Yazoo's first all-gospel release, Ten Years of Black Country Religion 1926-1936 compiles spiritual sides by both sanctified musicians and bluesmen masquerading as religious singers, not that the listener could make such distinctions based upon the performances alone. To wit, those who usually played "the devil's music" sound just as convincing doing Christian material on this album, which further demonstrates the strong connections between blues and gospel. In this age of Goodbye, Babylon and JSP box sets, some people might not get too excited about the selections on this LP if they already have them in their collections. Even so, this record presents the thoughtfully-sequenced performances in superior sound quality and features top-notch liner notes, the typical hallmarks of titles in the original Yazoo 1000-series.
With the exception of one track, all of the songs on Ten Years of Black Country Religion are vocal performances with guitar accompaniment. In some cases, the instrument is played in a conventional fashion, while in others, the slide technique - which some music researchers theorize had been pioneered by gospel musicians - is utilized to excellent effect. As one would expect, the singing on these recordings is nothing short of emotionally intense. Ergo, even the most militant atheist may find the 14 performances included here to be of interest, as long as he or she is a fan of prewar blues. Regarding the relationship between that particular genre and gospel, the liner notes written by Stephen Calt et al. provides the following explanation:
As everyone knows, gospel singing styles have made a basic contribution to the soul music that is our current "folk" music. Once scholars argued that blues evolved from gospel. It is at least true that bluesmen like Skip James sang in a choir long before they were exposed to blues, which were generally regulated (sic) to barrelhouses that were off-limits to children. Later bluesmen had considerable difficulty in choosing the one medium over the other as the basis for a career, and in articulating the differences between sacred and "low-down" music, James felt that blues and spirituals used the same musical ideas, but for incompatible purposes. His distinction between the spiritual's inspirational and the blues' entertainment function was probably maintained by most blues artists.
Charlie Patton's gospel sides are as compelling as his blues records, which is conclusively demonstrated by the three tracks that appear on this compilation. Although it features some of his least complex instrumental accompaniment, "Lord I'm Discouraged" (aka "There'll Be Glory") is an extremely moving performance due in large part to his yearning vocals and sympathetic slide guitar, which was probably played lap-style. Even more interesting is "Prayer of Death" (released under the nom de disc of "Elder J.J. Hadley"), a two-part performance that includes a medley of "Take a Stand," "I've Been 'Buked and Scorned," and "Hold to God's Unchanging Hand" as well as sections in which he makes his guitar "talk" or sound like church bells. Hailing from the East Coast, Kid Prince Moore performed blues and gospel with equal skill, and the relatively late-period (1936) pieces "Church Bells" (which is similar to Patton's "Oh Death") and "Sign of Judgement" bear technical similarities to the works of other Piedmont artists. Mississippian Blind Willie Davis, on the other hand, strictly played spiritual numbers and, according to Gayle Dean Wardlow, only reluctantly went into the studio because he was concerned that Paramount would try to coerce him into recording blues material. Evidently, this never happened, and enthusiasts of prewar black gospel are the better for it as "I've Got a Key to the Kingdom" and "Your Enemy Cannot Harm You" make evident. As with Patton, Davis probably performed both of these bottleneck masterpieces with the guitar in his lap. Many consider the driving "Arise and Shine" to be Memphis preacher Lonnie McIntorsh's finest moment, and I can't say that I would dispute that contention. One of the first Southern bluesmen to be recorded, Bo Weavil Jackson was yet another black guitarist who was equally conversant in performing sacred or profane material. His actual name may have been James Jackson, although on "I'm on My Way to the Kingdom Land," he recorded under the moniker of Sam Butler. Regardless of his true identity, the performance is a sanctified tour de force - albeit a sloppy one - especially when he starts slapping the bass string and tapping the body of his guitar for added emphasis. Burl "Jaybird" Coleman earned his reputation from his harmonica-blowing skills, which were displayed on songs that consisted almost entirely of blues numbers. However, this Georgia-born and Alabama-based harpist waxed a couple of gospel tunes as well. The sublime "I'm Gonna Cross the River of Jordan Some o' These Days" finds him backed by a second harmonicist, the totally obscure Ollis Martin, which makes this side unique among recordings by prewar African American musicians. "Go I'll Send Thee" and "Everybody Ought to Pray Sometime" get my vote for Ten Years of Black Country Religion's best tracks. It's a shame that virtually nothing is known about Dennis Crumpton and Robert Summers, the artists responsible for these transcendent spirituals. Their duet singing is remarkable as are the twin slide guitars exhibited on the latter title. Even Blind Lemon Jefferson, the first superstar blues guitarist, released the occasional gospel number. "Where Shall I Be?" dates from 1927 - the peak of his popularity - and "All I Want Is That Pure Religion" (on which he is billed as "Deacon L.J. Bates") comes from his very first recording session in 1925.
1. Lord I'm Discouraged - Charlie Patton
2. Church Bells - Kid Prince Moore
3. Sign of Judgement - Kid Prince Moore
4. I've Got a Key to the Kingdom - Blind Willie Davis
5. Your Enemy Cannot Harm You - Blind Willie Davis
6. Arise and Shine - Lonnie McIntorsh
7. I'm on My Way to the Kingdom Land - Bo Weavil Jackson
8. I'm Gonna Cross the River of Jordan Some o' These Days - Jaybird Coleman
9. Prayer of Death Part I - Charlie Patton
10. Prayer of Death Part II - Charlie Patton
11. Go I'll Send Thee - Dennis Crumpton & Robert Summers
12. Everybody Ought to Pray Sometime - Dennis Crumpton & Robert Summers
13. Where Shall I Be? - Blind Lemon Jefferson
14. All I Want Is That Pure Religion - Blind Lemon Jefferson