Essays & Articles

“Fatted Calf’s Blues – The First Golden Age”
(African American Gospel & Sacred Songs : 1902-1942) – by Max Haymes

Blues and gospel of the African American in the pre-war era (1890-1943) are two sides of the same coin. The obvious difference being the secular and sacred content of the songs recorded/collected. But for this lyrical difference, an uninformed listener who chose to ignore what was being sung, could easily come to the conclusion they had been listening to a blues as a sacred song. Applying this mind-set and then playing ‘back-to-back’ (for example) Delta bluesman Charley Patton’s Mississippi Bo Weavil Blues along with I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole by Texas guitar evangelist Blind Willie Johnson, clearly illustrates the point. Indeed, some sacred titles contain so little in the way of any religious reference as to be construed as secular songs – if not blues! Blind Willie Johnson’s When The War Was On or I believe I’ll Go Back Home by Blind Willie Davis (another guitar evangelist) from 1929 and 1930 respectively, feature no religious lyrics at all!

But despite this solid bond between sacred and secular songs, the pre-war African American gospel/sacred recordings  (hereinafter referred to as ‘gospel’, for brevity) – of which there are thousands – have been largely ignored by the collector/fan of early blues and jazz, as well as the great majority of the US black population in the 21st. Century.  Aficionados refer to the ‘Golden Age/Era’ of gospel music being the immediate post-war years until the end of the 1960s. The fact that hundreds of earlier recorded gospel is accessible via re-issues on Document, Yazoo, Revenant, Dust-To-Digital, etc. only appears to support this sorry state of affairs.

As an early preacher from around 1927 might have put it this-a way:

“Dear Sistering an’ Brotheren. Let me get you straightened out, right now!
I’m gonna git you told.
I want all you Elders to face the risin’ sun; (Amen!)
An’ I want all you Sisters in the Amen Corner. (Lord, Have Mercy!)
To set back an’ pay attention tuh me.
All you chillen playin’ out in the yard.
All you men an’ all you women (Yeah!) playin’, an; dancin’ on the bar-room floor.
An’ drinkin’ at the all-day picnic-uh!
An’ all you backsliders an’ midnight ramblers at the barrelhouse. (Preach it!)
Ah! STOP!! Desist from your low-down ways fo’ jus’ a lil’ while. (Well!)
‘Cos I’m gon’  git you told, jus’ as sho’ as you born. (Have Mercy!)” (1)

While our fictitious preacher back in the 1920s espoused some ideas and attitudes which not all of us might agree with here in the 21st. Century, the main point being made is that the very FIRST ‘Golden Age’ of black gospel in the US took place before World War II.  Without which there would have been no evolvement possible after the early 1940s.

Amongst the plethora of early gospel recordings available to us, there are some of the ordinary, forgettable even-BUT there is also a whole body of music which is as intensely felt, emotionally sung, and sometimes as beautiful and ethereal a quality as the finest of not only the post-war gospel but also the cream of the early blues.  Via the recordings of Charley Patton, Ma Rainey, Blind Willie McTell, Lucille Bogan, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Cannon’s Jug Stompers; and a myriad of other blues singers.  Some of whom also recorded gospel titles.

This essential and unique genre of early black religious music deserves a platform on which it can be perused and listened to  – and linked with our present-day-understanding and feeling! You don’t have to be ‘religious’ to dig this early black music – just open up your soul and your mind and let these gospel blues pour in!  This new website – the sister to is a most welcome innovation and Alan and I hope you will get as much pleasure and appreciation from this fountainhead of African American music as we do.  ‘Cos they sure is tellin’ the truth about some people! Mm-mmm!

To encourage more interest and put early black religious performances more towards centre stage, I have compiled a 4-CD set with more than 100 of the very best early recordings (See Fatted Calf’s Blues Discography).

The very earliest black sacred music we know anything about are the ‘sorrow songs’ or what are commonly referred to as spirituals.  Field slaves often sang their songs while working under a blazing sun.  As well as the psychological/emotional release offered field workers, another use was the control of the pace of work itself.  Indeed, back in the 18th. Century and probably beyond into the 17th, slaves slowed down the pace of life in the South as a whole.  “Southern whites not only adapted their language and religion to that of the slaves but also adapted agricultural practices, sexual attitudes, rhythm of life, architecture, food and social relations to African patterns”. (2)  As Blassingame explained further: “During the colonial period, [prior to the War of Independence: 1775-1783] for instance, the slaves planted rice according to African practices.  The African tradition of cooperative work led some masters to adopt gang labor, which the slaves accompanied by rhythmic [vocal] music… Coming from a tropical zone, Africans had learned that one had to work at a relatively slow pace in order to survive the heat.  They refused to speed up to the frenetic pace of their European masters, and in the process slowed down the tempo of Southern life.”. (3)

The opening track on CD 1 of Fatted Calf’s Blues – the truly awesome version of Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down [6639-B-1(a)] made in 1942, could easily be the prime example of the tempo with responses of the church members taking the place of field slaves.  The lead singer, Bozie Sturdivant, included harrowing falsetto cries alternating with his natural voice and blood-curdling growls.  These vocal embellishments probably evolved several years after the end of the Civil War in 1865.  The recording was done by the Lomaxes, as part of the session by the Silent Grove Baptist Church Congregation in Clarksdale, Mississippi-for the Library of Congress. (words in bold = falsetto)

Well, I’ve heard of [the] beautiful city;
An’ the stree-eets were lined with gold.
Then I have not bin to Heaven. Oh! Lord.
But I bin told…..

