By James Calemine
“Two white horses side by side/Me and My Lord gon’ take a ride.”
Goodbye, Babylon exists as one of the most esteemed spiritual music collections ever released. This fine-crafted cedar box, packaged with raw cotton, contains 5 CDs, totaling 135 songs recorded from 1902-1960, and 1 CD featuring 25 sermons from 1926 through 1941. This stunning 2003 release proves a definitive compendium on American music. I met Dust To Digital president, Lance Ledbetter, in 2006. Goodbye, Babylon represents the label’s company’s first release of their prestigious catalogue.
A 200 page book accompanies the music. Each page of the book is dedicated to every featured artist. Each page also contains a Biblical passage and lyric transcriptions for songs.
Neil Young drew a great deal of attention to Goodbye, Babylon when he told a reporter from The Weekend Edition: “I recently got a gift from Bob Dylan, a good old friend of mine. He gave me a gospel collection of great old American music and early country roots from old 78s. It’s the original wealth of our recorded music; it’s the cream of the crop and has the history of each recording. It’s a great old set called Goodbye, Babylon and it’s incredible. It’s in a wooden box and everything, and it’s just beautiful.”
It took Dust To Digital president, Lance Ledbetter, four-and-a-half years to complete this timeless collection. Goodbye, Babylon received 2 GRAMMY Award nominations (Best Historical Album and Best Boxed Set or Special Limited package) in 2004. Ledbetter told me he received about two-thousand calls a month for a spate of time after Neil Young’s plug.
Goodbye, Babylon epitomizes Dust To Digital’s mission statement to “produce quality cultural artifacts which combine rare, essential recordings of historic images and detailed texts describing artists and their works.”
Disc One: Introduction
“The spirituals, hymns, and gospel songs that make up this collection are grouped around central themes on each disc. The first touches on death, joy, judgment, salvation and the apocalypse, and serves to introduce the other discs.” Every composition on this box set was digitally re-mastered from the original 78s. This is the largest single collection devoted to religious music. The first spiritual number on disc one, Reverend T.T. Rose and Singers’ “Goodbye, Babylon” reveals how these recordings transcend time, culture or spiritual stagnancy.
Charles Wolfe wrote in this book’s introduction: “The vast majority of these sessions were held in three locations: Atlanta, Dallas, and Memphis. But other important ones were staged in places like Bristol, Tennessee; Knoxville; Charlotte, Hot Springs, Arkansas; Jackson, Mississippi; Richmond, Virginia; St. Louis, Missouri; Johnson City; Winston-Salem; Louisville; Indianapolis; El Paso; Birmingham; and others.”
These spiritual tunes serve as a main staple to all southern music. Every one of these songs tells a story. One could dedicate a book on examination of Goodbye, Babylon. However, due to time constraints, this writer will highlight personal selections from this essential release.
“Are You Washed In the Blood of The Lamb”, performed by Da Costa Woltz’s Southern Broadcasters—complete with banjo, fiddle and haunting vocals–was recorded in 1928. Roosevelt Graves and his brother Aaron recorded “Woke Up This Morning (With Jesus On My Mind)” in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, during July of 1936.
“Present Joys”, performed by the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers is a “fuguing tune where overlapping entries by individual voice parts” truly sounds like a heavenly choir. Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “All I Want Is That Pure Religion” inspires. Before Jefferson’s death at 36, he recorded almost one-hundred songs during his three year recording career from 1926-1929.
J.E. Mainer’s Mountaineers rendition of “Satisfied” epitomizes the sound of Appalachian fiddle, banjo and hillbilly gospel. In Memphis, during February 1930, The Holy Ghost Sanctified Singers recorded “Thou Carest Lord, For Me”, which illustrates how even jug bands sang church music. The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet’s “Rock My Soul” sounds unearthly with the lyrics: “Well the poor man Lazarus/Just as poor as I/Children when he died/Got a home on high.”
The Arizona Dranes singing “Crucifixion” sounds just as emotive and alive now as when they recorded the song in 1926. The Louvin Brothers’ “I’ll Never Go Back” verifies Ira and Charlie Louvin’s everlasting genius for singing songs for the Lord.
Luther Magby’s soothing organ version of “Blessed Are the Poor In Spirit” was recorded in Atlanta during November of 1927. Reverend Gary Davis’ “I Belong To The Band” illuminates an interesting combination of song and recitation popular during small sermons of this era.
