Blind Willie McTell hollers the Gospel

McTellGoodbye, Babylon, a boxed six-CD set of music and sermons distributed by a startup called Dust-to-Digital, has led to some remarkably faith-friendly writing in recent months. Here, for instance, is veteran reviewer David Fricke in the Jan. 29 Rolling Stone:

Who says the devil has all the best tunes? Six discs of smashingly great gospel music from the 78-rpm era this fantastic box of holy ruckus is the greatest anthology of antique Southern sacred song and oratory ever assembled.

In 1930′s “Memphis Flu,” Elder Curry and his Mississippi congregation turn local news — a deadly outbreak of influenza — into a galloping lesson on the democracy of God’s wrath.

Goodbye, Babylon also disproves the old rock & roll maxim that the devil has the best tunes: God owned many of them first.

Chris Willman gave Babylon a brief but glowing notice in Entertainment Weekly (subscription or AOL account required):

Races and gospel subgenres mix (the Stanley Brothers pray alongside Blind Willie McTell, to cite a couple fleeting “name” acts), united by a hardscrabble rural existence, dread of sin, and hope of flight. The package too is a thing of beauty, an oversize cedar box that envelops 135 songs and 25 sermons in healthy annotation and actual cotton bolls. If “O Brother” was the “coffee-table album” of its year, “Babylon” feels like the coffee table itself.

The Washington Post goes to great lengths to assure its readers that one needn’t be a fundamentalist to appreciate the musical worth of songs like “The Bible’s True,” “The Bible’s Right” and “There Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down.” (Sample lyric from “The Bible’s True,” performed by Uncle Dave Macon, a “former mule driver and musician from Tennessee known to wield his banjo like a shotgun”: “There ain’t no man from anywhere born make a monkey out of me.”)

In the same article by Eddie Dean, the Post provides a satisfying profile of Lance Ledbetter, a young entrepreneur who had the vision to compile this music and paid for most of the project’s expenses on his own credit card:

A 27-year-old native Georgian, Ledbetter says his model was Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music” from 1952; reissued by Smithsonian Folkways in 1997, the sprawling, artfully annotated compilation spurred Ledbetter’s interest in race and hillbilly records from the ’20s and ’30s.

With “Goodbye, Babylon,” Ledbetter set out to document the long-neglected gospel scene. As with Smith, his goal wasn’t simply to reissue old records but to resurrect the culture — “the Christ-haunted South,” Flannery O’Connor called it — that gave birth to these religious outpourings.

“I wanted to create a world where you can enter and submerge into and spend some time and come up with different ideas,” he says. “I wanted to produce something on that level where you get lost in it.”

It was nearly five years ago when Ledbetter first “got lost” in the project. As a disc jockey at an Atlanta college radio station, he began to explore old-time sacred music, a far cry from the spirituals he’d heard as a boy in church in northwest Georgia. “I was raised Methodist,” he says. “Very starchy-collared, upright Anglo hymns, really formal, not a lot of expression.” Next to such bland fare, the fiery exhortations of sanctified singers such as Blind Gary Davis and Eddie Head made him a convert, not to the church — Ledbetter remains a lapsed Methodist — but to the artistry and passion of gospel musicians.

Ron Wynn of Nashville City Paper commented on how Babylon proves captivating not only to lapsed Methodists but also to people who have little interest in church:

Even publications that never review gospel are devoting column inches to Goodbye, Babylon. Longtime critical cynics, even avowed agnostics and atheists, are just as captivated and wowed by these tunes as hardcore Christians. No reissue in recent years has better depicted gospel music’s diversity, importance and influence on every idiom in American music circles.

Dust-to-Digital’s simple and elegant website offers links to the diverse media coverage of Goodbye, Babylon. And it offers this spiritually hip (and charmingly self-promoting) blessing to the artists this project honors: “We commend to Almighty God the brothers and sisters on these discs; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to digital. The Lord bless them and keep them, the Lord make his face to shine upon them and be gracious unto them and give them peace. Amen.”

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  • http://clientandserver.com dw

    Next time I have expendable income I’ll look into picking this up.

    On the same line Shanachie Records put out a set of CDs a few years ago of primitive gospel recordings transcribed from 78s. Couldn’t find them on Amazon, but they’re worth checking out. They’re mostly from the South and Southeast from the 1910s-1930s.


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