Ain’t no grave sure can hol-old my body down;
Ain’t no grayyyyyyy-ayyyyyve can hold my body down.
When the firrrrs-irrrrst trumpet sound;
I’ll be getting up walkin’ round:
Ain’t no grave sure can hol-ol-old my body down.  (4)

The power and defiance of death  portrayed by Bozie Sturdivant’s performance invokes a verse that Lafcadio Hearn noted in the mid-late 1870s during his brief stay in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Whilst on a visit to the “famous Negro quarter in the East End” (5) guided by a white ‘Overseer’, Hearn described an old ‘aged woman’ in Bucktown who lived in one of the city’s ‘wretched hovels’ “a miserable frame shanty  near Culvert street”. (6)  Hearn observed that the whole area of the Groesbeck property where she lived was “stamped by a certain recognised uniformity even here…The same rickety room, the same cracked stove, the same dingy walls bearing fantastic tapestry of faded rags and grotesque shadow-silhouettes of sharp profiles; the same pile of city coal in one corner, the same ghastly candle stuck in the same mineral water bottle, and decorated with a winding sheet; the same small, unmade bed and battered cupboards at its foot; the same heavily warm atmosphere and oppressive smell, seemed to greet the visitor everywhere.” (7).  The aged woman was slowly dying when Hearn saw her.  He noted “some colored friends were sitting by her bedside; a little brown child, with frizzly hair standing out in a wild, bushy way from its head, was crying in a corner; and an old colored preacher was singing the refrain of a queer hymn which he must have supposed afforded great spiritual consolation”.

Dese old bones of mine, oh –
Dese old bones of mine, oh –
Dese old bone of mine
Will all come togeder in de morning. “  (8)

This refrain in turn calling on a biblical reference in the Book of Ezekiel from the Old Testament which often appeared in the religious catalogues as Dry Bones In The Valley and recorded by many various groups and preachers in the 1920s and 30s.(see The Hand Of The Lord Was Upon Me by Rev. Jim Beal in 1929 and Them Bones by the Mitchell Christian Singers in 1934 on CD 3 and CD 4 respectively).

After quoting the first stanza of  O Black And Unknown Bards from James Weldon Johnson, “writer; professor; and civil rights activist, [who] was also an acute musical observer” (9) Richard Long summarized “it is obvious that the African American sense of music and structure of musical community stood the transportation to North America.  Out of the new environment came the spirituals.”. (10)  After emphasising that “One of the African forms most resistant to European culture was the folk tale” (11)  Blassingame goes on to say that “Another good example of the transfer of African forms is the spiritual.”. (12) [Footnote 1: See The Slave Community. Ibid. Especially Ch. 1 ‘Enslavement, Acculturation, and African Survivals’.] In the 1890s an old ex-slave who had attended religious services in the antebellum period related:

“I’d jump up dar and den and holler and shout and sing and pat, and dey would all
cotch de words and I’d sing it to some old shout song I’d heard ‘em sing from Africa, and dey’d all
take it up and keep at it, and keep a-addin’ to it, and den it would be a spiritual. (13)

Long called sorrow songs ‘long-phrase spirituals’ and cited Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child. (14)   He noted that “Songs known as spirituals are primarily an expression of religious faith and hope.  But they are not always prayerful or devotional”. (15)  John W. Work III called them as a class of spirituals  “the long-phrase melody” (16) and two further classes as “the call and response chant,…and the syncopated segmented melody.” (17)   As Richard Long says one of the call and response style is Go Down Moses, and this is quite probably the very first spiritual  of which we have a written record of.  According to Jon Cruz, on its discovery it became “the first spiritual put into print”. (18) [Footnote 2: See the essential Saints And Sinners. Robert Sacre (Ed.). [Liege, Belgium] 1996. Especially ‘The Emergence Of The Slave Spiritual’. Robert M. Lewis. p.p.55-84.]

The first recording of this famous spiritual was made in 1914 by the Tuskegee Institute Singers (8 singers described as a ‘double quartet’) which they remade at the end of 1926 as an actual quartet. (see CD 2 for a superb performance of another well-known spiritual Steal Away To Jesus by the Tuskegee Institute Quartet). At around the same time in the latter year an older artist Homer Quincy Smith accompanied himself on what is described as a ‘catacomb organ’ in what has to be the most archaic version, amongst many in the pre-war period, which is described as having “gone celestial-plane on you — singing into the horns [used on acoustical recordings]  for chumps.  The awful, anguished sound of a man alone with his god”. (19) [Footnote 3: A further 4-CD set  will feature another ‘Top 100’gospel/sacred songs including these versions of Go Down Moses.]

What could be considered as an off-shoot of this spiritual is Way Down In Egyptland  [Vocalion 1537] as rendered by one of the finest quartets from the Birmingham area down in Alabama in 1930 – the Birmingham Jubilee Singers; on CD 3.

Refrain: Wayy-ay down (Lord Jesus!);
Way down little children.
Way (Lordy!) down (Lord!);
Way down in Egyptland.
1. Now, you might mind Sister how you walk on the cross;
(Oh! Lordy. Way down in Egyptland).
Oh! Your feet might slip an’ your soul be lost.
(Oh! Way down in Egyptland).
Ref: Now, way down, etc
2. Now, one of these mornin’s an’ it won’t be long;
(Way down in Egyptland).
Old Gabriel gonna wake up an’ blow ‘is horn.
Lordy! Way down in Egyptland).
Ref: Lord, way down etc.
3. Oh! I ain’t bin to heaven but I bin told;
(Way down in Egyptland).
Oh! The gates are pearl an’ the streets real gold.
(Way down in Egyptland).
Ref: Lord! Way down etc.
4. Now, one of these mornin’s about four o’clock;
(It’s Lordy! Way down in Egyptland).
Yes! This old world is gonna reel an’ rock;
(Oh! Lordy, it’s way down in Egyptland).
Ref: Now, way down etc.
5. Now, God made a woman an’ God made man;
(Way down in Egyptland).
Oh! Way down yonder in Egyptland.
(Oh! Lordy, way down in Egyptland).
Ref: Oh! Way down, etc.
Repeat verse 2.
Lord! Way down etc. (x 2)   [20]

