Got a spare hundred bucks (US)? You could do much worse than invest in the CD set Goodbye, Babylon. I’ll let them explain what it is:
In February 1999 a college radio disc jockey named Lance Ledbetter set out on a mission to compile rare and essential recordings of vintage religious music. Four and a half years later the result of this journey was released as a box set called Goodbye, Babylon. The set consists of five CDs featuring 135 Songs (1902-1960) and one CD featuring 25 Sermons (1926-1941). Accompanying the CDs is a 200 page book with Bible verses, complete lyric transcriptions, and notes for each recording. All of the components is reverently packed with raw cotton and housed in a deluxe 8″ x 11″ x 2.5″ cedar box.
(BTW: I love that little solecism in there about “vintage religious music” when in fact they mean “vintage American religious music”. But hey…moving right along.)
My copy arrived this week and it is a thing of beauty. At this stage, I’ve only listened to the first disc so this is far from a full-fledged review, but I’m more than happy to vouch for its quality.
This is not the sort of album you pop on in the background while you get on with other things: this is a collection that you take your time with, immerse yourself in, and gradually get inside what it has to offer.
Listening to these old recordings (some are scratchier than others, though I’m seriously glad they didn’t try and clean them up too much) is straight out fun. It really does conjure up another world, one not so far away in time, but nonetheless impossibly distant. The songs not only convey a sort of unquestioning devotion, they are also a window on another way of life. I hear not only devotion in amongst the static, but joy and isolation and boredom and sometimes desperation.
Maybe I’m projecting, but this sort of folk music comes through as so unmediated by the usual concerns of the music industry — fame, fortune, distraction, entertainment — that you can’t help but feel you are privy to regular human beings in all their joy and misery.
So the music is great, but the accompanying book is also very well done, providing just enough information to give the necessary background, without bogging you down in a thesis-like investigation. I love the fact that they’ve printed all the lyrics too, cause they ain’t always that easy to understand.
Just a couple of highlights so far: Blind Lemon Jefferson doing ‘All I Want is that Pure Religion’ is a classic, blues-based guitar hymn. Fantastic. But the track I really love is ‘There’s a Light Up In Gallilee’ by Ernest V. Stoneman And His Dixie Mountaineers. There is a women in there singing that has the most amazing accent, with this sort of incredible, almost flat (as in, out of tune) soprano, but her performance is such a bundle of unselfconscious joy that I keep listening to it over and over.
I’m sure there are a million other tiny highlights like that on this treasure trove of a collection.