Monday, July 02, 2007

Good Albums

I was looking for some good recordings of old spirituals and the like. In my initial searches, I kept finding albums by the likes of Jessye Norman or Leontyne Price or various choirs -- all of which are nice in their own way, but the sound is so polished and professional and classical. I wanted to find something that was rawer, more authentic, more earthy, more like how those songs would have originally sounded.

Well, I found some great recordings that were all made close to 50 or more years ago.

First was Southern Journey, Vol. 12: Georgia Sea Islands - Biblical Songs And Spirituals, one of many field recordings made by folklorist Alan Lomax. This one was made in 1959-60 on St. Simon's Island, off the coast of Georgia. Here's a liner note typical of what is provided about each of the songs:
The Sea Islanders' "Moses" was improvised in a performance that arose momentarily, in response to a query. It was one of those lucky recordings, when everyone present felt completely relaxed, the mike was in just the right place, and the song emerged gently out of a mood of contemplative silence. Its powerful simplicity takes the listener back to the days when slaves sat in their dark cabins in the evenings and sang for consolation, brooding over the despair of their lives, thinking of the dangers that threatened them, and identifying their fate with Moses and the Children is Israel fleeing Pharaoh's armies. Bessie Jones said that her grandparents in North Georgia also sang "Moses" with slightly different words. When asked if he knew "Go Down Moses," John Davis replied, scornfully, "Why, everybody know that. Here's one everybody don't know." He looked down. The silence gathered. Then he began to sing in a hoarse whisper, as if he were talking in a graveyard hideout of runaway slaves.
The next was a fascinating find; I never knew that such recordings existed: Black Appalachia: String Bands, Songsters And Hoedowns. This is a recording of bluegrass-style banjo and stringband music, played by black people across the South in the 1930s and 1940s. The playing is often a bit rough, as is the recording itself, but it's still enjoyable. There are a couple of songs that even have a traditional blues chord progression.

Finally, I really enjoy Been In The Storm So Long: A Collection Of Spirituals, Folk Tales And Children's Games From Johns Island, South Carolina. The liner notes say, "This collection of spirituals and shouts, prayers, folk tales, and children's games, was recorded on Johns Island, South Carolina, in the early 1960s. . . . These islands hold in common a Gullah folk culture with survivals that are among the oldest forms of African American folk life to be found in the United States today. . . . Some of the recordings were made in Moving Star Hall, built in the 1913 as a 'praise house' for the community. Worship patterns continue here that evolved during slavery times on the plantations. A distinctive example is the religious 'shout' in which complex hand and foot rhythms are added to the singing as the spirit mounts."

The liner notes contains a great deal more information and pictures. One singer says, "All these songs go way back yonder in slavery time, when them old people didn't have nothing to do but grow sweet potatoes and corn and grind corn grits, and then they sat down and taught us these old songs. Always it was families together, we sit down by the old chimney fire and were taught these old songs. . . . We sing these old songs because we made our daddy a promise. He tell us that one of these days he gonna leave us, but though he leave us he still be with us as long as we keep these old songs up."

And another singer says this:
When I were growing up, I must have seen one White man in my life. And I was so scared of that White man I never see his face. You might see but two White man in the whole Johns Island then. But now the Island is full of White people. There so many White people it seem like they always one now. Before then you wouldn't see no White people there in six or seven months. But now, the world is nothing but White people. White people!

The Bible says you must love your fellow mans, 'gardless of what color you are, you must love em. Ain't no need for I love my color, hate you. Cause God don't please with it. Cause we all is God's children. We must love one another. Cause He don't care for ugly, and very little care for pretty. . . .

The church doesn't do a thing for you no more than preach a sermon. That's all the preacher do for you. But you got to live a life living right here. The way you walk and the way you talk, the way your action -- there's your sermon right there. You preaching your sermon before you die.

The way you treat people that's your heaven right there. Now if you born dumb, you just dumb. If you're a mean person all your life, you're just a mean person; people can't say good for you. If you're a good person all your life, that's all people will say is he's a good person. Got to first have heaven here before you have Heaven. If you have speck in your heart, you cannot get in God's kingdom. I never been up there yet, but I feel about it.

Here are some more that I intend to get eventually, many of them also recorded by Alan Lomax:

A recording of black cowboys from Texas: Black Texicans: Balladeers And Songsters Of The Texas Frontier.

Deep River of Song: Georgia.

Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia.

The Deep River of Song: Alabama.

Got the Keys to the Kingdom: South Carolina.

Deep River of Song: Virginia and the Piedmont.

Deep River of Song: Louisiana - Catch That Train and Testify!


Blogger M. Sean Fosmire said...

You may be aware that Moby's Play album was chock-full of samples from the Lomax collection.

8:30 PM  

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