One of two CDs from Document Records.
Pic. is Charles Bridges leader, baritone vocal and director; c. 1970s

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Birmingham Jubilee Singers sang in a more modern style moving further away from the old spirituals of the 19th. Century championed by earlier groups such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers, from Virginia. As Ken Romanowski said that, along with most other groups in the Jefferson County region (home base for the Birmingham Jubilee Singers) “As far as we can tell, virtually all of the other quartets in Jefferson County sang in the newer, more demonstrative vocal style that was diametrically opposed to the evenness and formality of the’ Europeanised’ university style.” (21) Yet the Fisks cut one side, in 1911, Po’ Mo’ner Got A Home At Last [Victor 16843-A] which was in parts even more ‘demonstrative’ than anything recorded by the Birmingham Jubilee Singers. The group’s moaning and the agonized falsetto cries lending an exquisite ‘archaic’  -I was going to say African – aura to their performance.  Surely this was a precursor of the modern style in Jefferson County.  It would be instructive if the other three versions that the Fisks did were to be miraculously made available to the listener. One of these was cut 4 days earlier for Victor and two others for Columbia – both of these on 22nd. December in 1919 and 1920 as Po [sic] Mourner’s Got A Home At Last. Sadly all these remain unissued items – presumably lost. Indeed, the issued take for Victor was the third one, so maybe a slight hope exists for one or both takes 1 & 2 to turn up.  As a footnote, the Birmingham Jubilee Singers “were paradigmatic to the area as they applied the modern style to their entire repertory whether sacred or secular, or whether the material was more recently composed or consisted of older spirituals.” (22)  Or put more simply, the group set a contemporary pattern or style adopted by the majority of other quartets and quintets within the Birmingham region.  The states of Alabama and Virginia with Birmingham and Norfolk in particular, are considered two of the richest sources of earlier black gospel music.

A fascinating fact that emerged during my research for this essay, is that  this performance by the Fisk Jubilee Quartet could well be the only example of this sacred song on a record. [Footnote 4: This will be included on the second set of ‘Top 100’ Gospel/Sacred Songs. Ibid.] On checking Blues & Gospel Records (B.&G.R.) I discovered that of the eight other similarly  titled songs by other artists, (see Table 1) the 3 which have been reissued – the starred entries- all follow a variant of the antebellum song You Shall Be Free best known to blues collectors by the secularized You Shall [Paramount 12518] as featured in two versions by the Beale Street Sheiks in 1927. [Footnote 5: See an excellent in-depth discussion on You Shall Be Free by Paul Oliver in his Screening The Blues.   p.p.56-59. [Cassell. London] 1968. Note that a more recent edition has appeared and may probably be more accessible – check the internet.]  This includes two of the earliest on record in 1897 and 1902.

Table 1

Title Artist Date/Location
1. Standard Quartette Poor Mourner c. February-March, 1894. Washington D.C.
2. Cousins & (Ed?) De Moss*
(See Footnote 6 below)
Poor Mourner c. July, 1897. New York City.
3. Dinwiddie Colored Quartet* Poor Mourner 29th. October, 1902. New York City.
4. Pete Hampton Poor Mourner c. February/March, 1904. London, England
5. Four Dusty Travelers* Po’ Mourner 15th. October, 1929. New York City.
6. Williams Black Patti Jubilee Singers Po-mona c. 6th. September, 1930. Singers Chicago.
7. Cotton Pickers Quartet Pore Mourner 26th. January, 1931. New York City.
8. Cotton Pickers Quartet Poor Mourner (ARC unissued) 14th. May, 1931. New York City.

(Footnote 6: According to B.&G.R. (p.180) this was possibly “Ed DeMoss” who was a member of the Standard Quartette and may be on their 1894 recording.)

The undiscovered/unissued versions in Table 1 are presumably variants of the You Shall Be Free format. The Fisks’ different song  could well be of similar, or earlier, vintage or they did not want to invoke the slavery era; with its ‘freedom’ associations.  The three available sides seem to warrant the title ‘Poor/Po’ Moaner’ as that is what appears to be heard.  ‘Moaner’ used here as in ‘sinner’. The Fisks sing one verse “Sinner, ain’t you tired of sinnin’?”.(23)  Of course without the aural evidence of the missing recordings we can never be sure if one or more of them are in fact following the Fisk Jubilee Quartet’s song.

However, there is one definite contender included in B.&G.R. (p.p.6-7) listed under the entry ‘Deaconess Alexander’ (1865-1947).  Recorded in the Darien area of Georgia, her output constitutes some of the earliest Library of Congress titles that we are aware of.  In a possible series of five sessions in 1926, the deaconess cut 45 tracks – aged 61 – which included three secular ones; enough for two CDs. But to date here in the 21st. Century not one has been issued!  Remarkably avoiding nearly all the most popular, tried and tested  songs – Swing Low Sweet Chariot, etc. – she included an intriguing Poor Sinner Find A Home At Last. [A-498(GA-274)].  The emphasis is mine.  Surely one of the oldest African American artists to record, as she is a good ten years older than Henry ‘Ragtime Texas’ Thomas.  In an amazing find on the internet, her biography includes the details that she was from Georgia. and a well-loved figure in the black religious communities; becoming an unofficial saint! [Footnote 8: See Index  in for fuller account.]

