Document's Sinners and Saints (1926-1931) presents the complete recorded works of nine artists and groups, whose combined repertoires and performance styles serve as a brief but fascinating lesson in the history of black music, expanding common conceptions of the musical continuum that created the blues. The CD presents minstrel and medicine show material, religious songs, two work songs, a few so-called "blues," and a bad man blues ballad, exhibiting a wide scope of black musical traditions dating back to the 19th century and still in circulation during the 1920s and '30s. The performers not only represent a variety of genres, but demonstrate highly individualized styles that reflect their own personal aesthetics as much as any traditional form. The tones of their offerings range from the bizarre and the mirthful to the plaintive and deeply spiritual; the total effect of the album is hilarious, dark, and genuinely moving. Of the artists collected here, only Pink Anderson would record again after the 1930s, producing three albums with his "rediscovery" in the '60s. Most of the performers on this compilation recorded two sides apiece, appearing in a studio for only one day of their lives; Freeman Stowers and the Pink Anderson-Simmie Dooley team have four tracks each, and the miraculous Nugrape Twins are blessed with six. Stowers performs two harmonica blues numbers, infusing one with a knockout, if grating, impersonation of a train, shrieking underneath the strains of his harp to simulate the roaring locomotive's whistle. In two other tracks, he abandons the instrument altogether for vocal imitations of animals, creating a surreal listening experience that is both terrifying and uproarious. If some of his impersonations, including a hog and a wildcat, are dead on the money, others of the inhabitants of his "Sunrise on the Farm" seem to have sprung out of the sideshows of hell. Taken together, Stowers' menagerie probably comprises some of the strangest six minutes ever recorded commercially. "Beans" Hambone, accompanied by guitarist El Morrow, continues the surrealism of Stowers' "Sunrise" with an eerie comic song called "Beans," plunked out on an unusual homemade guitar whose notes hypnotically punctuate the half-sung and half-spoken tale, in which a doctor writes prescriptions for beans, Biblical figures have gardens and arks full of beans, the singer dies from eating beans and is buried in beans, and his funeral is "preached...in beans, beans, beans." The six tracks by the Nugrape Twins (Matthew and Mark) are full of youthful energy, whether the twins are singing about the pleasures of heaven or of Nugrape Soda, or, at their most sublime, combining the two ("Way down yonder in the promised land, a-run and tell your mama, here's the Nugrape Man"). "I Got Your Ice Cold Nugrape" is their masterpiece, a simultaneous hymn and jingle that advertises the soda as a cure for any earthly or spiritual ailment; like all of their songs, it pits the two rural voices against a concert piano in a unique synthesis of styles. The twins are succeeded by the New Orleans songster Blind Roger Hays, whose two songs constitute the spiritual climax of the album. Hays' singing and playing are deceptively simple, reflecting a depth of emotion that transforms the sentimentality of his lyrics and tunes into deeply inspiring and soul-shaking work. Following Hays' "I Must Be Blind, I Cannot See" (a beautiful statement with a melody lifted from "Home Sweet Home"), the album concludes with the duets of Anderson and Dooley, whose quick fingerwork, raucous kazoo, and spirited vocals maintain the exuberance if not the spirituality of Hays' performances. The performers assembled here recorded their few minutes of fame with a rich intensity, packing years and decades of experience -- and ultimately disappearing -- into the narrow circumference of a 78 record. Each artist in this well-crafted set presents his own model of rejuvenation and deliverance, whether grounded in the promise of heaven; the sound of a passenger train; the flavor of an ice-cold Nugrape; or the pleasures of stronger drink, sex, and dance -- of "tipping out tonight" and "strutting his stuff." With brief notes by blues writer Paul Oliver, the album is as entertaining and educational as the best of Document's CDs. It is doubly commendable for illustrating the breadth of traditions captured on "race records," while also showcasing the talents of the lesser-known patron saints of the business. Highly recommended.
AllMusic Review by Burgin Mathews