I don’t know how I forgot about the boxed sets on the second floor. I’ve visited the Film and Audio section of the Main Library about a million times over the years and scoured those CD cabinets countless times. Despite all that, I probably looked a little like St. Paul when I went to the very end of the CD section and saw all of those big boxes of music. It was a revelation!
The box that caught my eye was Dust to Digital’s big, beautiful Goodbye, Babylon. I first heard about this 6-disc set on a gospel show called Sinner’s Crossroads that I religiously (sorry–couldn’t resist) stream from New Jersey freeform giant WFMU. The show plays mid-century, mostly Southern, gospel music, the kind that had a big influence on R&B, soul, and rock and roll music, to name a few, a genre I came to after learning that many of the greatest soul singers were first gospel singers.
Goodbye, Babylon was touted as a great primer to more obscure gospel sounds, and it seemed to be universally well-reviewed. Alas, it also cost about sixty bucks, so I relegated it to the part of my brain where I keep ideas of what I’ll buy when I become a wealthy celebrity librarian. But then, all of a sudden, there it was, a big pine box packed with cotton (really!) and a lovely booklet. Hallelujah!
The lineup consists of artists ranging from the very famous (Mahalia Jackson, Flatt and Scruggs) to the famous-to-those-who-listen-to-this-kind-of-music (Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Reverend Gary Davis) to a long list of performers whose work was previously only available (or not) on 78. A large booklet, designed to look like an old hymnal, includes background essays for each song in the collection.
Anyone with an interest in the origins of secular pop music in the U.S. should have a good time recognizing the close harmony, driving rhythms and impassioned vocals that have characterized commercial pop music in the postwar era, here in raw form. If you haven’t listened to many old recordings, it might take a few listens to get accustomed to the sometimes poor sound quality; I’d advise you to think of it as part of the atmosphere and, soon enough, you won’t notice it anymore.
Although I’m tempted to keep this library find close to my chest, lest it become so popular that it’s checked out when I want to revisit it, I feel inspired (perhaps by the fire and brimstone sermons that make up disc 6 of the set) to spread the good news about this wonderful collection of Americana.
P.S.: If there is a wait for this collection, don’t despair! The Main Library has a great collection of old gospel, including Mahalia Jackson, the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Louvin Brothers, Rev. Gary Davis, and many other luminaries.