Various Artists – Goodbye, Babylon

Magnificent six-CD compilation of gospel roots

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In the vein of Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music, Goodbye, Babylon is an anthropological project as much as a musical one: an investigation into the devotional rites of early-20th-century Americans. It’s an extraordinary field trip into what Greil Marcus called the Old Weird America, where the compilers map links between country, folk and blues forms to present a detailed and compelling picture (not least for secular listeners) of Christian song. The 160 tracks, predominantly sourced from the South, include familiar names like Hank Williams, Skip James, The Louvin Brothers and Mahalia Jackson. But it’s the performances of sundry jug bands, sacred harp singers, wood-chopping convicts and frontroom congregations that really capture the oddness and potency of rough-hewn spirituals. Twenty-five sermons (including “Death Might Be Your Santa Claus”) whose musicality equals the songs, meticulous sleeve-notes and a cedar box lined with raw cotton complete the endeavour?academically rigorous, artistically and emotionally staggering.

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