various artists,
I Heard the Angels Singing
(Tompkins Square, 2013)

Though I've heard a fair amount of it in the course of a wide-ranging listening life, I claim no expertise in the area of black gospel music. Still, I am sufficiently confident to assert that if you have one set of it in your CD collection, I Heard the Angels Singing is almost certainly the one you want. Its subtitle elaborates: Electrifying Black Gospel Music from the Nashboro Label, 1951-1983. And here at the top of this review is the place to express our collective gratitude for Tompkins Square and its fellow reissue imprints, making great American vernacular music newly available and sounding -- in the basic engineering sense -- better than ever. It's not done for the love of money.

Nashboro was the creation of Ernest L. Young, who supplied product for jukeboxes out of his Nashville-based record store. Knowing there was a wealth of unsigned talent in the region, he built a studio on the third floor of his building and attracted African-American church-singing groups. The label was founded in 1951. From then on, Young produced recordings until he let the label go in the early 1990s. After establishing Nashboro, he would found the better-known secular imprint Excello, from which he issued classic sides by the likes of Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester and other fondly remembered figures who cut some of the most admired records in the history of mid-century blues.

The 80 well-selected Nashboro cuts on this retrospective document gospel's relationship to post-war popular music and -- in the first disc; the set moves forward chronologically -- the surviving echoes of 19th-century sacred folk music. These are, of course, overwhelmingly anthems of testimony, exhortation, conviction, affirmation and comfort, variously rousing and contemplative, typically built from a fierce lead vocal backed by sweet harmonies with instruments usually mixed more or less into the background. The influence of r&b, soul, doowop and even white hillbilly music in arrangements, rhythms and melodies will be readily audible to anyone versed in the more grounded pop music of the three decades I Heard covers.

Of course the influence wasn't in only one direction. The Rolling Stones rewrote "This May Be the Last Time" (done strikingly here by the Consolers) with secular lyrics, shortened the title to "The Last Time," and scored a hit with it in 1965. I first heard "Let the Church Roll On" (Sister Lucille Barbee) on a Stanley Brothers album. The roots of Flying Cloud Quintet's churning "Jezebel" can be traced to the same sort of sacred ballad tradition that produced "Samson & Delilah." "Good Morning" (Singing Crusaders) is set to a melody some will recognize as from the country chestnut "Ragged But Right," sung by everybody from Riley Puckett to George Jones.

An embarrassment of riches like this collection can easily overwhelm listener and reviewer alike. I can attest that repeated listenings, during each of which new jewels emerge to shine brightly, will take you nowhere near the familiarity that breeds contempt. I Heard the Angels Singing feels like years' worth of rewarding exposure. I think, though, that however often I return to the well, the Brooklyn Allstars' unflinchingly soulful, death-haunted, heaven-looming "Stood on the Banks of Jordan" (disc four) will remain my favorite. It's a staggeringly resonant song, reaching back to the spiritual tradition, with a performance, all 5:46 of it, to match, a reminder of the psychic depths that the most perfectly realized musical expression can reach.

music review by
Jerome Clark

1 March 2014

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