I Belong to This Band: Eighty-Five Years of Sacred Harp Recordings
Prayer of Death
As Entrance, Guy Blakeslee’s ruminations on mortality assemble like stacks of mildewed treasures discovered in some abandoned home — a few pages torn from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, woodcuts with depictions of death from cultures around the world, some Charley Patton 78s, a Sun City Girls record or two. All of these elements surface on Prayer of Death (Entrance had self-released the album, before finding national distribution through Tee Pee earlier this year), and they help Entrance’s fervor surge like a torch. His songs represent the sum fears and resolutions of a young man struggling on his own with the inevitability of mortality, like he just figured out that we’re all going to die someday. Patton is Entrance’s muse for “Grim Reaper Blues” — “Got up this morning, baby/Said my morning prayer/That old grim reaper baby/Was-a-standin’ there” — and it’s a blues song drenched in electric slide but also things from the future (or now), a mess of noise to approximate the haunting hiss and silence of those old blues sides. In its divining of the grease spot where wild abandon and the human death rattle meet, it’s one of 2006’s best songs. Entrance doesn’t have any new defense against death’s creep — just youth, defiance and fucked-up blues. But he keeps it rolling through “Silence on a Crowded Train,” where a sawing fiddle churns up the soil like a grave digger’s backhoe, as well as the slithering “Pretty Baby,” the epic “Lost in the Dark” (you’ll wonder first if it’s on the wrong speed, then get lost in its stoned crawl), and the final, wailing “Never be Afraid!” which wears its punctuation like a talisman against that grinning wraith with the scythe.
While Entrance revels in and shouts back at death with the amplification of guitars and weirdness behind him — shaking his fist, but still only one man — the singers on I Belong to This Band: Eighty-Five Years of Sacred Harp Recordings need nothing more than the full, throaty power of their united voices to celebrate the kingdom of heaven on earth. And you don’t even have to get saved to love it. This collection from niche reissue label Dust-to-Digital cleverly aligns archival performances from the early 1920s alongside contemporary recordings, proving the power this distinctly American form of sacred choral music has, and entrenching it in the soil of the South. It’s as saintly as it is salt of the earth. In selections like “Morning Trumpet” or “Corinth,” both recorded over a July 2006 weekend at a singers’ gathering in the courtyard of an Alabama church, the voices weave into a fevered hum — it sounds like a congregation heading into battle, and could have been recorded at any point in the last century. I Belong to This Band is religious music, sung gospel. But what sweeps you away is the force of voice, and the very real sense that community can be our greatest bulwark against evil.
Johnny Loftus is the music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].