American Primitive, Vol. 1: Raw Pre-War Gospel (1926Ė36)
Leave it to John Fahey. With a limited budget, heís unable to clean up the ancient 78s this compilation is drawn from, and so the first release from his new label includes numerous tracks that are virtually unintelligible thanks to all the hiss and surface noise. Younger listeners will probably find much of it hard to listen to. But for those who came up in the pre-CD era, this will sound a lot like the scratchy vinyl albums that used to come out on labels like Biograph and Yazoo. Those were labors of love put together by hard-core fans, and so is this.
Itís 26 hair-raising tracks by sacred musicians who did most of their singing and playing on the streets (plus you get to follow the idiosyncratic twists and turns of Faheyís liner notes). Itís much more exaltation than admonition, though a track like Blind Willie Davisí "I Believe Iíll Go Back Home," with the interplay between voice and bottleneck, is a good argument that sorrow forms the heart of even this music. And the disc goes out with the equally arresting "Prayer of Death ó Parts 1 and 2," by one Elder J.J. Hadley, who is actually Delta bottleneck guitarist Charley Patton. Another well-known bluesman, Booker White (usually identified as Bukka, and identified here as Washington White), sounds forceful as ever on "I Am in the Heavenly Way."
Several of the other artists here are better known as bluesmen, while more are not known at all, though surely they should be. Eddie Head and His Family get three tracks, with "Down on Me" being the obvious source for the Janis Joplin/Big Brother and the Holding Company song of the same name. Blind Roosevelt Graves and Brother play nimble picking off against sweetly melodic singing on "Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind on Jesus)." Elder Otis Jones surges through a sermon called "Holy Mountain," while Austin Coleman with Joe Washington Brown and Group threaten to stampede right off the record on "Good Lord (Run Old Jeremiah").
In other words, this blues-gospel fusion is great stuff. I donít know what Fahey plans to do next, but Iím confident itíll be great stuff, too.
ó John Morthland