The latest entry in the Smithsonian Folkways Classic Series highlights traditional sacred music from the American south as documented in the vast Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archive.
That collection, though impressive, has its limitations. Here you’ll find no Carl Story or Sullivan Family, none of Earl Scruggs’ trademark thumb-style guitar work, no Clinch Mountain Gospel-era Ralph Stanley. There are plenty of recognizable names: Bill Monroe, Dock Boggs, Red Allen, Doc Watson, the Country Gentlemen, the Lilly Brothers, Hazel & Alice. But the real strength of this album is its focus on amateur family and church groups such as Harry & Jeanie West, the A.L. Phipps Family, the Poplin Family, and Kilby Snow.
A cappella music is well-represented throughout. Perhaps the oldest tradition is the call-and-response of the Indian Bottom Association of Old Regular Baptists, in which the congregation echoes the leader’s recitation for each line of “I’m Going To A City”. The Old Harp Singers of Eastern Tennessee offer a shape-note introduction for the 19th-century hymn “Wondrous Love”. The delightful Stacer Quartet sails through the Stamps-Baxter style arrangement of “He Said If You Love Me, Feed My Sheep”, a tune with which they were apparently not familiar prior to their recording session.
Themes and emotions run the gamut from wrath to mercy, justice to grace. The admonitions of the Lillys’ “Sinner, You’d Better Get Ready” and “The Lost Soul” by the Watson Family are tempered by the redemptive messages of Earnest Stoneman’s autoharp-driven “Hallelujah Side” and Monroe’s quartet with Mac Wiseman, Don Reno and Benny Martin.
As with most sacred music, the afterlife figures prominently: Half the album’s 22 tracks are about heaven. The most moving of these undoubtedly is the Allen Brothers’ “Shake Hands With Mother Again”. Sung as a quartet against the sparse backdrop of guitar and mandolin, the song tells the heartfelt story of a son who longs to stand by his mother’s tombstone and greet her at the resurrection.
Conspicuously absent is any material from African-American performers; whether their many contributions to the sacred tradition are “gospel” or “spiritual” seems like hairsplitting. Presumably their music will be featured on a future entry in this series. If not, the oversight might just be a mortal sin.