In early March 1865, one of the final battles of the Civil War was fought at a small southern Virginia crossroads known as Five Forks, in a fiercely rural locale called Dinwiddie County. Scarcely 40 years later, with the social and economic impact of the war still fresh on the minds of those who fought it and lived through it, a local gospel group recorded the spiritual "Down on the Old Camp Ground" in New York City for the Victor label.
They were known as the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet. It was 1902, and they were the first black vocal group ever recorded. The surviving recording of that performance is barely audible -- scratchy, tinny, distant and distorted, but it is nonetheless undeniably powerful. It spits and crackles with the residue of time, but the performance's exuberant quality shines through.
The connection between the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet and the Civil War's last great armed confrontation is tenuous, merely ironic at best (the tune pre-dates the war and was sung by Confederate soldiers as "Tenting on the Old Camp Ground"), but like the antiquated origins of the music itself, it serves as a bridge across history that makes "Goodbye, Babylon," a box-set compilation of old-time gospel and sacred music, so masterfully conceived and executed.
Like most of the music on this set, the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet's song was recorded on ancient technology in less than ideal conditions; in churches, makeshift studios, in the open air. Today, the tune's technological shortcomings only make it more appealing. Calling out for redemption and forgiveness across a century, warning of the justice of a righteous God, "Down on the Old Camp Ground" contains a zeal, an innocence and a timeless quality that makes it more than a museum piece.
Many of the vintage tunes on "Babylon" have lived well beyond their early recordings. Eddie Head and his Family's "Down on Me" would later be a concert staple for Janis Joplin, and "Washed in the Blood of the Lamb," from Da Costa Woltz's Southern Broadcasters, was transformed by the wandering ear of Woody Guthrie and recorded by Billy Bragg and Wilco on 2000's "Mermaid Avenue Vol. II."
Conceived, developed and financed by Lance Ledbetter, a 27-year-old Atlanta software installer, "Goodbye, Babylon" presents 160 recordings on six compact discs (five of widely diverse music and one of recorded sermons) that span the first half of the 20th century, though many tunes reach back to Colonial times. Even without the resplendent design (the discs come in an 8.5-by-11-inch cedar case, packed in raw cotton, and the set includes a 200-page book), "Babylon" presents a monumental piece of American cultural documentary, an embarrassment of riches.
"Babylon" collects recordings by known artists such as Hank Williams, the Louvin Brothers, Thomas A. Dorsey, Skip James and The Carter Family, artists who recorded occasional spirituals either out of pragmatism or genuine piety. Alongside them are performers for whom their lone recording date was perhaps the highlight of their career, and whose stories are lost to the mildew of time or known only to archivists: the Virginia Dandies, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Ernest Phipps and Congregation, Cotton Top Mountain Sanctified Singers. "Babylon" contains country music, stately hymns, string-band and jug-band music, acoustic blues and the haunting strains of sacred harp singing, all of it under this vast umbrella of gospel.
But taken as a whole, the music here easily transcends what would be considered the gospel genre and can be heard as nothing less than a testament of the social history of America itself. The secret to understanding the soul of America, how it formed, where it went awry and how it may once again redeem itself -- "the old, weird America" that rock scribe Greil Marcus hears in Bob Dylan's "Basement Tapes" -- "Babylon" shows existed all along.
Like Harry Smith's now famous 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, the breadth of gospel only needed to be presented in its own context to be understood fully as a major piece of the American experience. Here are black and white, Baptist, Methodist and Pentecostal, all in one tapestry, praising the same God and trying to save souls -- though maybe at times not the same souls.
Presented as a continuum, the songs on "Babylon" testify to the innumerable ways that Americans expressed their faith in song. There are raw, almost improvised-sounding performances, like the big-voiced Brother Claude Ely's "There Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down," with its rapturous clapping and freewheeling accompaniment from a congregation of background singers. The Rev. T.T. Rose and Singers belt out "Goodbye, "Babylon," Part 1" with such fervor that they sound dangerously close to overloading the microphones. Rose's voice, stretched and strained, rings with conviction even when it comes close to giving out on him.
But well-rehearsed, even restrained music appears on "Babylon" as well. The Alabama Sacred Harp Singers' multilayered "Present Joys" represents what became known as shape-note singing by the end of the 19th century. Dating to post-Renaissance European social music traditions, the curious form of transcribing and performing music was intended to simplify group singing for people who had no musical training or were of limited literacy. In the end, the form led to some of the most harmonically rich and complex music to emerge from American folk culture.
The recorded sermons possess an undeniable musicality as well. It's almost possible to count the bar patterns on the Rev. A.W. Nix's "Black Diamond Express to Hell," as he warns in a gruff baritone of the vices and sins that make one express-bound for damnation -- fornication, lying, gambling. His voice twists from one root note to a flattened third, at once mimicking the common blues scale like a guitar player bending notes and intoning the tradition of psalming, or singing prayer passages, still common in some churches.
But beyond being a monolith of great music and a testament to the cleansing powers of modern digital mastering, "Babylon's" unique appeal is that it demonstrates the sheer breadth of religion's impact on popular music, and that, in the end, nearly all strains of American folk music, up to and including what would become rock & roll, flowed from the same source.
In his 1993 book "Blues and Evil," musicologist Jon Michael Spencer sought to destroy the long-held assumption that the blues and gospel music of the pre-World War II South were subject to fierce separation, that Southern blacks who played the blues were reviled by the church establishment for their hard-drinking, sinful ways. He argued that blues singers and sacred singers were often the same people -- a fact "Babylon" makes plain: The two musical strands were nearly one and the same.
On "Babylon," Sister O.M. Terrell sings with clarion-voiced conviction on "The Bible's Right" that there is no room in heaven for philanderers or even tobacco chewers, but her bottleneck slide guitar accompaniment is straight Mississippi blues, as if she dragged a less than reluctant Fred McDowell into the studio with her for the date. And blues legend Blind Lemon Jefferson sings "All I Need Is That Pure Religion," originally released under the pseudonym Deacon L.J. Bates.
Spiritual music called more than just the fiercely devoted into its ranks. It was and, despite market segregation today, is a music for all people to enjoy and participate in. With commanding authority, "Goodbye, Babylon" is the most comprehensive audio overview of American spiritual music ever attempted, and it offers a glimpse at just how widely influential religion has been on the secular world of pop.