Various Artists: This May Be My Last Time Singing - Raw African-American Gospel On 45rpm 1957-1982
This May Be My Last Time Singing: Raw African-American Gospel on 45rpm 1957-1982
Tompkins Square Records
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was a renewal in interest in American prewar folk music, particularly early jazz, rural blues and black gospel music. This occurred primarily because a small knot of British and American, slightly obsessive-compulsive, record collectors and/or academics turned their attention from old jazz on 78rpm discs to similarly esoteric sound recordings made in the middle-to-late 1920s by a small din of African-American musicians who doubled as day laborers in the rich and unforgiving Mississippi Delta region. The line between jazz, blues and gospel, all children of the African-American experience, was indeed thin in the beginning.
The folk revival of the 1960s was accompanied by an evolving soundtrack, beginning with a reissue of many of these old 78s on the relatively young long-playing vinyl records. The first documentation of the Southern gospel renaissance was released on British architectural historian and blues enthusiast Paul Oliver's Saints and Sinners (Document, 1994) and American guitarist and musicologist John Fahey's American Primitive Vol. 1: Raw Pre-War Gospel (Revenant, 1997). These releases were only the beginning of a trend that exists to today.
Almost 50 years on, this vein of fossil music has been mined, defined, refined and enshrined. While some vestiges of scholarship continue and facts remain stubbornly unknown, the extant body of prewar gospel music has been pretty well nailed down. Break to the present and there emerges writer and Yeti- founder Mike McGonigal, who assembled a sprawling collection of black gospel music: Fire In My Bones: Raw, Rare & Otherworldly African-American Gospel 1944- 2007 (Tompkins Square, 2009) as a labor of his love for this rarefied music.
For Fire in My Bones Mike McGonigal, foremost an avid record collector, covered miles of field recordings, regional label offerings and major commercial statements, from Los Angeles to the old Deep South. McGonigal originally intended to document the street preacher and "sanctified blues" gospel tradition that began in the 1920s and 1930s, following it as it evolved into the present. However, he found his original paradigm too restricting, and allowed his project to grow unabated into the big, beautiful, shaggy-rescue-dog sampler it became.
For his followup collection, This May Be My Last Time Singing: Raw African- American Gospel on 45rpm 1957-1982, McGonigal fine-tuned his selection criteria, restricting himself to gospel music released on 45rpm singles on small, local labels, between the mid 1950s and early 1980s. McGonigal assures us there was no lack of material to consider, demonstrating his nearly encyclopedic grasp on his subject. In the 1960s and 1970s, anyone could cut a 7-inch 45rpm single in the same way rappers would produce cassette mixtapes from cheap 4-track recorders in the 1990s. In the case of regional gospel music, the end to the means was more often the sacred expression than the promise of financial gain. That is what makes this music so sweet and vital...and pure.
McGonigal approached his task with the unbridled zeal of the same pan- musicologist/teen-aged music-crazed listener malady that afflicted the late Lester Bangs, who made music, and its acquisition, a ministry. The result of this zeal is nothing short of a critical mass of nuclear wonder. McGonigal reasons in his well- crafted notes that This May Be My Last Time Singing "is not a clinical sampler; these are songs that I'm most obsessed with, that if you dropped by my house I'd say 'you have to hear this.'" That is youthful, naked excitement, like peeling the shrink-wrap off of Green River for the first time in 1969 or downloading Tha Carter IV in 2011. It is tantamount to a friend telling you they just ate the best barbecue in his or her life and you have got to try it.
The greatest praise McGonigal offers in his extensive notes on the pieces in the collection is to Rev. R. Henderson's "Stop Living on Me," (CD 2, track 1): "This 45 not only lacks a label name or address, but any sort of matrix number which one might use to, at the least, identify a record's region and era...For a very particular kind of music freak, it's a perfect little record." This is music without commercial pedigree, produced soli deo gloria by believers who have no room for doubt in their convictions, singing for the sheer praise power of it.
Like Fire in My Bones, McGonigal divides This May Be My Last Time Singing into three camp meetings. The first is entitled "The Devil's Trying to Steal My Joy," taken after Prophet George Lusk's song of the same name. This brief 1:50 fragment of a song begins with a low piano marching figure soon covered by a dirty, over-driven electric guitar. Prophet Lusk sings with a clarion baritone, trampling all of the harmonic changes in his way. His voice has a clarity only comparable to that of Elmore James in full flight, something feral and barely restrained. There is no slurring here as Lust declares, "Me and the devil / cannot agree / I hate the devil / and he sho' do hate me...the devil's tryin' to steal my joy."
McGonigal's second camp meeting is entitled "Perfect Like the Angels" and is introduced by the aforementioned "Stop Living On Me," which has a strange, hypnotic sound, a simple guitar figure in E played over and over again with barely discernible lyrics being sung behind it. It sounds like a John Lee Hooker dirge refracted through the prism of Keith Richards, strumming his guitar on the toilet at Nellcote during the summer of 1971. It begs the question, "why was this ever recorded," and that is what makes it so compelling. The disc title song, "Perfect Like the Angels" contains a drum machine propelling the Sounds of Soul and their lead singer Selma Kirkendall into ecstasy. Yes, she is full of the Holy Spirit here; this is where the soul takes flight.
