Various Artists

Angola Prison Spirituals

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Originally released on LP on the Folk-Lyric label, Angola Prison Spirituals was recorded in the late '50s by the renowned folklorist and song collector Dr. Harry Oster. The first 13 cuts come from that glorious album, and for the CD reissue, Chris Strachwitz has added nine more tracks -- two from their excellent Robert Pete Williams volumes and seven more that have never been issued in any form before, all of which were recorded by Oster. Prisoners in the Angola Penitentiary recorded virtually everything here. Williams is most notable for his career after prison, but his songs here are far different from his other blues music: the disregard he has for traditional song form and its meter and rhyme lends an eerie, very present quality to the spirits evoked in his texts. Elsewhere, the chants by the Angola Vocal Group give rise to the notion that the songs considered to be traditional African-American spirituals are also constructs put on the culture by whites. Tom Dutson and Williams perform together on "Brother Norah," with its deep, ancient roots in otherworldly harmonies, and "Dyin' Soul" is spookier and more mournful than anything that most would recognize as arising from the spiritual canon. But it is on "Rise and Fly" by the Angola Vocal Group that listeners can hear the timelessness of the blues and the primitive, pre-Thomas Dorsey gospel music that sounds as if it came from field hollers more than the church pew. There isn't any music anywhere more powerful than this. There isn't any music closer to tearing the veil that separates the worlds of spirit and flesh; there isn't any music that echoes the beat of the human heart, the fear and hope in its soul, or the passion in the grain of its voice like this music does. There isn't any music like this anywhere.

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