Gospel music in the early era (before the mid-forties) is the flipside of the Blues. The same FEEL!  Often the same instrumentation.  The main difference of course being that gospel featured sacred lyrics while blues kept to the secular.  Preachers would cover a wide variety of social subject matter by the 1920s as well as the more traditional religious songs.  This included the ‘evil’ of women’s ‘skimpy’ dress fashions as Rev. F.W. McGee berates on his Women’s Clothes (You Can’t Hide) in 1929 (CD 2) and Rev. J.M. Milton includes on his list of sinful rail passengers picked up by the Damnation Train (CD 3) bound for Hell, in the same year. Probably inspired by the earlier Black Diamond Express To Hell by Rev A.W. Nix.

Preaching: Ridin’ from the Union Depot to eternity…First stop Pleasuresville.
Passengers taken on in various style (Ah! Preach it!). On Damnation Train.
(Very good, sir!)  Oh! Yes!  The no-stockin’ style. The short-stockin’ style.
Ankle-stockin’ style.  Yes, an’ the knee (Alright!) an’ thigh.  From three
years old to grandmamas, loaded on Damnation Train.(24)

Rev. Milton has a go at automobile riders and plane travelers. All coming to grief as ‘the machine goes wrong’ and then addresses ocean passengers with a thinly-veiled dig at the ill-fated Titanic also referred to as the ‘machine’.

Preaching: Ahhh! The next stop. Good Time Junction. Passengers get a-board for various
outings. (Yeah!) Ahh! The short stop, that Damnation Crossing. (Preach it good, now!)…
Mmm. Machine gets  way out on the Atlantic deep and- uh-they fall down in
the ocean an’ they see our passengers no more.”. (25)

While street singers William and Versey Smith offer nothing but sympathy on their raw and powerful When That Great Ship Went Down in 1927. (CD 4). And the very popular Rev. J.M. Gates hits out at the introduction of the chain store in the South urging his congregation to boycott them in favour of supporting local stores in the town or city. (CD 4).   Another favourite topic was hypocrisy inside and outside the church.  Rev. Emmett Dickinson on his chanted Pig or Pup (or The Two-Faced Man) in 1930 (CD 4) and the a capella group The Carolinians (CD 3) include the wayward preacher visiting a married woman’s house and wanting to know from the outset ‘where your husband at?’, in 1938.

This verse appearing in many blues of the period-the church being a popular target in the songs of many societies/cultures across the world.  The group initially attack the Sister for drunkeness and the deacon for stealing from the church collection and then lay into the long-suffering preacher.

The preacher he comes to your house;
You get him to rest his hat.
Well, the first thing the good rever[end] wants to know;
“Sister, where your husband at?” (26)

Yet generally, the criticism was more pointed when coming from fellow church members.  Culminating in the ethereal atmosphere of  Denomination Blues – Parts 1 & 2 (CD 1) by Washington Phillips playing a dolceola; a scarce instrument apparently from Toledo, Ohio, with possibly about 100 being made.  In contrast, attacks on drink and alcoholism were usually made en passant.  Elder Beck’s 1930 version of Drinking Shine (CD 2) being an exception, complete with fine barrelhouse-style piano. For one of the most harrowing accounts of drinking moonshine, whiskey, etc. and its long-term effects we would have to turn to Whiskey Blues by Elzadie Robinson in 1927. Recording 40 sides between 1926 and 1929, which did not include one gospel title, she may well have been singing of her personal experience.

Naturally, biblical topics are rife, including the final days of the planet such as the truly magnificent Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down by Bozie Sturdivant in 1942 for the Library of Congress, accompanied only by a moaning congregation from the Silent Grove Baptist Church down in Clarksdale, in the Mississippi Delta.  Also from this state comes Charley Patton’s spine-chilling bottleneck (‘slide guitar’ was a creation of the post-war era) guitar ‘singing’ a duet with the King of the Delta Blues on his two-part Prayer Of Death (CD 1) in 1929.

Part I of Patton’s Prayer Of Death. As “Elder J.J. Hadley”.

Another master bottleneck guitarist, [Footnote 9: See Dark Was The Night on CD1.] Blind Willie Johnson, from East Texas, cut John The Revelator (sans bottleneck) in 1930 (CD 3) and recorded by many early black gospel singers including another excellent a capella side, by the Alphabetical Four in 1940: The Book of The Seven Seals (CD 3) from the Book of Revelations.  In complete contrast to their beautiful quartet singing, Elder Beck can be heard – on trumpet this time – blasting his way through a hand-clapping, call and response item in 1939, assuredly convinced that he actually IS Gabriel!

Oddly, prostitution and its social causes are rarely mentioned, if ever.  This is a world-wide malaise of all governments generally speaking who are content to tinker with the results of the ‘earliest trade’.  Instead, the Golden Gates Jubilee Quartet in their stark performance of Jezebel (CD 3) adopt the ‘the religious establishment view’ and attack this famous/infamous female figure.  Taken at a rapid rap-like clip punctuated with dark moans in unison by the rest of the group, Willie Johnson castigates Jezebel:

Well, Jezebel.
Jezebel. Jezebel. Oh! Jezebel.
God’s done an’ got tired of your wicked ways;
Well, the angels in the Heaven done numbered your days;
Of the evil deeds.
God’s done got tired.
You got to go to Judgement to stand a trial

Then Death come leapin’, she jumped into Hell;
Great God Almighty! I heard them tell.
Nine days she lay in Jerusalem streets;
Her flesh too filthy for the dogs to eat.

