By any standard, this six-CD box set of old-time gospel music is a stupendous release, both in terms of musical significance, and elaborate packaging. The discs include no less than 135 songs, virtually all of them from the mid-1920s to the mid-1950s, save a couple that fall outside of that time frame in either direction. That's not even counting the bonus disc of 25 sermons, taken from actual African-American sermons released on record between 1926 and 1941, mostly from the earlier years of that stretch. It amounts to the largest, and certainly the most diverse, compilation of American gospel music from the early days of the phonograph record, encompassing both the White and African-American strands of the form. And it's not exclusively of interest to gospel specialists, as much of the music is squarely in the early American country, blues, and/or folk tradition, and heavily impacted the growth of those forms.
Such is the breadth of the anthology that it defies summarization in one review, but there are a few especially important features worth emphasizing. The sheer breadth of performers represented is amazing, and not just those recognizable to collectors, the lineup including such American musical giants as Hank Williams, the Carter Family, Rev. Gary Davis, Blind Lemon Jefferson, the Louvin Brothers, Skip James, Mahalia Jackson, the Stanley Brothers, Uncle Dave Macon, Thomas A. Dorsey, the Maddox Brothers & Rose, Josh White, and Bill Monroe (as part of the Monroe Brothers). There's just as much if not more attention given, however, to less celebrated names, down to performers about whom little or nothing is known, leaving behind just one or two incredibly rare 78s. Even some of the selections by major artists might be unknown to fans of the singers, as some are taken from rare sources like radio transcriptions (as the Louvin Brothers' "I'll Never Go Back" and Williams' "I'll Have a New Body" are). There are almost as many styles covered as there are songs, including not just the group singing and solo-with-keyboard accompaniment that some might think of as standard gospel. There's also close harmony early country music, tough country guitar blues, jug bands, string bands, group and solo a cappella singing, prisoner woodchoppers, and unclassifiable weird items in which the backup's supplied by unclassifiable novelty instruments, amplified steel guitar, slide banjo, or a solitary harmonica. There's even some early jazz, calypso (by Roaring Lion), and, in Sister Rosetta Tharpe's 1944 hit "Strange Things Happening Every Day," even some primordial full-band R&B.
More than an impressive effort of scholarship, however, this is something than can be enjoyed even by non-converts either to gospel music, or to the religious beliefs that serve as its lyrical foundation. For the blues, country, Appalachian folk, and other indigenous American musical forms are ground so deeply into gospel's fabric, that sometimes you might forget you're listening to music that's been classified as gospel. The performances have an unselfconscious swing and grit, and if some of the songs don't particularly grab you, such is the eclecticism that it won't be long before something does. Some of the highlights, indeed, are not by celebrated performers, but off-the-wall entries, like Blind Willie Johnson's amazingly guttural vocals on "Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave It There." If you're so inclined, you can find ancestors to rock and soul here and there, as in Johnson's "Lord I Just Can't Keep From Crying," eventually adapted by the Blues Project; Eddie Head and His Family's "Down on Me," sung by Janis Joplin when it was covered by Big Brother & the Holding Company; James' "Jesus Is a Mighty Good Leader," covered more than 60 years later by Beck; the Gospel Keys' shake-'em-on-down 1946 version of "You've Got to Move," which precedes the more famous versions by both Mississippi Fred McDowell and the Rolling Stones; and even, in a sermon by Rev. Isaiah Shelton, a snatch of a song that resurfaced in Ray Charles' hit "Leave My Woman Alone." The sixth disc of sermons, incidentally, isn't necessarily dispensable if you think you don't have the patience for that kind of thing; the fervent deliveries and call-and-response vocals can be surprisingly musical, to the point where much of it sounds like actual singing.
The packaging of this set is also exceptionally noteworthy, encased in a cedar box with a slide-off top, and padded with actual fragrant cotton. Also inside is a 200-page book -- it's too large to be called a booklet, really -- with expert commentaries on each track, original personnel and recording dates, lyrical transcriptions, relevant Biblical quotes, and plenty of cool illustrations, old photos, and record label reproductions. The remastering from old rare discs is also fine. With such attentive layers of detail, in fact, it's puzzling that the liner notes don't include the original label of release for the recordings, a small but important detail which is of undoubted interest to many people willing to invest in such an anthology. It's a very small quibble, though, for a production that could absorb your interest for days or months if you want to dive into the bottom and catch all of its nuances and interconnections.