Various Artists

Atlanta, Ga. Gospel (1923-1931)

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Throughout the early and middle 20th century, the African-American sacred song tradition was represented on phonograph records by a vast range of groups and individuals, ranging from jackleg preachers to refined collegiate choirs. As is the case with blues and jazz recordings from the same period, Document's numerous gospel reissue compilations provide invaluable access to rare and unusual recordings that otherwise might have continued to languish in obscurity or faded from memory altogether. Atlanta, Ga. Gospel (1923-1931) combines work by six ensembles and two preachers whose sounds were captured by engineers working for the Columbia and OKeh labels. As several titles by various artists were unavailable for inclusion in this set, Document's habitual use of the phrase "Complete Recorded Works" is once again not entirely accurate. What did make it onto the playlist qualifies as fascinating, uncommon, and worthy of investigation. Deacon W.H. Gallamore and his three-member female congregation sound like they were invited into the makeshift recording studio fresh off the street corner. Musically speaking, Gallamore's gifts to posterity are the most disorganized on this collection, and his approach to rhythm might best be compared with the pacing of a plow horse. Gallamore's four sermons are quite different from the more straight-laced entries in this collection, and who can resist a title like "Hell Is God's Chain Gang"? Rev. C.D. Montgomery was a passionate singer whose preaching comes across almost like an afterthought. His "Who Was Job? Pt. 2" largely consists of him singing "Let the Church Roll On," an air that seems to have been popular in Atlanta's religious community, as it is also heard sung by the Thankful Quartette and the Independent Quartet. Other four-part harmony groups represented here include the rather conventional-sounding Morehouse College Quartet and two of this collection's most impressive ensembles, the James Brothers Quartet and the Progressive Four. The most unusual-sounding selections are those credited to the Middle Georgia Singing Convention No. 1. These are among the very few extant pre-WWII recordings by African-American shape-note singers, and especially on "This Song of Love" their technique generates an almost oompah-like effect that some listeners may find unintentionally humorous. The term "shape note" refers to a simplified form of musical notation popularized in tune books and hymnals throughout the Southern United States during the 19th century. It is also known as buckwheat-note and character notation. The only other comparable recordings by an African-American shape-note group were cut in Atlanta in 1931 by the Fa-So-La Singers, but are not included here. This tradition was still very much alive near the close of the 20th century, as evidenced by the work of the Alabama-based Wiregrass Sacred Harp Singers.

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