By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Harry Smith, Harry Smith, Harry Smith. There, did I get him out of the way yet? Aw hell, I didn't--too bad. Because in its scope, its configuration (six discs, bountiful notes, deliberately archaic packaging), and its sheer nerve, the project that the gospel box set Goodbye, Babylonmost clearly resembles is Smith's 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music. Smith's set filled six vinyl albums with songs from the 1920s and '30s, most of which had nothing to do with each other until he jammed them together, creating an epic narrative of an America that even then seemed irretrievably past--commonplace, yet haunted. Out of 84 discrete molehills, Smith made a mountain. He even included songs about a guy who wanted to be a mole so he could level a mountain. None of the singers on Goodbye, Babylon (and if we're counting choir members, the total's probably something in the 80,000 range) have such delusions of grandeur. What they want more than anything is to occupy the mountain rather than topple it.
What's gripping about Babylon is how heroic they make the journey to that mountain sound. On the sixth disc, most of the sermons are so ardent and swaying (both in the rhythms of the words and the back-and-forth between preacher and congregation) that they're almost more musical than the actual tunes on the first five discs. "Gospel" may be codified in our mind's ear as organ-led, Pentecostal, melisma-driven, and predominately black, but on these 160 cuts (covering 1902-60, though most date from the '20s and '30s), the genre is as wide-open as the heavenly riches it describes--or, just as often, doesn't describe. There's a mess of blues here, and I'm not just talking about the Blind Willie McTell and Skip James numbers. Alfred G. Karnes's "Called to the Foreign Field" spells out a harrowing death wish, while King's Sacred Quartette's "The World Can't Stand Long" extends a similar sentiment to the rest of humanity through a melancholy bluegrass arrangement. At least two dozen of the box's songs--Karnes's "Foreign Field," Blind Willie Johnson's "Lord I Just Can't Keep From Crying," Jimpson's field-recorded prison chant "No More, My Lord" (accompanied by the percussive noise of chopping wood), and several sermons among them--rank among the most frighteningly vivid music ever made.
Several of the more ethereal tracks are just as profound. James and Martha Carson's startlingly inventive vocal arrangement makes "I'll Fly Away" seem to light up from within. Blind Roosevelt Graves and Brother's jaunty "Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind on Jesus)" contains one of the most perfect guitar riffs ever devised: It seems to skip rope, play jacks, and cross itself all at once. Blind Mamie Forehand's devastating "Honey in the Rock" is mournful, barely decipherable, and as personal as marriage.
The major difference between Dust-to-Digital head Steven Lance Ledbetter, who compiled Goodbye, Babylon, and Harry Smith is that the latter played alchemist with his box set, shuffling several strands together to create a complete, if open-ended, story. Ledbetter, by contrast, is more like a first-rate model-train builder: His programming has the set moving in a series of parallel lines rather than an endless circle. But wow, does it move.