“This May Be My Last Time Singing: Raw African American Gospel on 45RPM, 1957-1982”
Mike McGonigal curates gospel music anthologies for Tompkins Square, and they’re rather difficult to write about or even fully take in, simply because it’s hard to move past the initial shock that these things exist at all. I wrote about his revelatory Fire in My Bones anthology at the tail end of 2009, and was, like most listeners, gobsmacked by the found treasures that appeared on its three discs, appropriately termed by McGonigal as “otherworldly.” And glory be: He’s done it again. Not only did he cull enough material to make a follow-up set, another three-discer called This May Be My Last Time Singing, but he has both narrowed its chronological span by some years, focusing here largely on the 1960s and 1970s, but he has produced a set of music that’s even stronger, more compelling, and more shockingly good than the collection that came before.
McGonigal, it should be noted, approaches these compilations as a record collector first and foremost, and indeed, this new set is a dream come true for anyone who is devout about their crate-digging and music cataloging. By that I mean to say that Singing is not a curio for the religious set so much as a fiery, spirited marvel for anyone who loves the kinds of joyful discoveries that these three discs are literally full of. The songs collected here are all, it’s safe to say, true rarities, self-produced and largely released on small, regional labels. Yet, as Amanda Petrusich notes in her fine review of the album, “McGonigal doesn’t fetishize these songs as hard-sought rarities.” These songs are reveled in, joyed in, simply on their musical terms, their backstories or personal histories not being blown up or given center stage. McGonigal does not present these songs as the greatest gospel music ever made, necessarily, but as primal and revelatory expressions of faith and musical fervor that deserve to be heard anew.
And really, how else does one explain the presence of a cut like Rev. George Oliver’s “I Got to Move to a Better Home,” a true basement tape that just barely asserts itself over a cloud of tape hiss and gurgling percussion. Its lo-fi buzz doesn’t diminish the track– if anything, it makes its strange mystery all the more elusive and appealing–and in fact, it epitomizes one of the most basic and undeniable joys of this set, which is the primitive, DIY aesthetic of these home recordings. McGonigal has pointed out that these songs hail from an era when pretty much anyone could produce at least one .45, and there is what we might call, for lack of a better cliche, an indie music spirit that enlivens everything here, making this feel almost like religious equivalent of punk rock.
With that said, the sum of these tracks simply astonishes for its musical depth and width; listening to the full collection is like listening to a holy, alternate reality of pop music, and black pop music, in particular. Thom Jurek summarizes it perfectly when he says that “all of this material was recorded in the post-Sam Cooke/Soul Stirrers period, during the James Cleveland and Ray Charles eras, in the years just after Muddy Waters’ and John Lee Hooker’s electric blues debuted, at the dawn of soul music history through the heyday of doo wop and labels like Motown, Fortune, Atlantic, Goldwax, Stax, Volt, Chess, and Cadet. Virtually everything here — including sermons — was influenced by the black music traditions begun in 1950 and culminating in the late ’70s.” To wit, the set includes everything from bluesy hand-clappers to Motown-styled swayers, and even one cut, The Fantastic Angels’ “Jesus Been Good,” that my colleague Joel Oliphint rightly likens to a sanctified version of a Jackson 5 song! My favorite thing here might be R. Jenkins and the Dayton Harmonaires singing “Put Your Hand in the Hand,” which channels gospel urgency and Northern soul harmonies through guitars that sound almost like they were taken out of the British Invasion playbook.
McGonigal has, once again, sequenced these songs perfectly, giving each disc a loose theme that suggests a certain way in which God works in the lives of his people– and indeed, once the shock of the music itself begins to sink in a little, what begins to stand out is how ragged and real these songs of faith are. This is not like the Christian music you tend to encounter today; there is something more specific about it, I think, something less self-centered. These are songs that acknowledge the Devil and assert that God is mightier still, songs that rehearse the actions of God in this world and in our hearts. Not all of them are really about the Gospel, narrowly speaking, but they do give witness to a religious faith (not just a spirituality, mind you) that is vivid and honest and full of zeal. It makes this set more than just a profound gift to music lovers– it makes it a true blessing.