Just when you think you've seen and heard it all, along comes something extraordinary. Simple in vision, yet vast in execution, Goodbye, Babylon is an epic old-time gospel undertaking spanning six compact discs and a 200 page book, all packed in cotton inside a custom cedar box. This is a staggering collection of rare American primitive worship music and preaching from 1902-1960---uncovered, digitized, and displayed in a most reverent fashion by Dust-To-Digital Records. Five of the CDs presented feature various styles and types of early 20th century worship music, including "guitar evangelists, holiness string bands, jubilee gospel quartets, sacred harp choirs, and sanctified jug bands," while the sixth disc contains field recordings of preachers in action.
The true beauty here is the mixture of black and white styles of worship. While there was a racial divide in the land, there was a striking similarity in the passion of church music, whether it was black gospel blues or hillbilly country-fried praise. The difference in delivery doesn't matter, because the sincerity rings true, as these ghosts of days gone past continue to testify and glorify almost a century later.
Highlights from the box include the barn-burning title track, where the Rev. T.T. Rose and his singers trade off exhultations in a barrelhouse-styled call-and-response. The Alabama Sacred Harp Singers show off their unusual vocal stylings on Present Joys, where their complex singing bounces around with a unique vertical motion, which is contrasted with the simple verses and hand-clapping of Thou Carest Lord, For Me by the Holy Ghost Sanctified Singers. Also of note is the backwood country blues of Roosevelt Graves and Brother's Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind On Jesus), where Brother sings backup and throws in the occasional "Praise God!" and "My Lord!" in perfect harmony. Along these lines also is the lonely bluegrass duet I'll Never Go Back by The Louvin Brothers, which features a piercing instrumental break between each verse. Moving on from there, we get the holy-rollingly defiant There Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down by Brother Claude Ely, who sounds like he could reach right through the speakers and smack you right upside the head with his Good Book without missing a beat. Likewise could be said about the sassy blues of Sister O.M. Terrell's The Bible's Right, which contains more pure blues punch than just about anything that ever came out of a jukejoint.
Perhaps the most moving tune is the quiet and dreamy Lift Him Up That's All by Washington Phillips. The song begins with what almost sounds like a harp, gently plucked strings drifting in an almost lullaby-like fashion. Phillips' voice crackles in over this exquisite music with a ragged yet honest edginess, which enhances the beauty of the song in spite of itself, glorious in all its imperfection. The simplicity of the message cuts through boldly and unapologetically, just like a good gospel song should.
It would be just short of sin for fans of old country, blues, gospel and bluegrass to miss out on this heavenly collection. So pass the plate, and praise the Lord. Amen.