The Weasel: Hymns to the joyful

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The Independent Online

Ever come across fifty-quid bloke? A phenomenon of the baby-boom generation, he's not uncommon. You may have one for your dad or have the dubious pleasure of being married to one. Fifty-quid bloke is a middle-aged music fan who hasn't got to grips with downloading and therefore drops £50 or thereabouts on CDs whenever he enters a big record shop. Since I can't stand big record shops, I have fifty-quid bloke moments on Amazon. My most recent splurge was prompted by a long article in The New Yorker about American folk music. Near the start, it mentioned that an Atlanta record producer called Lance Ledbetter had issued "what many consider the greatest gospel compilation ever made: a six-CD set called Goodbye, Babylon". Not being a great gospel fan, this did not lure me.

However, nine pages on, we were given more details. Among the 160 hymns and hallelujahs on Goodbye Babylon were "songs by a reformed axe murderer, a Pentecostal jug band and a teetotalling street preacher" ("You snuff dippers, tobacco chewers,/ When you get to Heaven, you won't have nowhere to spit"). Including tracks by "no fewer than 15 blind musicians, five of them called Willie", the six discs and accompanying booklet came in a box of raw cedar. "In the space left over," we were informed, "Ledbetter tucked strands of raw cotton from a relative's farm in Alabama."

The compilation took four years and cost Ledbetter $60,000, not to mention his job, but its appearance drew a critical ovation. Rolling Stone acclaimed it as "the greatest anthology of antique Southern sacred music and oratory ever assembled", though it seems likely that there is not a great deal of competition for the title. Neil Young said on American radio: "I got this great boxed set from my friend Bob Dylan and it's called Goodbye, Babylon." If I had any hesitation before, that clinched it. Well, that and the Alabama cotton, of course.

The cost of £56.03 (plus a modest £1.24 for shipping) from a Florida supplier listed on Amazon took me well into the fifty-quid bloke category, but I pressed ahead. Mrs W was unimpressed when I told her of my investment in old time religion: "You must have more money than sense." This lack of enthusiasm from one's partner for a vital musical acquisition will doubtless be familiar to the legion of fifty-quid blokes. I pointed out that, on a per-song basis, the cost of such uplifting ditties as "I Want Two Wings to Veil My Face" by the Cotton Top Mountain Sanctified Singers (1929) and "Hide Me in the Blood of Jesus" by Blind Benny Paris and Wife (1928) was a mere 35p.

At least it should have been, but I'd forgotten about the excisemen. Instead of receiving a cedar box packed with gospel music, I got a card from the Post Office stating that I had to pay £10.50 in VAT plus £8 for "Post Office International Handling Fee". Presumably, the handling involved taking my £10.50 and passing it to HM Customs & Excise. This meant that I was now seventy-quid bloke. (Gallingly, I have since discovered from Amazon that you can get the compilation from a UK source for £56.51.)

After grudgingly coughing up, I opened the cedar box. There were the balls of raw Alabama cotton (they looked like cotton wool) and six CDs. Five of the discs contained songs ranging from "Down on the Old Camp Ground" by the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet (1902) to "Precious Lord, Hold My Hand" by Elder Effie Hall and Congregation (1954). The sixth CD was packed with 26 holy-roller sermons from the Twenties and Thirties. By the end of that lot, I was going to be well and truly saved. There was just one problem. When would I find the time to explore "Memphis Flu" by Elder Curry and Congregation (a jolly rendering on the topic of influenza: "People died everywhere/ Death went creeping through the air") and the other 159 songs? It was such a daunting mountain of music that for the first few weeks I did no more than sample a tune or two. I decided to explore the whole heavenly package on a single gospel-packed day.

Ranging from New Orleans stomp to Trinidadian calypso, from Delta blues to jaunty bluegrass, the vast majority of the songs were new to me, though "I'll Fly Away" by James and Martha Carson appears in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and "You've Got to Move", recorded in 1946 by Emma Daniels and Mother Sally Jones, reached a wider audience in 1971 on the Rolling Stones' LP Sticky Fingers. (Revs Mick and Keith covered a somewhat saltier version by Mississippi Fred McDowell.)

I adored Blind Willie McTell's sublime slide guitar on "I Got to Cross the River of Jordan" and the growly roar of Blind Willie Johnson on "Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave it There". Rightly described as "a masterpiece", the complex harmonies of "Found a Wonderful Saviour" by the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet were a precursor to the Beach Boys. A massive musical archive, not forgetting the CD of sermons containing such treats as Death Might Be Your Santa Claus by the Rev J M Gates, is waiting to be enjoyed, but quite when and where remains a mystery. Despite the irresistible appeal of "There Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down" by Brother Claude Ely, Mrs W remains resolutely unconverted. Maybe I'll have to pop round to Neil Young's place for a listen.