were attempting to harness with the Anthology.

That’s not the case with Henry Thomas (you may know him by his sobriquet Ragtime Texas), a dynamic personality who’s “Fishing Blues,” complete with pan pipes, is amongst the bedrock of the Old-Time foundation. And it’s easy to think of Thomas as a secular guy (and influence on Canned Heat), but his spectacular “Jonah in the Wilderness” makes plain that many if not most “country” musicians kept an arsenal of religious material in their bags. It was the recipe of success for the songster, and Thomas diverts (slightly) from the obscurity attached to the majority of the participants here.

Another exception is Washington Phillips, player of a zither-like instrument, once thought to be a Dolceola, now evaluated as either one or two Celestaphones or a similar device of homemade ingenuity, its playing emitting a captivatingly gentle tone. For years, Phillips was a staple on Washington, DC’s WAMU’s The Dick Spottswood Show, and he’s perhaps best-known for the glorious “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?” Unlike that song, “Teach Your Child” splits the message and the music, opening with a spoken plea and the harp after; it’s destined to be the favorite of many from this set.

Those familiar with Revenant Records’ exquisite ’97 CD American Primitive Volume I: Raw Pre-War Gospel (1926-36) will understand what’s in store and will already know a pair of these tracks, specifically the fleet guitar and percussion of “I’ll Be Rested (When the Roll is Called)” by Blind Roosevelt Graves and his brother Uaroy, and its equally bluesy group-sung extension “Lord I’m the True Vine” by Eddie Head & his Family.

When I Reach That Heavenly Shore serves as a terrific expansion of Revenant’s compilation as it presents four additional numbers from “The Guitar Evangelist” Edward W. Clayborn and two by Blind Joe Taggart, here recording with Emma Taggart, a woman assumed to have been his wife. As outlined above, that we don’t know for sure is not a bit unusual for this era, especially concerning black artists plying roots-based forms.

Much of the info on Taggart comes from the testimony of folk-bluesman Josh White, but you’ll require no assistance comprehending that Clayborn relies on a deeply-entrenched repetition diametrically opposed to modern concepts of commercialism. That’s a loquacious way of saying his stuff, at least instrumentally, sounds the same. But only on the surface; closer listening reveals the intensity of (and subtle variation in) his pattern.

Vocally, Clayborn does emit tangible differences track to track, with “I Shall Not Be Moved” the most emotive of his entries. Of Taggart’s two, the better is “I’ll Be Satisfied,” which somewhat reminds me of the duets of Blind Willie Johnson and his first wife Willie B. Harris. And going it solo for two sides, “Canaan’s Land” and “Pure Religion,” is the mysterious Blind Gussie Nesbit, his material a bit remindful of Rev. Gary Davis and Leadbelly.

Of the Primitive Baptist Choir of North Carolina’s six cuts (their entire output), “Fight on Your Time Ain’t Long” is a fervent groove spurred on by at least one handclap (like everything here, the 78-sourced quality is understandably rough) and “Heaven Belongs to You” finds a female voice leading a brisk sing-along, but “Father I Stretch My Hand Up to Thee,” “I Love Thy Church O Lord” and “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds” are just as passionate in the slower call and response precision associated with the shape note style.

Though more infused with the “soulfulness” soon to impact 20th century popular music, Elder Oscar Saunders & Congregation do share an environment of audio vérité with the recordings of the Primitive Baptist Choir of North Carolina, a jubilant fly-on-the-wall facet the distant piano in “Preaching with Singing” and “Everybody Will Be Happy over There” only accentuates.

This circumstance bookends the set. “On Jordan’s Stormy Bank We Sand” by the Seventh Day Adventists Choir opens disc one with a prayer; the mood following is at times feverish and consistently drenched in emotion. Closing disc three is the booming emphatic buzz saw voice of Rev. A. W. Nix on “Going to Hell and Who Cares.”

In between come variations from Rev. T. E. Weems, Rev. William Ransom w/ Sisters Callie Hunter & Pauline Tidwell w/ Brother William Christopher, and the Rev. Emmet Dickinson’s surprisingly frank “What the Men Wanted the Women Was Sitting On.” But the best are from Rev. J.C. Burnett with Sisters Lucille Smith & Fannie Cox, two tracks oozing raw-throated and unpredictable zeal.

By contrast the Jubilee Gospel Team, who are also featured on the recent Third Man/Revenant Paramount Records monster, utilized guitar, piano accordion, washboard and more, with “Let Jesus Lead You” growing gradually faster and wilder as it progresses. A la Clayborn, “Stations Will Be Changed” and “Don’t Know When Old Death Will Call for Me” adhere to a highly similar musical template with variation in the vocals (i.e. the message, dig). However, “I Know the Lord Has Laid His Hands on Me” does hold some instrumental variation.

The Laurel (Mississippi) Fireman’s Quartette also employs guitar, but less vigorously, with the mode of singing on their “You Gotta Live Your Religion Every Day” fairly reminiscent of the white southern gospel vocal style. And next to much of what surrounds it, their “I Won’t Have to Cross Jordan Alone” is positively urbane. “Rejoicing on the Way” by the Georgia-based Fa Sol La Singers returns us to the shape note technique in unique fashion.

Combining two of the main currents here, McCollum’s Sanctified Singers “Glory! Glory! Hallelujah” is sprightly tune backed by guitar and possibly banjo, while “Oh Lord I’m Your Child” uses the same accompaniment as the pitch shifts from joyous to pleading. Later Mother McCollum gets sole credit on the bluesy “When I Take My Vacation in Heaven” and “I Want To See Him,” the latter a team-up with an unidentified male voice, and again I’m reminded of Blind Willie and Willie B.

It should go without saying that what’s here represents only a segment of African-American cultural life as it flourished between the two World Wars; as Brother Fullbosom’s satirical “Sermon on a Silver Dollar” from the aforementioned Paramount undertaking essays, not all blacks had religion during this period.

But When I Reach That Heavenly Shore tenders a wide range of those who were gripped by spirituality and had it down deep, performers that would very likely welcome the anonymity enveloping them and even encourage more, with nothing left but the sounds and ideas found in the grooves of these artifacts. Make of them what you will.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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