The story of Philly soul group Nat Turner Rebellion is one of "lost classic" music mythology. The group formed in the late '60s around the talents of songwriter/bandleader Joe Jefferson, aiming to bring a different level of consciousness to the soul-funk sound that was developing in Philly at the time. Rather than stick to the typical themes of love and romance, Nat Turner Rebellion's songs tapped into the burgeoning black power movement as well as anti-war sentiments and hippie ideology. Naming themselves after a violent uprising that happened at the height of slavery, Jefferson and bandmates Major Harris, Ron Harper, and Bill Spratley worked themes of racial inequality and revolutionary thinking into their sharp grooves. The band toiled in the studio for about three years, producing a few singles as they worked towards a full-length debut. Ultimately, however, their label wanted a less confrontational sound more in line with the accessible pop of other soul acts of the day. Frustrated, Nat Turner Rebellion broke up and the majority of their songs were shelved as the bandmembers went separate directions. The story would have ended there, but almost 50 years later, the studio where the group recorded donated their archive of tapes to Drexel University's Audio Archives program. The unearthed Nat Turner Rebellion tapes proved just as electric and charged decades later, and work began to properly issue these songs of hope and struggle.
By the time Laugh to Keep from Crying saw wide-scale release in 2019, Jefferson was the only member of the band still alive. It's a bittersweet time capsule in that way, and a document that highlights the anger and excitement of the early '70s, particularly in relation to the lives of young black Americans. The collection begins with the pressure-cooker title track, a high-energy rave-up of wah-wah guitar, thick bass, bright horn arrangements, and urgent four-part vocal harmonies. The song lays out a scene of desperate street life and society on the verge of riot. "Tribute to a Slave" tells the story of the rebellion led by Nat Turner against slave owners in the summer of 1831, the singers feeling Turner's presence in the racially heated climate of the early '70s. Fueled by hard-hitting funk grooves and confident vocal arrangements, the 14 songs represent all of the band's recorded work. The spirited social commentary calls for harmony on "Love, Peace & Understanding," political awakening (and possibly getting stoned) on the groovy "Getting Higher Together," and depicts a freak scene on the alien celebration of "Plastic People." The collection feels less like an album and more like an anthology, but it's no less enthralling for it. Laugh to Keep from Crying is a document of urgency and intensity but also one of fun, joy, and togetherness. Its rediscovery makes you wonder how many other amazing records are sitting on shelves somewhere, waiting for time to catch up with them.