Various Artists

When I Reach That Heavenly Shore: Unearthly Black Gospel 1926-1936

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Many of the 42 tracks collected here, 34 of which are being digitally re-introduced to the world, don't sound much like gospel, at least not in the modern sense of the word. Recorded between 1926 and 1936, and done for commercial labels, these are really pre-gospel pieces, religious and sacred songs done in blues, street jazz, choral, and other styles, and some of them are simply passionately delivered proto-rap-like rhythmic sermons. Modern gospel as a distinct musical genre had yet to be codified, and what we really have here are the roots of all that. There's a little bit of everything, from unclassifiable artists like Henry Thomas, a black Texas street singer who played his guitar like a banjo, self-accompanied by quills (pan pipes), to East Texas street evangelist Washington Phillips, who played two self-made zithers simultaneously to deliver an eerie, celestial sound behind his personalized hymns and sermons. There's also guitarist Roosevelt Graves and his amazingly talented tambourine-playing brother Uaroy delivering a spirited "I'll Be Rested When the Roll Is Called," which is a bit unnerving, like hearing early rock & roll from another planet. There are gutsy blues sides here, and shape-note singing, black barbershop quartets, fiery street corner sermons, and the complete recorded works of the Primitive Baptist Choir of North Carolina. It adds up to a strange, invigorating, haunting, and otherworldly listening experience, a bit like taking a time-travel musical tour of a world we've almost lost the means to comprehend. Drawn and assembled from the personal collection of Grammy-winning engineer and record producer Christopher King, who has also put together similar collections covering the blues of Charley Patton, Greek folk violin, and other pre-war obscurities, and is a part of the Paramount Records comprehensive reissue project, When I Reach That Heavenly Shore is a wonderful restoration of a little-known part of America's musical past, and it has the power to awaken astonishment.

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