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Cambridge, Massachusetts 02140
A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
In Dimona, the town in Israel where I work, there is a large group of what the Whites call "the Black Hebrews." This is a religious cult whose members came from the U.S. and hoped to set up their own community somewhere in the Holy Land. The Hebrew community, as they call themselves, believes that they are the direct descendants of the original children of Israel, and that the "Rabbinic Jews" around them are all fakes. On listening to this astounding cd, one begins to understand where the claim comes from.
This album of biblical songs bears an immediacy that can't be beat. Great biblical heroes are referred to in the second person, sometimes called by nicknames, and are given advice by the singers. The songs are intensely personal, encompassing the whole of experience in biblical metaphor.
Alan Lomax's southern journey is a saga that begins in 1935, when he came to the St. Simons Island with Mary Elizabeth Barnicle and Black folklorist Zora Neale Hurston to record a group of islanders discovered by Lydia Parrish. Thems was deep Jim Crow days, and Dr. Barnicle and he blackened their skin with walnut juice to avoid notice as an interracial group. The recordings on this disc were made 35 years later, in 1959 and 1960 when, during the stirrings of the civil rights movement, Lomax returned to St. Simons with better equipment and found nearly all the original group, who remembered him well. Led by John Davis and Willis Proctor of the original group, and Bessie Jones, who had married into the Island, the group sang the previously recorded songs and added some that Jones brought from Georgia that could be traced back to antebellum slavery days. The result was this disc (among others) and a detailed annotated booklet accompanying it, from which much of the above background was taken. So let's get to the songs themselves.
Sign of Judgment is a tale of trouble and strife, sung sparsely and simply. Judgment day is a time of anxiety and loss of direction - something like our own time:
"The sign's in the moon |
The sign's in the fig tree
Mothers against daughters
Fathers against sons
The horses in the valley,
Can't you hear them harpin'
There's war, war."
The song begins with Henry Morrison's invocation, a tip for those of us nearing Judgment day:
You have let Your Holy Spirit guide us all night long while we layin' down sleepin' and snorin'. We wake up this mornin', find cloths, and in our right mind, and the blood was still runnin' warm in our veins. |
Isn't that all we need?
The two Moses songs on the disc (Moses and Moses don't Get Lost) are also fraught with anxiety, along with the great strength of the leader who took his people out of slavery. John Davis personalizes his own Moses experience:
"Moses don't let King Pharaoh overtake you |
In some lonesome graveyard."
Bessie Jones learned "Turkle Dove" from her grandfather. It is a whimsical song that was sung at antebellum weddings, a sort of nonsense chant made up of almost chance rhymes. For instance:
"When I get to heaven, I know the rule, |
I keep right down to the bathin' pool".
Adam in the Garden, sung by Willis Proctor, has some of the same feeling, perhaps making some sense of why Turkle Dove is nonsense. Here, God discovers Adam and Eve "Pinnin' up leaves." Slowly their original sinning becomes clear. God calls, but Adam won't answer.
Eli, You Can't Stand, sung by Willis Proctor and Bessie Jones, shows the roots of suffering and strength within the powerful biblical metaphor. The singer tells Eli that if he takes just one brick out of Satan's wall, it's bound to fall. But it isn't at all certain that Eli is going to take that brick out; so the singer is sure to remind him what will happen if he doesn't. The theme is personal responsibility against a background of unavoidable suffering and tribulation.
"It Just Suits Me," sung by Bessie Jones and accompanied by Hobart Smith on the guitar, is a collection of familiar verses, tailored to the song in a personal way:
"Ezekiel declare that he see the train a-commin', |
He stepped on board and never stopped runnin'."
Tobacco and snuff you'd better quit, |
When you get to heaven there ain't nowhere to spit.
The refrain "and that suits me" fits the song and emphasizes its personal nature.
When you finish this album, you will feel like you've been there - both to St. Simons Island and to heaven.
Singers: Bessie Jones, Willis Proctor (group leaders), Joe Armstrong, Henry Morrison, Peter and Jerome Davis, Ben, Alberta and Emma Ramsay, Nat Rahmings, Ed Young, Hobart Smith.
Edited by Roberta B. Schwartz