I Belong to This Band: Eighty-Five Years of Sacred Harp Recordings / How Low Can You Go?
A / B+
ust-to-Digital has quickly become—tying with John Fahey’s Revenant imprint—the premier boutique label for old-time and Americana reissues. Goodbye, Babylon, six discs of pre-war devotionals released in 2003, demonstrated the incredible reach of sacred subject matter in early American music. Country, blues, gospel—if it existed, someone had stuffed Jesus into it regardless of their proclivities (cf. porky banjoist and early Opry star Uncle Dave Macon hollering “The Bible Was True” to his naughtiness on “I Like My Bacon Good and Greasy”). Cheap, unspecific objects are now so status quo that we have to console ourselves with fantasies about the beauty of mass production to stave off depression; Goodbye Babylon came in a wooden box with a stalk of cotton. Two recent releases from the label, one of a gospel choral style singing called Sacred Harp and a 3-disc set highlighting the transition from tuba to bass in early jazz, further the seemingly unbelievable assertion that, in the history of recorded music, gravediggers can still serve as prophets or midwives.
Before punk’s will and black gospel’s spiritualism, before the catharsis of power electronics, before the ecstasy of mass participation was realized as an artistic pursuit rather than just a quasi-spiritual coincidence, there was Sacred Harp singing.
Sacred Harp singing was named after The Sacred Harp, the 1844 shape-note hymnal from which most of the style’s music comes. Shape notation was a method designed in the northeast in the late 19th century to make learning to read music easier. It died out up north, but since people pushing Christ generally like to have a good hook, it took off in southern states as a way to disseminate sacred music—not only was it easier, it didn’t require instrumental accompaniment, and Sacred Harp music was generally sung in “gatherings” rather than church. The choir breaks into lines of the four standard groups—soprano, alto, tenor, bass—and then arranges in a large square, with each section facing inward. Participants take turns in the middle, leading the group in song. No call-and-response, no such thing as audience.
“Gospel” might be a misleading term for a new listener. Sacred Harp is void of blue notes and the mysteries of soul—really, of the sensuousness of religious experience. It is often both loud and without vibrato; it is naked, incredibly powerful music. On the songs sung in rounds, it sounds like each new section is trying to sing louder than the last. It’s not an effect, it’s an encouragement; the large-choir recordings on I Belong to the Band swell when it feels like there’s no room, they beat wings against the windows. They almost made me crash my car the other day. The unpolished quality of the voices—what some might call amateur—only accentuates the music’s unbridled enthusiasm and sense of collectivity.
Sacred Harp singing, unlike early black gospel, didn’t inform much of anything that followed; though the tracks here range from 1922 to last year’s singing convention in Henegar, Alabama (recorded by Matt Hinton, who produced the companion documentary, Awake, My Soul), almost nothing has changed. During a phone conversation with Matt the other day, he asked me how I became interested in this music. “I saw a band try to arrange their music for Sacred Harp choir once, and the sound was just staggering.” He told me that there were three Sacred Harp groups gathering in Manhattan and Brooklyn alone.
The premise of How Low Can You Go—to chart the replacement of the frumpy-ass tuba with the sly plunk of the string bass in old-timey music—is garbage, as far as I’m concerned. Yes, many of these songs prominently feature basses. String basses make a charming percussive noise, which you’ve no doubt heard. String bass is to tapdance as tuba is to waddle. Brilliant. Really, though, the premise is just an excuse to put out three great discs of jazz, rags, fiddle tunes, blues, and country dances.
Is it better than any collection of early American music you might hear? I’m absolutely not qualified to say. What I am qualified to say is that there’s a fascinating rhythm and dialogue between the different styles that springs up in the sequencing. You realize that the backbeat of country isn’t all that different from early R&B at some junctures; that jazz and hill-folk and blues all sprouted from the same seed.
But history is a legendarily boring selling point. Dust-to-Digital recently produced a documentary called Desperate Man Blues about Joe Brussard, probably the most important collector of early American records in the country. Watch him smoke cigars and slap his thighs. The man is batshit for something. And even though he’s repulsive when he says that pretty much all postwar music is “cancerous,” it’s hard to deny the pitch of his enthusiasm. Desperate Man Blues reminded me of the electric frivolity that pervades early American music but feels sadly absent now—at least absent without some sobering sense of purpose; watching Joe Brussard’s face boil with excitement over the flame of this primordial stuff mirrored the way I find myself flipping for music I love. Preservation is one thing, but raising the dead is a different trick entirely.