Oh! Jezebel, etc. (27)

Illustration from Women In The Bible. p.116. John Baldock (see bibliography)

This ‘establishment view’ is reflected by Ian Wilson who wrote in 2001 in his fascinating opus Before The Flood which should be up there with the books by Richard Dawkins etc. for controversy in religious circles, that Astarte or Ashtarte was/is “one of the Great Mother Goddesses’ many personae…The biblical books also convey [that] women celebrated the sex act in ways that the Bible edition condemned as flagrant prostitution”. (28)  Another quick dip into the ‘good book’ shows vehement support:  “For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Zidonians, and Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites.” [I Kings 11.5] On a more general note of  ‘Solomon/women-bashing’ are the first two verses.  “But king Solomon loved many strange women, together with the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites; [I Kings 11.1.] and “Of the nations concerning which the LORD said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall not go in to them, neither shall they come in unto you; for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods; Solomom clave unto these in love”. [I Kings 11.2]  An entry in one of the essential books by Judika Illes runs: “Astarte is a spirit of abundance, prosperity, love, sex, and war.  When the Philistines defeated Israelite King Saul, they placed his captured armor in Astarte’s temple as attribute and thanks.  Erotic temple rites and sacred prostitution were central to her veneration.  She guards women’s reproductive health.” (29)  In the list under ‘Offerings’ for Astarte or Ashtoreth, the author noted cake molds.  “Cake molds in the shape of  horned Astarte dating from the seventeenth century BCE have been found near Nahariah, Israel.  Raphael Patai, author of the ‘Hebrew Goddess’ suggests that these molds were used to form goddess-shaped cakes either to be burned on an altar or eaten by celebrants (perhaps an ancient precursor of the Catholic host)”. (30)  From Norfolk in Virginia, the Gates, who started recording in 1937, are one of the most popular groups in the world of early gospel; and as far as I recollect are still in operation in the 21st. Century-with different members of course!

Many gospel songs exist concerning the inevitable fate of all humans and none more frighteningly awesome than the Pace Jubilee Singers.  With a lead soprano singer who is almost certain to be Hattie Parker on Oh Death (CD 2) and a different song of another kind of intensity using this title, by Bertha Lee and Charley Patton (CD 2) in 1934; only a month or so prior to Patton’s own death from a long suffering heart complaint.

Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet c. 1930s

On the positive side of course many sacred/gospel songs from this early era were celebratory and singing of the wonderful times to be enjoyed after death.  Bessie Johnson sings, in a voice that sounds as if it could destroy buildings, He’s Got Better Things For You (CD 2), and the rocking jug band sounds accompanying Elder Richard Bryant’s Lord, Lord, He Sure is Good To Me (CD 1).  Also the almost impenetrable and other-worldly Blessed Be The Poor (CD 1) by Luther Magby in 1927 on his only 78 recording which also lopes along to the accompaniment of his pump organ..  And another incredible performance which rivals Bozie Sturdivant and Blind Willie Johnson-in a different way- is the praise song The Beautiful Lamp (CD 1) with the simon-pure falsetto of William Hatch of the Silver Leaf Quartette of Norfolk, Virginia.  The listener does not even have to know the lyric but just sit back and be transmogrified!

As in the blues, there is often a background in a socio-historical sense which when discovered adds more depth to our understanding of these sometimes amazing performances.  A case in point is a song featured in this collection in two different versions.  Both of which appear on CD 2.  Referring to the gateway to heaven, the earlier cut was made in 1926 by the St. Mark’s Chanters as So High which reappears some 12 years later as So High I Can’t Get Over by the seminal group the Heavenly Gospel Singers.  In part the latter runs:

Well, it’s so high;
High, until you can’t get over it.
It’s so wide;
So wide until you can’t get around it.
An’ it’s so low’
Oh! Lord. Until you can’t get under it.
You must come in at the door.
In at the door-door-door-door-door.  (31)

Some groups were as much a visual as a vocal performance. The tall, good-looking Jimmy Bryant (extreme right in pic.) would wheel and turn in  the aisles punching the air and on one occasion was mobbed by female members in the church and almost stripped of his clothes before normality was restored.

I must confess these lyrics of what is actually the refrain of this haunting song (and there are other versions), had me mystified until I recently came across a book reprinted in 1877!.  This is written by a Jewish scholar of zoology and a scientist in natural history: “Rev. J.G. Wood, MA., F.I.S.,etc.” (32)   A truly beautiful book with gilt-edged pages, stunning woodcuts, and fascinating text. Wood’s approach was to track down animals referred to in the Bible back to actual scientific species.  Full title is Scripture Natural History Illustrated (see bibliography).  The relevant pages for these notes cover p.p. 146-166 concerning sheep and goats and herding/tending these animals.  Rev. Woods takes us back to ancient Palestine in a time when sheep dogs were not a part of this scenario!  His opening statement runs: “There is perhaps, no animal which occupies a larger space in the Scriptures than the SHEEP”. (33)

Rev. Wood compares the sheep pens of today (1877) in the UK and Europe with the ‘Oriental fold’ in biblical times “when Jesus was disputing with the Pharisees,” (34) [Footnote 10: And see fine colour photo-in Tyneside?- of a latter-day sheep-fold.. + my comments on Facebook].  Discussing folds from ‘our own land’ [UK] which are generally made from “hurdles, moveable at pleasure, and so low that a man can easily jump over them, and so fragile that he can easily pull them down;” (34) – Wood says these folds or sheep pens were far removed from those in ancient Palestine.  In the Bible, he continues: “Frequent mention is made of the folds in which the Sheep are penned; and [how] these folds differed -” (35)  If these early folds were seen in the same way as those of today, by anyone, “he would not see the force of the well-known passage in which our Lord compares the Church to a sheepfold, and Himself to the door,”. (36) [St. John. X.1-9]   It seems that the biblical fold was not so easily accessible other than through a very substantial door, manned by a porter.  Basically, to keep wild animals out as well as looking out for thieves and robbers-who might be deemed  ‘rustlers’ today.  For “It is evident that the fold [of biblical times] was a structure of some pretensions; that it had walls which a thief could only enter by climbing over them- not by ‘breaking through’ them, as in the case of a mud-walled private house; and that it had a gate, which was guarded by a watchman.” (37)

The stone/rock-walled sheep fold is seen in the background of this illustration – the door appears to be open.

