Old Time Gospel

I adore Old Time Gospel music, and have been pleasantly surprised over the past few years at how many of my old gospel cassette tapes, 8-tracks or albums I’ve been able to find in digital format online. It’s somehow both incongruous and uplifting to sit at a computer listening to tracks first recorded on acetates in 1927, but the quality, warmth, passion and spirit of the music seems to have wholly survived the transition in media.

My all-time favorite gospel performer is probably Reverend James Cleveland. (I’m listening to his “God Can Do Anything But Fail” as I type this post). Back in the mid-’80s I found a bulk box of his cassettes on the Savoy Records label at a record warehouse and bought something like 12 hours of his music for less than five dollars. It was a good deal, for sure, and I played those cassettes to death over the years.

It’s been wonderful to find some of my favorites of his songs online, alongside works by such venerable gospel performers as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Elder Anderson Johnson, Brother Joe May, The Spirit of Memphis Quartet, The Roberta Martin Singers, The Swan Silvertones, Shirley Caesar and The Soul Stirrers (featuring Sam Cooke, early in his singing career).

I’ve also especially enjoyed finding relatively clean digital copies of all of Washington Phillips‘ 78-rpm recordings. He was a zither-playing circuit preacher who recorded a small but amazingly profound, moving and influential body of work in the late 1920s. Phillips sang entire sermons in some of his songs, and his work still sounds mystical, moving, and meaningful, and I highly recommend tracking his music down. When he sang “I am born to sing the gospel, and I sure love do love my job,” you know he meant it, and that he wasn’t being arrogant when he sang it.

I suspect that if there wasn’t a cultural bias against spiritual music among most members of the contemporary musical cognoscenti and critical circles, then Washington Phillips would be regarded today as every bit the equal of the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson, because, children, he was.

Can I get a witness?


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