The Carter Family’s “River of Jordan” evoked a serious interest in their repertory beginning in the early 30s. “O Day” by Bessie Jones and the Sea Island Singers demonstrates the enduring power and majesty of slave songs. Alan Lomax recorded this song on St. Simons Island which serves as a vital link to a bygone era.
Disc Two: Deliverance Will Come
“On this disc, Noah is delivered from the flood, Daniel from the lions, and Jonah from the wilderness. God’s warnings can be heard, and examples of his displeasure can been seen in the 1918 influenza epidemic in Memphis (and the rest of the nation), and the flood that wiped out life on earth. There are pleas for help and advice to those doing wrong. The son of God is foreshadowed, as is his Crucifixion.”
Elder Curry and Congregation uphold a sanctified tradition on “Memphis Blues”. Ola Mae Long was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1911, and the street was the ministry she played. Ola Mae played a mean guitar while singing “The Bible’s Right”. A Stanley Brothers broadcast excerpt from this “sacred number” “Standing In The Need of Prayer” verifies a stark realization these guys were truly inspired. “That Blood That Stained The Old Rugged Cross” marks a March 1952 recording with Carl Smith accompanied by the Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle.
Tom Dorsey’s “How About You” conveys a direct spirit of this collection: “When shadows overtake me and trouble starts to brew/When I’ve done my best that I can do/My best friends talk about me, sometimes my kinfolk, too/But I take it all to Jesus, how about you?”
A classic Skip James tune, “Jesus Is A Mighty Good Leader” represents an essence of the blues. This version of the Kentucky Ramblers “Glory To The Lamb” was where the Carter family learned their stellar version. Jaybird Coleman, born in Birmingham, Alabama, was so popular the local Klu Klux Klan (!) acted as his manager, arranging for him to tour outside of Central Alabama. Coleman’s version of “I’m Gonna Cross The River of Jordan Some O These Days” sounds just as moving the day this song was recorded 90 years ago.
The Trumpeteers’ “Milky White Way” sounds as if one traveled in time to 1947 when this great song was recorded on a radio station in Baltimore. The Johnson Family Singers sang their way out of poverty in rural North Carolina by singing songs like the distinguished composition “Deliverance Will Come” on this CD.
A man called Jimpson sang “No More My Lord” while chopping wood at the State Penitentiary, in Parchman, Mississippi, recorded in 1947 by John and Alan Lomax. “The Bible’s Tune” sang by Uncle Dave Macon while he plays a banjo, contains a sermon that deals with the Darwin-centered controversy popular during this period. Blind Willie Davis, Elder Effie Hall and Congregation along with roaring Lion with Cyril Monrose String Quartet also provide heartfelt anthems on disc two.
Disc Three: Judgment
“Judgment chooses between the glory of righteous and the condemnation of the unrepentant sinner.”
Track one—“Down On The Old Campground”–rendered by the Dinwiddle Colored Quartet, in New York City on October 29, 1902, when 78s were created as opposed to cylinders made of fragile wax, makes waves in the holy water. The Norfolk Jubilee Quartet’s “My Lord’s Gonna Leave This Wicked Race” sounds wonderful. The singing evangelist Edward W. Clayborn warns churchgoers “Your Enemy Cannot Harm You (But Watch Your Close Friend)”.
The Alabama Sacred Harp Singers demonstrate on “Heavenly Vision” how “sacred harp” includes more hymns and revival choruses as well as settings of biblical texts known as anthems. Blind Willie Johnson’s dire “Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying” proves a haunting song. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were members of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys when “That Home Above” was recorded in 1947. Anyone, during any generation, can identify with Eddie Head’s bleak “Down On Me”.
Washington Phillips sang “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today”, a tune that carries a longing for redemption in the lines: “What are they doing in heaven today?/Where sin and sorrow are all gone away.”
The North Canton Quartet sings “I’m Bound for Home”. The four members lived in Canton, Georgia, located 40 miles north of Atlanta, where this song was recorded. The group members were forced to borrow a car, and dress in Sunday clothes to make this recording. Bukka White sings “I Am In The Heavenly Way”, a Pentecostal piece recorded decades before the Rolling Stones discovered his music.
Recorded on October 22, 1927, in New Orleans, Sam Morgan’s Jazz Band’s rendition of “Over In Glory Land” makes one long to be in streets lines with gold when the saints come marching in. Elder Johnson earned a living as a painter when music couldn’t keep the lights on. His paintings of Jesus are timeless. Johnson’s “Death In the Morning” makes one humble to earn a ticket on the morning train.