By extending the height of these walls so that it was impossible to scale them, via poetic licence, So High I Can’t Get Over forcefully impresses the listener that the only way to heaven and therefore salvation was to go through the ‘door’.  There are at least 13 recordings which use both ‘door’ and ‘gate’. (see Table 2)  Although the versions of When The Gate Swings Open, etc. do not mention the inaccessibility apart from the entrance.  Interestingly, one of the verses by the Heavenly Gospel Singers’ song, which is led by Jimmy Bryant the incredible bass singer, recalls Denomination Blues  (CD 1) on a subject that still bedevils organized religion in the 21st. Century.

Well, the Baptist goin’ by water;
You know the Methodist go by land.
But if you [want to] see my saviour;
Lord, you must join hand in hand. (38)

Table 2

Title Artist Date/Location
1. When The Gates Swing Wide* The C.A. Tindley Bible Class Gospel Singers c. May 1925. Chicago, Illinois.
2. So High* St. Mark’s Chanters Tuesday, 13 April.1926. New Orleans, Louisiana.
3. Waiting At The Beautiful Gate* Rev. J.M. Gates c. 13 September, 1926. New York City. N.Y.
4. Waiting At The Beautiful Gate* Rev. J.M. Gates mid-November, 1926. New York City. N.Y.
5. Waiting At The Beautiful Gate* Rev. J.M. Gates c. 6 December, 1926. New York City. N.Y.
6. So High I Can’t Get Over* Heavenly Gospel Singers Wednesday, 26 January 1938. Charlotte, North Carolina.
7. When The Gate Swings Open* Heavenly Gospel Singers Monday, 26 September, 1938. Rock Hill, South Carolina.
8. How We Got Over* Heavenly Gospel Singers Wednesday, 26 January, 1938. Charlotte, North Carolina.
9. When The Gates Swing Open**
(L of C)
William Brown and group of  convicts Thursday, 11 May, 1939. State Penitentiary, Huntsville, Texas.
10. When The Gates Swing Open**
(L of C)
Ed Jones c. 26-30 May, 1939. Livingston, Alabama.
11. When The Gates Swing Open* Dixie Hummingbirds Tuesday, 19 September, 1939. New York City, New York.
12. When The Gate Swings Open No. 2** Heavenly Gospel Singers Tuesday, 4 February, 1941. New York City, N.Y.C.
13. When The Gateway Opens Let Me In** Baptist Church Service unknown date, Nashville, Tennessee.

The single* items are in my collection and at the other end of the spectrum the double** ones remain unissued at the time of writing (8th May 2012).  Some commentary will illustrate how wary a researcher must be if he/she draws conclusions by only looking at titles of songs.  Four of these titles use  ‘gates’ in the plural which I assume allude to the Pearly Gates and therefore not referring to any symbolism employing ancient sheep-folds.  These are self-evident in Table 2.  Two of the unissued ones (Nos. 9 &10) and the offerings from the Dixie Hummingbirds (No.11). Although the C.A. Tindley Bible Class Singers (No.1). refer to ‘where the flowers forever bloom’ which alludes to a pastoral setting. Both Nos.1 & 11 are different songs from the theme under discussion and from each other.  While the Heavenly Gospel Singers How We Got Over is also a different song.

Apart from the two titles cited previously, So High and So High I  Can’t Get Over, by  St. Mark’s Chanters and the Heavenly Gospel Singers respectively; only the latter’s When The Gate Swings Open (No.7)  and the three versions of yet another different side by Rev. J.M. Gates (and  a small part of his congregation) allude to the sheep-fold scenario.  The ‘Heavenlys’ has obvious links with the undated similarly titled recording by the Baptist Church  Service group.  The group’s song with mention of ‘the pasture’ gives it a tenuous connection with the sheep-fold as with the C.A. Tindley title.

Finally, the introductory mini-sermons that preface the three recordings of Waiting At The Beautiful Gate by the Rev. J.M. Gates are somewhat instructive within their variations. From the outset it is clear that the ‘beautiful gate’ is indeed the entrance to heaven and peoples’ departed loved ones  will be there to welcome  those who have just ‘passed/crossed over’.

Preaching: My bretheren an’ sisters. I’ve decided to make Heaven my home.
Now, I’ve got business in Heaven.I don’t know about you.I’ve got somebody there, waitin’ for me.
Have you got anybody there waitin’ for you? (Yessir!) I have a good old mother.
She’s waitin’ for ME. (Yes!)   An’ I believe that I will see ‘er when I’m done with this world.Now, I-I-I, let me tell you somethin’. I believe that the peoples who have passed over.
Is over there, waitin’-uh!- at the beautiful gate for… [me] (39)

Rev. James M. Gates c.1928

In his second version of this number, Rev. Gates brings in the ever-popular symbolism of the railroad, using the then magnificent building of one of the major depots in Atlanta often referred to as ‘the Terminal’ as the heavenly gateway.  Rev. J.M.Gates being originally from  Georgia and based in Atlanta, knew this would have resonance with his small ‘congregation’ in the New York recording studio, in 1926

I believe that I’ve got somebody waitin’ for me at the beautiful gate.(Amen!)
I believe like the train moves into the Terminal station- ah!-an’ your friends an’ relations go round to meet yuh. Uh!
That when old ship Zion will leave an’ this old unfriendly world.
Those that we have gone on before will meet us-uh! – at the beautiful gate. (Amen! Yes sir! Oh yes!)  (40)

