Churches have long existed at the heart of African-American communities throughout the Western Hemisphere, traditionally providing structure and ethical discourse in a social environment often fraught with challenges and perils. Religion and spirituality in any culture may serve as important coordinates for sustenance and survival; among peoples who are descended from survivors of the African Diaspora, the importance and relevance of these disciplines can never be fully understood by members of the dominant group. Since the early '90s, the Document reissue label has done much to bring a broadly diverse selection of historic African-American recordings into general availability. Document's seven-volume Preachers and Congregations series provides an overview of the transformational call-and-response tradition, in which essential messages are brought home with the emotional immediacy of unwavering belief. This collection contains four sermons by Reverend Frank Cotton that were recorded in Chicago during August 1928. Cotton also recorded in New Orleans and Memphis in 1927, but those sides are not included here. In 2010 his "By the Pool of Siloam" made an appearance on the compilation Unheard Ofs & Forgotten Abouts: Rare and Unheralded Gramophone Recordings from Around the World, but for the most part this Document disc is your best chance to experience the power and depth of his remarkable orations.
While some preachers emitted streams of passionate intensity that have been compared with the voice of bluesman Chester Burnett aka Howlin' Wolf (see Harlem's Elder Benjamin H. Broadie as featured on Document's Gospel Singers & Preachers 1926-1948), Cotton's beautifully overmodulated gales of wordless wailing suggest a precedent for the "speaking in tongues" technique later used by saxophonists Pharoah Sanders and Albert Ayler. The fact that Cotton's 1928 recordings are emblematic of the notoriously substandard fidelity associated with the Paramount label actually enhances the playback experience, for what might be considered "imperfect" audio is unusual enough to add to the mystery and wonderment of Cotton's ecstatic rituals. Tracks 14 through 23 are credited to Deacon Leon Davis, who was assisted by Sisters Jordan and Norman at four different sessions that took place in Atlanta and New York City. These records were cut for the OKeh label during a four-year period beginning in November 1926. Davis is also known to have assisted the prolifically recorded Reverend J.M. Gates and sung with Sister Clara Hudman (aka the Georgia Peach). The most recent recordings in this set, which occupy tracks one through nine, were made for the OKeh label in Chicago on Thursday, May 22, 1941 by Reverend W.M. Chambers and his congregation. At a time when the Atlantic Ocean was peppered with German U-boats actively engaged in the sinking of ships, Reverend Chambers' urgent advice to "Let Jesus Convoy Your Soul" must have resonated with the public, especially considering his references to the Devil sending torpedoes after souls. Chambers, whose theme song "What Will I Do (Without the Lord)" recurs regularly throughout these recordings, delivers an entire sermon in two parts inspired by the word "If." This thought-provoking individual appears to have recorded again for the Chess label in 1952.