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Feature Article :
Coulda Had Religion
Dust off your prayer bone with our man David Atkinson
In these secular times, it's hard to fully appreciate the relationship between blues and gospel music and those who played them. Though in effect they were different sides of the same coin, the crude marketing by the nascent recording industry imposed a lot of artificial divisions on music; and while talent scouts and recording sessions yielded a wealth of amazing songs, they are now not really considered to be representative of particular artists’ repertoires.
I'm not one to advocate religion in any way but I am quite fascinated by religious music. I tend to find that the gospel output of most of the greats is as rewarding as their blues output. And you could argue that it is the weird semi-religious nature of chaps like Son House and Skip James that make their output the most blue blues, if you get my meaning. One might say it’s the very dichotomy of the true bluesman. If you’re into that sort of thing…
Rather than open a can of worms, here I thought it would be nice to look at a few lesser known musicians whose influence, personality or sheer awesomeness warrant further investigation by the intrepid blues fan. This is all good music; they tell me the secret ingredient is God...
Street corner holy man Washington Phillips is perhaps the hardest to categorise. He played traditional and intelligent original songs on a weird, purportedly homemade instrument. It might actually have been a fretless Zither and it sounds a bit like a music box – making as it does a sort of beguiling tinkle. Denomination Blues is shot through with good will and good sense, questioning the divisive nature of faith and the hypocrisy of the church. While What Are They Doing in Heaven Today? poses the question to reflect on the absurdities and difficulty of life. Phillips stops short of answering it though and just leaves us wondering what the world would be like without the things that make it so hard for so many. It is beautiful and should satisfy the believers, agnostics and atheists alike.
Reverend Charlie Jackson
More punk blues than any of today's punk blues, Rev. Jackson's 1970s recorded output all has the same hacking guitar sound and unbridled power. Now that's what I call religion! Music like this affects your central nervous system and makes you move involuntarily. His song God's Got It has just been recorded by the Black Crowes, but even they can't match the sheer heavyosity of his sound. While they sound a bit lame, Jackson sounds unshakeable. Check out his complete Booker & Jackson compilation.
Here we can see him on an oh-so-Nineties chat show accompanied by Little George Suref and Big Joe Louis performing his other signature tune, Wrapped Up & Tangled Up In Jesus: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QFUhglYDSMs
Reverend Utah Smith
Reportedly an influence on the young Charlie Jackson above, Reverend Utah Smith travelled around putting the fear of God into people with the electric guitar. A noble pursuit if ever there was one. His most famous song, Two Wings, was recorded a number of times with varying degrees of intensity: Very, More So, and Oh My God!! On the best cuts his amp sounds like it's on the verge of blowing up and destroying the studio, and it often throws the backing singers into disarray. It is actually his voice that makes the song though: it has the 'allure of the maniac', as I like to call it. He's so loud and full on that it becomes quite overwhelming. A comparatively refined version by Alvin Youngblood Hart appeared recently on The Great Debaters Soundtrack, but you can hear the originals on the excellent JSP Guitar Evangelists box set.
Reverend Anderson Johnson
For complete over-the-top distorted godly madness we must turn to Rev. Anderson Johnson. His earliest recordings were made sometime in the 1950s and are a triumph of music over technology. His slide guitar is played so loud and distorted that I like to think that by the end of his recording God Don't Like It and Lord Will Make A Way that the microphones were broken and smouldering. Later sessions reduced the volume and intensity and with more sophisticated arrangements yielded the jaunty Death In The Morning and fantastic Don't Know How To Get Along Without The Lord.
In later life Johnson became a respected ‘outsider’ artist: www.wm.edu/middlepassage/exhibits/johnson/
Robert Pete Williams
Guitar master and mangler, Robert Pete Williams has a sound that is all his own, which was captured by Harry Oster in the late 50s in Angola State Prison. His Church On Fire With The Word of God is tale of the Judgement and haunting in its fractured, gently hypnotic rhythm. Musically and lyrically it is essentially freely improvised. If Skip James is not high-pitched or strange enough for you, Robert Pete Williams is your man. Here’s some film of his blues stuff, which lacks the sensational fire & brimstone of his prison recordings but gives you a taste…
Blind Connie Williams
Connie (a man, by the way) was a friend of the legendary Rev. Gary Davis, with whom he played for a time in the 40s. He was rediscovered by producer Pete Welding in Philadelphia in 1974 singing on the street to passers by. A few recordings of him were made and include a wealth of blues, topical and spiritual songs. His version of St Louis Blues is an absolute favourite of mine. On guitar he tends to avoid 12-bar progressions and his soulful high voice is pretty unique. He also played accordion at the session and tended to favour it for the gospel material. He does a cracking version of I'll Fly Away and Lilly of The Valley that's just like being in the room with an old blind guy playing accordion. Heavenly stuff.
Band mate of Big Joe Williams in the Birmingham Jug Band, Coleman’s harmonica duet on the classic I’m Gonna Cross The River of Jordan is a must for fans of the instrument. He was known to go by the name Rabbit’s Foot Williams at times and the great Paul Oliver described him perfectly: “His technique was close to the field holler with a sung vocal line and then an interpreting response on the harmonica." You simply don’t get them like this anymore.