Citizens of the United States of America should be grateful to the people who run the Document record label, based in Vienna, Austria, for having reissued so many rare North American phonograph recordings. A good case in point is Document 5546, Black Secular Vocal Groups, Vol. 1, a veritable gold mine of otherwise nearly impossible to find Afro-American ensemble vocal recordings made between February 1923 and November 1929. Most of these songs are performed a cappella, with five out of 25 tracks (those by Tim Brymn's Black Devil Four, the Variety Four, and the Triangle Quartette) adding piano accompaniment. The designation "Secular" does not denote the absence of spirituals; it was clearly important for these singers to be adept at performing a diverse selection of blues-inflected secular and sacred songs, ranging from "Gone Jazz Crazy" to "King Jesus, Stand by Me." Like much of what is best in Afro-American music, "Somebody's Always Talking About Me" is a blend of both secular and scared tropes, a creative transgression of the deeply ingrained delineation between what you'd hear in church and what you'd hear elsewhere that permeates all of traditional Afro-American culture. In addition to the Pullman Porters Quartette and the Four Pods of Pepper, this compilation spotlights two excellent groups that came up in Virginia: the Richmond Starlight Quartette and the Monarch Jazz/Jubilee Quartet of Norfolk. "Four or Five Times" and "I Ain't Got Nobody" are beautifully done; the authorship of "What's the Matter Now?" seems to depend upon who's singing it. Bessie Smith and Rosa Henderson made the definitive recordings during the 1920s, and essentially the same song would reappear decades later credited to Billy C. Farlow of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. The Monarch Jazz Quartet's "What's the Matter Now?" is a patchwork quilt of swatches from the blues idiom. It even contains a couple of lines borrowed from Bessie Smith's "Backwater Blues." This fascinating collection of historical recordings shares one important trait with many other titles in the Document catalog: little or no effort was made to "clean up" the sound quality, and as a producer's note in the enclosed discography states, the skips on tracks two and 15 are on the original 78-rpm discs. The message seems to be: if anyone has a better copy, please come forward.
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