The Bloody and the Beautiful

Goodbye, Babylon’s incomparable collection of gospel—and the questions raised by it.

Writers know the homeland is an obedient trope. Point to “America,” and readers will populate the word before the writer has a chance: Pioneers with bumptious spirit! Thin-skinned consumers! Almost any reading of the country ends up sounding right—Walt Whitman figured this out in 1855. Critic Greil Marcus has made an effective case for evidence of a “weird old America” resident in the works of Bob Dylan and other American songwriters. The U.S. government is not above using representations of the country to convince the rest of the world that we are a caring, sensitive bunch. That these readings don’t agree with one another or even describe the same experience of being American doesn’t mean they don’t describe some version of America. Meanwhile, the 160 recordings collected in the remarkable new six-disc box set Goodbye, Babylon describe America with a minimum of sentiment. Which America the collection describes depends on how you feel about Christianity. And blood. And pump organs.

Goodbye, Babylon is the ark of the covenant as realized largely by three passionate music obsessives: Dust-to-Digital’s young founder, Lance Ledbetter, and veteran record collectors Joe Bussard and Dick Spottswood. The box really is a box—a 13-by-8 cedar rectangle with an image of the Tower of Babel on the lid. Inside are two clumps of raw cotton, six CDs, and a 200-page book. This level of commitment seems appropriate for eight hours of religious song recorded between 1901 and 1960. The range of work here is so broad that using any single word like “gospel” to describe it is inaccurate as taxonomy and as suggestion. There are recordings of black church sermons that blur the line between text and song, Sacred Harp singing (a large group activity that emphasizes participation over skill), bluegrass testimonials, bloody warnings, and blues singers moonlighting for God. Starbucks would have a hell of a time selling this one with lattes.

On a purely musical level, the contents are almost oppressively impressive. Most of what happened in nightclubs during the second half of the century happened originally in a church some time during the first half. Anything goes—tootling pipes, shimmering banjos, bells, bottles, clapping, stomping, mania, and careful deliberation.

There are songs that sound like what you expect religious song to sound like: Rev. T.T. Moses and Singers’ wonderful “Goodbye, Babylon” is a barely contained dose of unbridled singing and rollicking piano led by a preacher who can’t stop himself from celebrating, even if it’s death he’s throwing a party for. Some sound nothing like any kind of devotional song: Washington Phillips’ “Lift Him Up That’s All,” was recorded in 1927, and it’s hypnotic and strangely confident. The calm recitation recalls the cadences of Bob Dylan more than just a little, and the fantastic twinkling sound running beneath the voice is allegedly a “Dolceola,” though the notes don’t elaborate what a Dolceola may be. Some songs are glimpses of the future: The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet’s “Found a Wonderful Savior” is a crisp, four-part harmony song that hints at doo-wop to come. If you want to know where Jack White of the White Stripes gets his inspiration, listen to the remarkable “I Got To Cross the River of Jordan” by Blind Willie McTell. His plea sounds both pained and resolute. The vibrato of McTell’s voice is echoed in the gently wobbling, pulsing slide guitar. It is not hard to imagine starting a band after hearing it.

Some salvation sounds carefree. The oddly enthusiastic “Strange Things Happening Every Day” was recorded in 1944 by Sister Rosetta Tharpe and become a top 10 hit on the “race” charts. One of my favorites is a witty testimonial for voice and guitar by Sister O.M. Terrell called “The Bible’s Right“: “Somebody wrong/ The Bible’s right. … You snuff dippers and tobacco chewers/ When you get to heaven, you won’t have nowhere to spit.” Other songs shake with sorrow and conviction, like Dock Reed and Vera Hall Ward’s rendition of “Free at Last,” a song based on a pre-Civil War spiritual and recorded in 1950, only four years before desegregation. Some recordings here were hits, like the Carter Family’s 1928 recording of “Keep on the Sunny Side.” Others, like the entire sixth disc of black sermons, were locally popular at the time and then fell into obscurity.

And some of these tracks are newly relevant. At last Sunday’s Oscars, Allison Krauss performed songs written by Sting and by T Bone Burnett and Elvis Costello for the film Cold Mountain. Krauss was accompanied on stage by Sting, Costello, and a collection of Sacred Harp singers. Krauss has a sweet voice and impressive control, but her performance bore little resemblance to the chunky and robust tradition of Sacred Harp singing. There’s a 1928 recording on Goodbye, Babylon of J.T. Allison’s Sacred Harp Singers performing an “anonymous camp-meeting hymn” called “Exhilaration.”True to the tradition of Sacred Harp, the singers begin by rehearsing the notes of the song with nothing but “fa,” “sol,” “la,” and “mi,” the wordless building blocks of the form. It all sounds vaguely avant-garde, if peppy. Then the singers rip into lyrics about the “vale of death,” letting their voices resonate with and against one another, singing with audible faith.

In his excellent, brief introduction, Spottswood writes: “Religion, either as a source of spiritual comfort or political conflict, has never been far from center stage in American life.” Not exactly a groundbreaking point, but it’s a welcome corrective to the apolitical approach rampant among record nerds. Goodbye, Babylon is a remarkable collection of sounds and performances, but it is also an eight-hour-long record about Jesus Christ.

Love songs to Christ are often scripted by pain, and the songs of praise here are slick with blood: “Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb?” “The Blood That Stained the Old Rugged Cross,” “Hide Me in the Blood of Jesus,” and most germane of all, “I Remember Calvary“: “Just remember how they pierced Him in the side/ From Him flowed the precious healing, cleansing tide.”

The idea of blood as somehow cleansing when it’s outside your body is a terrible and powerful idea. Walking up from New York’s Bowling Green subway station last week, I became aware of the big hole to my left—Ground Zero—as I listened to Joshua White sing “I Don’t Intend To Die in Egypt Land.” His performance is low-key, less hysterical than much of Goodbye, Babylon. He sings, “I don’t intend to stop till I reach the promise land/ I don’t intend to die in Egypt land.” The words jolted me and made me look up. The site is covered with American flags—some official placards welded to the fence, others homemade tributes made from flowers or bits of paper. And there, inside the perimeter fence, is the only visible relic of the two towers: two steel beams welded together to make a cross. Goodbye, Babylon makes the agnostic in me want to jump and shout. The empiricist in me can’t help but notice the road out of Babylon is paved with sorrow and blood, usually someone else’s.