The Atlanta Terminal station c.1905

Preaching: I believe that I have somebody at the beautiful gate waitin’ for me. (Yes.Sir! Yes. Sir!)
I believe that the peoples who live in this world (Amen!)
an’ die a child of God (Yes. Sir!)
uh-have a chance to go down to the old John (Who?)[Footnote 11: Referring to John the Revelator] an’ meet their friends an’ relations, (Oh! Yessir!)
as they come in from an unfriendly world. (Amen!)
I believe that I’ve got friends an’ relations there, waitin’ for me (Amen!)
at the beautiful gate. (Amen! Amen!)Three in the north. (Yessir!)
One writer said the three gates in the east. (Yessir!)
Three in the west. ((Amen!)
An’ three in the south. (So true!)
Tell me that the gates open at their own accord. (Lord, help us!)
I’m talkin’ about the beautiful gate. (Yessir!)
An’ then go movin’ out of this old unfriendly world (Lord, have mercy!)You must work out your soul’s salvation. (Amen!)
With fear an’ tremblin’. (Yes. Sir!)
I want you to open  your mouths (Yessir! Oh yes!)
An’ help me sing (Yeah!) this old song. (Yessir!)
Sing until somebody’s son; (Amen!)
Somebody’s daughter. (So true!)
Ah! Somebody’s children;
Or some weary child (Yessir!)
Will come home tonight. (Amen! Alright!)
Vocal: She’s a-waitin’. She’s a-watchin’;
She’s a-waitin’ an’ a-watchin’ for you. Oh yes!
She’s a-waitin’. She’s a-watchin’
She’s a-waitin’ an’ watchin’ for me.I have a mother at the beautiful gate; (Sing it!)
At the beautiful gate. At the beautiful gate.
I have a mother at the beautiful gate.
She’s a-waitin’ an’ watchin’ for me. (41)

The mother, father, sister, etc. standing and watching for the ‘new arrivals’ from the physical world can be likened to the watchman in ancient Palestine who guarded the door of the solid stone sheep-fold, watching out for would be predators-human as well as animal.

Of course, there are many other beautiful gems in this collection which would require notes of book-length proportions to include them and so a brief (!) mention of some will have to suffice.  Any omissions await the pleasurable discovery of the discerning listener.

The ‘red-hot’ piano accompaniment to the fierce vocals of ‘Arizona’ Juanita Dranes from East Texas, are matched by the equally raw a capella singing of Sister Mary Nelson with young members of her family; in the late nineteen-twenties.  While Laura Henton, who’s “voice was remarkable for its clarity and its range,” (42) is entirely convincing on her I Can Tell The World About This.  In complete contrast is the ever-eerie feel of Washington Phillips on the beautiful I’ve Got The Key To The Kingdom, and the essentially rural twin harmonica piece I’m Gonna Cross The River of Jordan in 1927. All of these titles are on CD 1.

On CD 2 we find the compelling exhortations by Rev J.C. Burnett on his True Friendship, assisted by the small but very effective female congregation as they sing a unique phrase in early gospel: “I’m gonna walk right on the gallows for my friends, nobody but my friends” (43) punctuated by intermittent shouts of encouragement from the Sisters.  A 19 year-old Joshua White reveals a depth he rarely achieved in later sessions, together with his already-fine guitar playing on Lord, I Want To Die Easy from 1933.  The rocking Rev. F.W. McGee item Jonah In The Belly Of The Whale acts as a joyous counterpoint, complete with ‘hot’ trombone included in his musical support.  While Mississippi’s Delta Big Four capture the atmosphere of the long-metre hymn on one of the definitive examples in this earlier style of sacred singing.

The third CD in this collection includes He Never Said A Mumblin’ Word, A gut-wrenching version of the journey up Calvary Hill, that Jesus took; stumbling and mud-bespattered under the weight of the wooden cross he was soon to be crucified on.  The Golden Gates Quartet digging really deep here as they convince the listener they were actually there at the time!  Not so much in words but in the awesome atmosphere they create in their delivery.  On a far happier note, Mississippi’s Rev. Jim Beal – already referred to – gives out with some excellent, early rap on his version of ‘Dry Bones’.  The prophet Ezekiel having been instructed by God to direct the four winds to inject breath into the newly ‘re-fleshed’ skeletons  whose scattered bones were lying around in the Valley of Death.

Some three years prior to Beal’s record, Clara Smith – one of the four top vaudeville blues singers – laid down some rap of her own on Livin’ Humble with some fine assistance from “Sisters Wallace and White” (44) otherwise Ethel Grainger and Odette Jackson.  Along with Get On Board, these two sides constitute Clara Smith’s only foray into religious recordings.  One writer has assessed them “very good gospel efforts…Perhaps they were even hits, as they were Smith’s only cuts to be issued on Columbia’s British label, as well as American Columbia.”. (45)

Sending post cards of the environment was in fashion, particularly in the South amongst whites, during the close of the 19th. century
and on into the first decades of the 20th.  Message reads “Be it ever so humble, there’s no home like home”.
The very ‘adequate’ house standing in its own grounds in McComb City in Mississippi, above, in 1907,
would not strike most black citizens living in one/two room shacks with half-a-dozen kids as being ‘ever so humble’!

Another female singer who sounds a lot older than Clara Smith (in 1927) features a beautiful performance of the traditional Honey in The Rock.  Temporarily parting the mists of time with her haunting vocal, Blind Mamie Forehand is possibly wearing finger bells which adds oddly to her recording along with A.C. Forehand (probably her husband) delivering soul-searching bottleneck guitar.

