How Can I Keep From Singing: Early American Religious Music and Song, Classic Recordings From the 1920s and 1930s: Vol. 1 and Vol. 2
Yazoo 2020 and 2021
review by Art Menius
In recent years a gospel or Christian music industry has emerged full blown with awards, charts, and modern marketing techniques applied to a field where every musical style can be employed for the Lord. Nonetheless, Christian music goes back for centuries with recordings from the earliest days of the phonograph. The emergence of blues, hillbilly, and ethnic music recordings after 1920 led to a flood of such recordings. How Can I Keep From Singing, a new pair of CD’s from Shanachie’s Yazoo imprint, collects and celebrates the riches of gospel music waxed during the 1920’s and 1930’s, and a treasure chest it is.
Deliciously diverse, running the full range of Christian American religious recordings for two decades during which the radio, jukeboxes, and 78 rpm records changed the shape of mass media. Most delightfully, both volumes of How Can I Keep From Singing mix equitably tracks from both white and black sacred traditions and recordings from exclusively gospel artists, including church choirs and shape note groups, and from those who performed Christian music along with hillbilly or blues. We can enjoy Uncle Dave Macon, Jaybird Coleman, Kid Smith and Norman Woodlief, Elder Golden Harris, and the Daniels-Deason Sacred Harp Singers as contemporaries. Thus these two discs provide the most panoramic overview of sacred recordings from between the World Wars yet available.
These tracks capture a time before bluegrass gospel, southern gospel, and the African-American quartets and mass choirs, much less contemporary Christian music, had emerged to dominate the field. To hear sacred harp songs as commercial releases is revelatory. Captured here are not only the roots of today’s far less diverse gospel sounds, but of much post-World War II American music as well. In singing “My Living Brother,” Ed McConnell and Family, for example, demonstrate where Woody Guthrie found the melody for “This Land Is Your Land” “Oh Death,” rendered here by the black Pace Jubilee Singers, became a Ralph Stanley classic, while the Stanley Brothers and many other bluegrass outfits have performed “Lonely Tomb,” heard here by the still active Wade Mainer.
These extraordinary recordings and those who purchase the CD’s deserve much more in the way of documentary information and interpretation. Each artist or ensemble gets only one or two sentences in the liner notes. We don’t even learn when or where or for whom these intriguing songs were recorded. In a horrible waste of space, both CD jackets contain the same scanty liner notes!
That aside, How Can I Keep From Singing are two crucial discs filled with exceptional and heart-felt music that still speaks to listeners in the 1990s. This is a rare music, sometimes from unique and nearly unique 78s, thankfully resurrected for us.