Hank Williams’ Drifting Cowboys perform a beautiful song called “I’ll Have A New Body” at a Sunday morning congregation that serves as testimony that Hank’s soul proves eternal. Goodbye, Babylon’s significance remains submerged deep beneath the waves of soul, blues, gospel, country and popular music like some mysterious undercurrent in American culture.
Disc Four: Salvation
“This disc covers almost every aspect of Christ—birth, life, death, and second coming—as it is told in the Bible.”
Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper’s “Walking My Lord Up Calvary Hill”—recorded in Nashville, during 1951, stands out as one of this collection’s finest tracks. The Sheffield Quartet recorded the moving “Christ Arose” in Atlanta on February 21, 1927.
The Arizona Dranes and Choir covered this version of Fanny J. Crosby’s “He Is My Story” in Chicago on July 3, 1928. Ernest V. Stoneman was Thomas Edison’s favorite musician, and Edison loved this recording of “I Remember Calvary”. Reverend W.M. Mosley’s “If You Follow Jesus” was recorded in Atlanta in 1926 in his trademark baritone voice. Also recorded in Atlanta—during 1928—Blind Benny Paris and his wife sang a jubilant version of “Hide Me In The Blood of Jesus”. A sacred spirit flows through this box set…
“I Mean To Live For Jesus” was recorded by Blind Alfred Reed who lived all his life as a songwriter in West Virginia, and traveled to Tennessee for this singular 1927 recording. Another recording at the Kimball Hotel in Atlanta, The Heavenly Gospel Singers sang an inspirational version of “When Was Jesus Born”. The Blue Sky Boys’ “Come to the Savior” prove why they were so popular on the radio. Laura Henton could play guitar, brass bass and piano. Henton’s version of “He’s coming Soon” sounds remarkable. They folks made the most of any fleeting recording opportunity.
The Okeh Atlanta Sacred Harp Singers’ “Return Again” sounds like some spooky recording serving as a last goodbye on this earthly plane. “I Am the Vine” proves why Reverend Gary Davis was one of the most admired guitarists in the country. The Famous Blue Jay Singers were one of the most accomplished groups during their time. This version of “Leaning On The Lord” evokes some timeless choir almost too talented to submit to death.
Luther Magby’s “Jesus Is Getting Us Ready for The Great Day” emphasizes his message in a simple song of salvation: “Jesus getting’ us ready for that great day/Sinners runnin’ and cryin’ in that great day/Dry bones are walking in the great day.” Even the most agnostic listener must submit and acknowledge questions of mysterious faith…
Disc Five: Goodbye, Babylon
“Strange things are happening every day, and we must be prepared to say ‘Goodbye, Babylon.’”
Kentuckian Alfred G. Karnes’ “Called To The Foreign Field” displays the powerful work of an enlightened guitarist and vocalist. Deacon A. Wilson’s “You Need Jesus On Your Side” stands out as a moving track and as it defines in the Song Book: “This unvarnished performance has the ambience of a field recording.”
J.T. Allison’s Sacred Harp Singers, accompanied by a reed organ, perform “Exhilaration” which captures a true spirit of “Sacred Harp” music; this group recorded 28 sides of harp music in 1927 and 1928. “If The Light Has Gone Out of Your Soul”, performed by Ernest Phipps and His Congregation, sounds like an Appalachian jubilee with a web of banjos, voices, mandolin, guitar and piano. The Golden Browns Ferry Four’s “Keep On The Firing Line” tells the story of a soldier of faith at war, with a band comprised of a pre-Hee-Haw Grand Pa Jones on guitar, Rabon Delmore and Alton Delmore on guitar, with Merle Travis playing bass in this all-star line-up.
The Monroe Brothers’ “Sinner You Better Get Ready” proves a spiritual hallmark—not to mention the vocals and guitar virtuosity by Charlie along with Bill playing mandolin. Blind Willie McTell’s 12-string guitar playing and prodigious lyrical ability ranks him as one of America’s greatest troubadours. McTell’s recording of “I Got To Cross the River of Jordan” in an Atlanta hotel room in 1940 preserves his everlasting genius on this disc. The slave-like vocals of Dock Reed and Vera Hall Ward’s “Free At Last” linger in the memory long after the song ends. Mahalia Jackson’s “Amazing Grace”, propelled by Herbert James Francis’ church organ, stands as one of the greatest versions of this American song.
