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Music Review: Various Artists – Take Me to the Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photographs 1890-1950

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Dust-to-Digital continues to publish some of the best “old-timey” CDs, records, and books in this otherwise moribund genre of music. There’s not much out there new these days, mainly because there isn’t much left in existence that hasn’t been previously published. However, Dust-to-Digital has succeeded again in scaring up enough obscure material for still another meaty issue. They do for obscure, quality music in the 21st century what Joe Bussard did in the last century (and still occasionally does today, including his contribution on this project).

Take Me to the Water is a 96-page hardback book with 75 vintage photographs, that all comes with a 25-cut CD.  The bedrock of this quite interesting collection is that it began as a labor of love by collector Jim Linderman.

One of the more irritating things about many companies releasing very old material is the lack of information accompanying the releases. Fortunately, releasing at least a small book or booklet with historic recordings is, so far, standing operating procedure for Dust-to-Digital. Let’s hope the trend continues. The majority of people interested in this type of music (and by the way, they’re the same people who generally make up the majority of attendees at the scholarly symposia, meetings, and performances around the world connected with “old-timey” American music) far outnumber those who would buy this music simply for the music. (How tough can that be, marketing geniuses? If a person is buying historical music, you think they just might possibly be interested in some of the history that goes with the music?) Take a lesson from Dust-to-Digital and do it right.

As the small hardbound book accompanying this CD says, “Without the vision and passion of collectors, a great deal of our auditory and visual heritage would not exist. Thankfully, private collectors are often willing to share their finds …”

We’ve all walked into at least one antique shop in our lives only to spot a box of  old, black-and-white photographs with no written notes on the reverse. It would be easier to count the times that we didn’t spot one. Think of the stories missing from these photos. Some person went to the trouble of spending, what was then, at least a fair chunk of time and money to obtain a photograph; just think how much a paragraph or two would add to it?

The events that are recorded were, at that time, important to the person taking the photograph, right? So why aren’t there at least a few words scribbled on them? There isn’t much text among the pages of photographs, and some photos are scarred or folded or otherwise mistreated. But in the few pages of text available, Dust-to-Digital includes those important things. It gives us a broad overview, with a nice selection of photographs with little or no description, allowing your thoughts free rein to fill in the missing information.

The people participating in the presented immersion baptisms were by and large working class people, many of whom had never owned a camera. They are participating in one of the high points in their lives, and of course they have to get a photo. You can see and hear the absolute emotional watershed event of these people’s lives in every photo, as well as on the CD. You can practically feel their excitement and joy.

You hardly see this sort of thing any longer, but they were a mainstay a few times every summer when “tent revivals” would come to smaller towns and rural areas. These were always good entertainment, even if one wasn’t religiously inclined. They’d often get two or three otherwise unemployed musicians who wouldn’t mind riding around the country playing music and get paid for it. They’d climb into the truck and come to your town, combining a carnival atmosphere with country blues and country folk music, played by genuine country people who grew up surrounded by the music. Add a generous helping of a generic Christian religious aura and some gospel songs, and they had something for practically everybody, especially in areas without a movie theater; not a restaurant, not a club within an hour’s drive in any direction, and that's only if you were one of the lucky people who even had a car. You think people wouldn't come? You couldn’t keep them away.

Before the heyday of the radio beginning in the 1920s, people often had only each other to rely on for news and entertainment, mostly other settlers. And from that, came this music: a plain, simple melody, just enough to form a background for the singing. Many of the songs were religious in nature, and quite old, having first been played by traveling troubadours in medieval times; not much has changed since. The African-American songs were influenced by parts of Africa from whence they came, but were also representative of where they originated or where they were learned, most likely on the plantations of the South. They were then handed down.

Several minutes of the preachers’ solicitation to the crowd are also included, as you hear them asking the audience members if they wanted to be baptized. The congregations on these recordings are typically as hyper-charged as the preachers when the call goes out.

Once you get into the “feel” of this recording, that’s the appropriate time to pick up the book and begin studying the photos. And then, once you’re surrounded with the emotion and excitement of these events, listen closely to the participants, their amens, hallelujahs and other exhortations.  You’ll understand, and if you’re lucky you’ll feel, the gravity and joy that overcame many of those who were baptized.  You’ll even hear Washington Phillips doing his 1927 recording of  “Denomination Blues,” the Carter Family, and the Tennessee Mountaineers.   Dock Walsh’s version of “Bathe In That Beautiful Pool” is another ear-catcher.  Rounding out the better known musicians are the Empire Jubilee Quartet,  Bill Boyd and his Cowboy Ramblers, and Ernest Stoneman’s Dixie Mountaineers.  Many of the other musicians and speakers are unknown to me, and will probably be to you as well, since many are obscure.  Their names, however, are not as important as the content, the fervor and the dedication that this collection imparts.  All the content is related to religion or baptism in particular.  And even if this type of music doesn’t usually ring your bells, I’m confident this collection will move you.

I can see Dust-to-Digital picking up another Grammy for this collection. Don’t miss it.  Those waiting to buy, for whatever reason, often find themselves out of luck.  Dust-to-Digital releases are often on the Most Wanted lists, and sell out quickly.  And be sure to catch what the company calls its Listening Room.

You can listen to samples of any of their many releases, and as a buyer of nearly everything they’ve released, I can vouch for the quality and integrity of the company.

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About Lou Novacheck