November 11, 2007

A Pre-War Christmas

An eclectic mix today that certainly won't be for everyone. However, lovers of pre-war (WWII) blues music will enjoy. I didn’t fully embrace this music until 2001, after I saw the film Ghost World. Since then, I’ve grown more and more fascinated by this time period, reading up on everything from the great Mississippi Flood of 1927 to people like John Fahey and Alan Lomax, who culled the southeast portions of the United States for long-lost albums and singers. Most modern music doesn’t hold much interest for me, and I keep going back in time to find something that speaks to me—eventually, I’m going to travel all the way back to silence. Since I’m only 26, many of my friends think that I’m strange. But pre-war blues just blows me away. This was during a time when record companies had no idea how to make a profit and they would record next to anything. What remains are crackling wax imprints of our old, weird America.

All of these tracks, except for Blind Willie McTell, come from compilations put out by Dust-to-Digital, including their phenomenal Goodbye, Babylon box set and a holiday themed comp, Where Will You Be Christmas Day?

Gettin’ Ready for Christmas Day – Rev. J.M. Gates
This three-minute sermon has a transfixing affect on the listener. There’s a repetitive, marching syntax in the words. Undoubtedly purposeful on Gates’ part, perhaps to remind sinners of what punishments await in Hell. Historians note that this style of preaching was one of the first blocks that eventually lead to rap music.

Papa Ain’t No Santa Claus (Mama Ain’t No Christmas Tree) – Butterbeans and Susie
The banter between these two comics is classic. They started performing together in 1916 and married the next year. Many of their lyrics were filled with double entendres that the FCC probably wouldn’t even allow on network television today.

Christ Was Born on Christmas Morn – Cotton Top Mountain Sanctified Singers
Here’s what Matthew Perpetua of the Associated Press said of this track back in 2006: “It's hard to imagine that anyone has released a better compilation of Christmas music in the past twenty years than Dust-to-Digital's Where Will You Be Christmas Day. The disc collects 24 tracks from a variety of genres. All were recorded in the United States between 1917 and 1959, generally alternating between devoutly religious carols and secular selections that often celebrates the holiday from the point of view of the destitute and derelict. The music is raw and unpolished, and invariably overflows with humanity whether the song is festive, melancholy, spiritual, or some combination of the three. This particular cut from the Cotton Top Mountain Sanctified Singers was recorded back in 1929, and celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ with a rollicking tune that evokes rowdy patrons living it up at a speakeasy on Christmas Eve.”

Christmas Morning Blues – Kansas City Kitty
This 1934 track is definitely not a free-spirited and happy song—there are references to murders and death bells. Not much is known of Kansas City Kitty or the piano player.

Holy Babe – Kelly Pace, Aaron Brown, Joe Green, Matthew Johnson, and Paul Hayes
This thing swings for seven minutes and is a choral masterpiece.

Cold Winter Day – Blind Willie McTell
Here’s another one of those songs that’s got nothing in common with Christmas besides the season. But McTell is just a force to be reckoned with—as is the Bob Dylan song named after him. When I listen to this, I can hear the wear in McTell’s voice—he’s been out in many cold winter days.

Death Might Be Your Santa Clause – Rev. J.M. Gates and His Congregation
Gates was pastor of an Atlanta church for several years, though his legacy has been saved on records. He began recording for Columbia in 1926—however, the label didn’t sign him to an exclusive deal. By the end of the year, he had recorded 48 fire and brimstone sermons for several other labels.


Quixotience said...

Thank you for this post. As a veteran collector of Christmas music, I'm consistently drawn to recordings from the time when Christmas became a mostly secular yet spiritual celebration of joy in the face of the cold and the dark. The early 20th century transformed Christmas to an event even an atheist could enjoy. Music was a major part of the transformation. As with everyday pop music, the blues exerted an influence that is still felt today, even if most people don't know it. Great post.
Thanks also for reposting 77 Santas.

Anonymous said...

Yes these tunes are very moving. I'm especially addicted to Holy Babe and Christ Was Born On Christmas Morn. Thank you for music I wouldn't have prescribed myself.