Joshua Daniel White’s “I Don’t Intend To Die In Egypt Land” indicates this musician was wise and talented beyond his years. The Carter Family’s “Keep On The Sunnyside” endures as a gospel parable of musical wisdom. “Light In the Valley” begins with Mrs. L. Reed reading from passages of Luke and Matthew before singing the hymn.
Clara Hindman Gholston—The Georgia Peach—renders “When the Saints Go Marching In” proves why she remains in this catalogue of great spiritual singers. Arkansas native Rosetta Thorpe’s “Strange Things Every Day” just as moving with this R&B-style a capella church singing. Rev. T.T. Rose and Singers close this fifth CD with Goodbye, Babylon-Pt. 2”, a somewhat more jubilant version than “Part 1”.
Disc Six: Sermons
“In the 1930s, as radio grew and diversified, down home white and black church services became a staple of Sunday morning broadcast schedules around the country. Records could never compete with remotes from real sanctuaries with live choirs and congregations. But broadcasts were rarely preserved, so that for us, the three-minute sermons and music excerpts on the 78s must serve to give us a feeling of how things sounded then.”
Rev. J.M. Gates was the most recorded preacher prior to World War II. The Atlanta reverend’s “Getting’ Ready For Christmas Day”, recorded at Atlanta’s Kimball Hotel on October 2, 1941. This preserves Gates’ last recorded performance. Rev. A.W. Nix, recorded for Vocalion Records. On April 23 (Shakespeare’s birthday), 1927 Nix recorded his “Black Diamond Express To Hell-Part 1 & 2”. This sermon is the most intense and moving for me due to Nix’s intense poetic delivery and auditory images. Rev. J.C Burnett’s “The Downfall of Nebuchadnezzar” sold 400,000 copies according to an article in the June 18, 1927,Pittsburgh Courier, spells a sermon of downfall of the mighty.
“The Liar” by Rev. Isaiah Shelton tells a story by rhymed stylization in this specific preaching technique. An interesting “Hell and What it Is”, by Rev. Emmet Dickinson, serves as a fire and brimstone sermon with a little minstrel show theatric to drive home the message, which all TV preachers seem to base their own styles on these days.
Rev. Benny Campbell (”You Must Be Born Again”) was one of the few preachers to be recorded anywhere in the 1930s. Rev. E.S. White’s intense paraphrasing of the 16th Chapter of Mark on this 1928 Memphis recording—with a choir’s moaning and wailing in the background—will disturb even the hardest of hearts…these were the messengers…God’s hand-chosen to spread the word across the land…just as a piano, guitar, jug and singing climax into a rejoicing end on this tune. Pure Inspiration. Glory at its finest…
Born in Tennessee, Rev. James Webb wrote a book called The Black Man, the Father of Civilization. This book states King Tut, King Solomon and many biblical figures, including Jesus, were all black. His sermon “Moses Was Rescued By A Negro Woman” elaborates on this perspective.
Elder Otis Jones’ “O Lord I’m Your Child” will not find you sleeping in church. “The White Mule of Sin”, performed by Kentucky Bluesman Rev. George Jones, embodies interesting phrasing and word play…these preachers could be humorous, grim and downright scary.
Jesus’ parable of the “Prodigal Son” always appealed to musicians. Rev. “Steamboat” Worrell, Vocalion chief recording preacher, rendered this ode on December 9, 1926, which proves these were American holy men. Rev. J.C. Burnett’s “The Gambler’s Doom”—one of the most unsettling sermons on this collection, complete with the preacher’s howls—interprets biblical symbols in a 52 deck of cards. This amazing sermon’s transcription can be read in the Song Book Intro, which begins: “This morning’s a payday. Jesus said in Revelation the 22nd and 12th verse, that He’s coming, ah, with His reward, and reward simply means to pay off. And he’s gonna pay off the world, every gambler, every drunken liar. I have seen that the gambler standing with his cards in his hand, represents the fifty-two cards in the deck, represents fifty-two weeks in the year…”
Rev. Weems’ “God Is Mad With Man” procures a relative Sunday sermon that transcends time…as every one of these sermons do. The final sermon, Rev. J.M Gates’ with His Congregation on his successful Christmas sermon “Death Might Be Your Santa Claus” warns folks about excessive revelry, foolishness and materialism during Christmas time. Goodbye, Babylon will always endure as the greatest collection of obscure recordings containing American spiritual music.
Read more about the Atlanta, Georgia, label Dust-To-Digital in Insured Beyond The Grave.