Gospel turns a lot of people off, especially those who hate having Jesus crammed down their throats. Or being told they’re riding the “black diamond express to hell,” the way the Rev. A.W. Nix does, groaning like a Depression-era DMX, on Goodbye, Babylon, a lavish six-CD box of recordings by sanctified singers and tambourine spankers dating from 1902 to 1960. The moralizing might be off-putting, but the music—from Ernest Stoneman to Blind Willie Johnson—is unvarnished and unhinged. And you can’t beat it for theater.
For horror there’s the Southern Broadcasters, a holiness string-band whose “Are You Washed in the Blood” anticipates Carrie’s prom scene by 40 years. For the surreal there’s Brother Claude Ely shouting about graves splitting open come the Judgment, or Mother McCollum, a pre-war guitar evangelist with visions of Jesus piloting the faithful to glory in an “air-o-plane.” And death metal has nothing on the Rev. J.M. Gates, who works his congregation into a lather with his outré sermon “Death Might Be Your Santa Claus.” As Sister Rosetta Tharpe testifies: “Strange things happening every day.”
Well, not every day, maybe: From jubilee singing to sacred harp, there’s no shortage of regular-issue old-time religion here too. And to the compilers’ credit, these 160 outpourings of mostly Southern piety smack neither of “Old Weird America” revisionism nor huckster conceits like the “secret history of rock ‘n’ roll.” Rather, as if expanding the “religious music” disc of Harry Smith’s anthology (the set comes in an 8″ x 11″ cedar box stuffed with photos, notes, and illustrations), the Dust-to-Digital folks just stick the music on a fork for us to gnaw on.
Along with the familiar likes of Skip James, Thomas A. Dorsey, and the Louvin Brothers, we get Arizona Dranes, the Trumpeteers, Blind Mamie Forehand. And infusing much of the music is a blessedly fevered carnality that gives lie to their moans, groans, and shouts of praise. “Are these tambourine players and guitar screamers inhabited by Christ?” asked the late collector and guitarist John Fahey. “Underneath it all I hear pan pipes tooting and a cloven hoof beating in time.”