The third disc carries the subtitle "All Wrap Up in One," the title of an a capella release by Floridian Otis Wright and the Spiritual Harmonizers from the 1970s. If one disc in this set is richer than the others, it is this one. Opening with a Wurlitzer and electric guitar-pounding "Jesus is on the Main Line" by The Whirlwinds (McGonigal's one violation of his plan to include only a single selection per artist, as The Whirlwinds appeared on the first disc with "(Make Old) Satan Leave Me Alone"), the third disc is as long as it is wide. Arkansan Calvin Leavy, long associated with the infamous Cummins Prison Farm, recorded "He Walks With Me (Parts 1 & 2)" for the local Messenger label in 1976 with the Cummins Prison Farm singers. Rap artists make much of "street cred." Calvin Leavy epitomized street credibility.
A final strident note is struck firmly on Nathaniel Rivers' cover of the traditional "I'm a Pilgrim." All rises from the murky organ/electric guitar depths where blues, jazz, country and rock music meet. As much as anything, This May Be My Last Time Singing displays how the popular music of the day rubbed off on gospel, giving it a rhythm and blues flavor, or a soul flavor, seasoned with doo-wop, rock and jazz. This music is more compelling and important than any of the existing hundreds of "Christian music" purveyors currently clotting the sacred airways. It is safe to say, and without too much hyperbole, that Mike McGonigal's Fire In My Bones and This May Be My Last Time Singing are the most important releases of their type since Oliver's Saints and Sinners.
Track and Personnel: CD 1: He Will Fix It / The Harris Singers; I Am Saved / Silver Harpes; Jesus Been Good / The Fantastic Angels; I Never Heard a Man / The Gospel Keys; The Devil's Trying to Steal My Joy / Prophet George Lusk; I Heard of a City / Carolina Kings; I've Got to Move to a Better Home / Rev. George Oliver; Walk with God / Elder Robert McMurray; This May Be My Last Time Singing / Missionary Mamie Sample; Put Your Hand in the Hand / R. Jenkins and the Dayton Harmonaires; Cloud Hanging Low, Pt. 2 / Missionaires; I Need You Jesus / James Spiritual Singers; I'll Fly Away / Traveling Alstars; You Better Mind, Pts. 1 & 2 / The Skylifters; Do You Think God Will Let You By / Joiner's Five Trumpets; I Came a Long Way / Reliable True Tones; Don't Let Nobody Turn You Around / Rev. J.W. Neely and Family; Stop Now / Willie Cotton; Oh Lord I Have No Friend / The Traveling Four; Prodigal Son / Southern Jubilee Singers; Down Here Praying / The Detroit Silvertones; (Make Old) Satan Leave Me Alone / Sensational Whirlwinds; One Morning Soon / Joyce and Johnita Collins; Zechariah / The Pilgrim Rest M.B. Church Male Chorus.
CD 2: Stop Living on Me / Rev. R. Henderson; Ain't It a Shame / Echoes of Harmony; He Got His Eyes on You / Brother Sidney Harris; When He Called My Name / The Mighty Wings; Baptized / The Clefs of Calvary; I Heard a Prayer, Pts. 1 & 2 / Rev. Elijah Thurston; I'm Working on a Building / Grady Coffee; Perfect Like the Angels / The Sounds of Soul; So Many Fallen by the Wayside / The Dedicators; If You Ever Need a Friend / The Masonic Travel's of Memphis, Tennessee; On the Right Road Now / Crump Brothers; I Believe I Will Go Home / Big Dan and the Gospel Heavyweights; Save Me Jesus / Southland Stingers; God's New Building / Little Midget; May Be My Last Time / Jerry and Naomi Jerkins; Jesus Gave Me Water / McCauley Spiritual Singers; Be There in the Happening, Pt. 2 / Rev. Curtis Watson; I Found a Friend / Mighty Gospel Singers; I'm a Child of My God / Gospel Creators; Let Your Will Be Done / Spiritual Echoes; If It Wasn't for the Lord What Would I Do / Cumberland River; This Old Light of Mine / Gospel Six of Gadsen, SC; I Got to Make It / Ethel Profit; Where Could I Go / Friendly Five; Who / Sunset Jubilee Singers.
CD 3: Jesus Is on the Mainline / The Whirlwinds; God Don't Take No Vacation / Brother Smith & His Stars of Harmony; The Lord Will Make a Way / Sensational Six; Oh Lord Help Me / Fire Side Spiritual Singers; God Is Taking Care / Deacon James Williams; Supernatural Prayer, Pts. 1 & 2 / The Pastor That Lives Faith; Jesus Will Fix It / Pleasant Grove Community Chorus of Saulsburg, TN; He Walks with Me, Pts. 1 & 2 / The Cummins Prison Farm Singers All Wrap Up in One / Otis Wright; Bless the People Everywhere / The Burden Lifters; Milky White Way / Zion Travelers; I Went to the House / The Golden Stars; I've Got a Good Feeling / Spiritual Harmonizers of Little Rock, AK; Send the Holy Ghost / Brother Clark & His Trio; Don't You Know Me Thomas / Rev. H.B. Crum; The Little Light / The Fantastic Voices of Joy; I Got Jesus (And That's Enough) / Sylvia Phillip; There's a Place / Jessie Lee Harris; I'm a Pilgrim / Nathaniel Rivers; My Lord and I / Willenette Gospel Singers of Los Angeles, CA; This May Be My Last Time / Brother Will Hairston; Peace in the Valley / Rev. Lonnie Farris; Jesus Is Living Today / The Triplett Singers.