The Evening Four give us a charming a capella effort using the ‘clanka-lanka’ backing popularized by the earlier Famous Blue Jay Singers from Birmingham, Alabama.  It is interesting to compare their Oh! Link Oh! Link with one of the earliest black groups on record, from Virginia; the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet.  In 1902 the cylinder was still a heavy contender in the market place along with lateral and ‘hill and dale’ discs, and the white announcer was the usual order of the day.  The quartet’s Down On The Old Camp Ground invokes some of the earliest public religious scenes in the shape of the camp meeting during the earlier 19th Century. (see pic.)

Writing in 1903, a major black leader and innovative sociologist, W.E.B. Dubois, recalled a song which he might  have heard as he was growing up in the 1870s or at one of the occasional picnics or suppers he attended while at the Fisk University in Nashville,Tennessee, as a young student in the mid-1880s.  Although about the love of a young woman, called Rosy, which appears to have ended with her death or she has just left for good; this song included a gospel-linked line. Words and music are reproduced below.

From The Souls Of Black Folk. p.272. W.E.B. Dubois. See bibliography

The sacred last line quoted became the basis of a recording made by Mitchell’s Christian Singers in 1937 and the refrain it was included in, re-appeared in several other gospel recordings in the 1920s and ‘30s. Dubois says: “A black woman said of the song, ‘It can’t be sung without a full heart and a troubled sperrit’.” (46)  Called My Lord, I’m Trampin’ this appears on CD 4. and is imbued with the feelings of indeed a ‘troubled sperrit’ giving a rich blues tonality to the whole:

Well, I’m trampin’;
My Lord, I’m trampin’.
Because heaven’s gonna be my ho-ome.

Ain’t but one thing that I done wrong;
(Heaven’s gonna be my ho-omme)
Stayed in the village one day too long.
(Because heaven’s gonna be my home) (47)

Two other groups perform in different styles yet again. The Royal Harmony Singers cut another rap-like song a la the Golden Gates basing their ‘affabet’ on  the Book of the Seven Seals.  And the Fa Sol La Singers give forth with some very early style shape-note singing reminiscent of the white groups in the mid-west during the 18th. century.  Winding up proceedings, in  his heavy-voiced utterings and fleeting bottleneck guitar, the great Charley Patton employs the same feel to his gospel songs as he does to his blues on I’m Goin’ Home.[Footnote 12: See an in-depth survey of the connection with this song and the harrowing scene at the auction block back in slavery times in Slave To The Blues by Max Haymes on  run by Alan White.]

This collection of first top 100 early gospel songs is hopefully going to re-awake a whole lot of people to  an almost forgotten – but ESSENTIAL – genre in the history of African American music and culture. Fatted Calf Blues is re-opening the door. Have mercy!

‘Mississippi’ Max Haymes  May, 2012. Updated June 2012.

Copyright ©Max Haymes 2012. All Rights Reserved.



1 ‘Mississippi Blues Preacher’
(fictitous sermon!)
Max Haymes.
2 Blassingame J. p. 101.
3 Ibid.
4 ‘Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down’
(L of C)
Bozie Sturdivant
5 Hearn L. p.250.
6 Ibid. p.258.
7 Ibid. p.p.253-254.
8 Ibid. p.255.
9 Long R.A. p.12.
10 Ibid.
11 Blassingame. Ibid. p.31.
12 Ibid. p.33.
13 Ibid. p.p. 33-34.
14 Long. Ibid. See p.13.
15 Ibid.
16 Ibid. p.12.
17 Ibid.
18 Cruz J. p.13.
19 Komara E. & S.Blackwood. p.16. (notes to Revenant’s American Primitive Vol. II)
20 Way Down In Egyptland’ Birmingham Jubilee Singers.
21 Romanowski Ken Notes to Birmingham Jubilee Singers Vol.1. 1926-1927.[Document DOCD-5345] February,1995.
22 Ibid.
23 Po’ Mo’ner Got A Home At Last Fisk University Jubilee Singers: Prof. John Wesley Work II 1st. tenor; Rev. James Andrew Myers 2nd. tenor; Alfred Garfield King 1st. bass; Noah Walker Ryder 2nd. bass; unacc.10 February 1911. Camden, New Jersey.
24 .‘Damnation Train’ Rev. J.M. Milton.
25 Ibid.
26 ‘Bad Conditions’ The Carolinians.
27 ‘Jezebel’ Golden Gate Quartet.
28 Wilson I. p.224.
29 Illes J. p.222.
30 Ibid.
31 ‘So High I Can’t Get Over’ Heavenly Gospel Singers.
32 Wood J.G. Rev. Inside title page.
33 Ibid. p.146.
34 Ibid. p.156
35 Ibid.
36 Ibid.
37 Ibid. p.157.
38 ‘So High I Can’t Get Over’ Ibid.
39 Waiting At The Beautiful Gate Rev.J.M. Gates preaching, vocal; Acc. His Congregation: prob. two unknown females speech, vocal; unknown male speech, vocal; unacc. c. 13th. September 1926. New York City.
40 Waiting At The Beautiful Gate Rev. J.M. Gates preaching, vocal; Acc. His Congregation: as above. mid-November 1926. New York City.
41 Waiting At The Beautiful Gate Rev. J.M. Gates preaching, vocal; Acc. His Congregation: as above. c. 6th. December 1926. New York City.
42 Oliver P. p.191.
43 ‘True Friendship’ Rev. J.C. Burnett.
44 Godrich J. R.M.W. Dixon. H. Rye. p.817.
45 Vanco John Notes to Clara Smith Vol.4:1926-1927  [Document DOCD-5367] 1995.
46 Dubois W.E.B. p.273.
47 ‘My Lord , I’mTrampin’ Mitchell’s Christian Singers.

Items 23., 39., 40. & 41. are not included in the 4-CD set.