Josh White & the
Golden Gate Quartet,
(Bridge, 2002)

Here is a magnificent aural artifact, an hour of live material from bluesman Josh White and the gospel group, the Golden Gate Quartet. The event was: "A Concert in Celebration of the 75th Anniversary of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States ... with commentary by Sterling Brown, Alain Locke, and Alan Lomax," and was recorded at the Library of Congress on December 20, 1940.

The commentary gets a bit heady at times, with the three white scholars declaiming to the audience, telling them what they're hearing. One gets a bit impatient, particularly with Sterling Brown's nearly eight-minute lecture, "What Are the Blues?" Better to let the performers sing -- if the audience doesn't get it from the music, they never will. Alan Lomax comes off best, even though he waxes somewhat pedantic: "The stock of work songs that the Negro has created in the United States compare favorably to the spiritual tunes and the blues/ragtime/jazz idiom which you just heard. ... And now I want to show you a group of work songs in their functional context."

For all the high-falutin' language, the music comes through beautifully. The sound is just incredible for recordings made 60 years ago, and the songs themselves are delicious. The musical numbers are split into three sections: Spirituals, Blues and Ballads, and Reels and Work Songs. In the first part, the Golden Gate Quartet triumphs with such classics as "Oh Mary, Don't You Weep," "Noah" and "We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder." Their vocal blend is majestic.

Josh White and his smooth and seductive voice naturally take the stage for the second set, singing "How Long Has That Evening Train Been Gone" and his own "Silicosis Blues," and joining the quartet for "Poor Lazarus," "John Henry," and "Trouble." White's voice is like velvet, smooth and seductive. Despite Lomax's running commentary, the work song section is great fun, especially "The Railroad Worker's Camp," where Lomax's comments become quite valuable, explaining the different meanings behind each song and chant, showing the practical side of these often heard but little understood work calls.

The entire package is a gem, with a 32-page illustrated booklet giving an analysis and background to the concert. It's not often one finds a historical document that is so listenable and enjoyable. While the spoken comments are naturally suffused with the social tenor of the times, the music speaks for itself and does not age.

[ by Chet Williamson ]
Rambles: 7 June 2002

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