Monday, February 19, 2024

Monday afternoon gospel: Smith's Sacred Singers (and two guests): 1926-1930


Of course, I'd hoped to have this up yesterday (Sunday), and I might have succeeded if the originals were in average-to-above condition.  But sacred shellac of the late 1920s has a far lower probability of showing up in decent shape than "pop" 78s.

But I did manage to get twelve sides good to go for this Monday.  The two "guest" artists are Rev, J.C. Burnett and His Quartet with the "folk" version of Will the Circle Be Unbroken (which, far as I can determine, is a variant on the 1907 Ada Habershon-Charles Gabriel hymn).  That, or the 1907 hymn followed from a folk source.  But, at this point in my investigation, it seems like a popular-to-folk migration.

And the other "guest" performance features the 1907 Circle, as performed by "citybilly" greats Bud Billings and Carson Robison.  Robison, while an imitation-"hillbilly" singer, did an important service in popularizing genuine from-the-hills material--and he was a gifted performer, besides. 

The rest are fabulous numbers by J. Frank Smith's quartet, Smith's Sacred Singers, spanning the years 1926-1930 and recorded in Atlanta, Georgia.  I really should know, but I'm not sure whether Columbia had a studio in Georgia or whether the group was recorded in "field" style with portable equipment.  Easily researched on line, I'm sure, but I'll leave that to you, dear reader/listener.

Here's a group photo I swiped from the great SecondHandSongs site, one of the net's most amazing resources:

1927's We Shall Rise might be my favorite SSS performance of all, and it's one of two resurrection-morning numbers often confused.  At one point, I went to the trouble of documenting the two numbers after much songbook research, but of course I can't recall the details offhand.  And a quick blog-history check didn't help.  The numbers in question are not as blatantly similar as A Wonderful Time up There and Gloryland Jubilee, both 12-bar boogie tunes, but they're close enough.

And the superlative 1927 SSS version of He Will Set Your Fields on Fire is an important document of the song as written (two years earlier, in 1925), and not with the "swingy" 2/2 pulse that came to dominate country and Southern gospel.  The distinction between the as-written and "swingy" pulse is too subtle to describe--it's akin to a choral score written in quarter and eight notes but with the instruction to introduce a "swinging" triplet pulse.  Country/bluegrass typically does not involve a jazz/R&B pulse (just every once in a while), but it rocks in its own way.  We're hearing Fire before it acquired the standard Chuck Wagon Gang/Cary Story feel. 

I hope that made some sense.  Sometimes, the slightest change in the feel of a performance can make a world of difference. 

Getting back on topic, SSS's style is often described as "shape note" (a variant on "shaped notes"), a term which refers to "Sacred Harp" singing, a choral style (typically rendered in the shouting manner of SSS) that started in New England and made its way down South.  "Shape note" refers to notation styles in which the scale degrees--do-re-mi-fa, etc.--are represented by (as the term implies) different shapes.  The most common variant is a repeated four-note scheme, which works because the standard seven-note Western scale (with the "do" degree doubled) consists of two tetrachords separated by a whole step.  I personally find shape notes an epic pain to read, and it seems, along with all the other music-reading shortcuts of its type, like more hassle than help.  Learning the various key signatures isn't all that much harder than memorizing different notehead shapes.

And... since any SATB or close-harmony number can be rendered in shape-note form, "shape-note" technically does not refer to a specific performance style.  But the SSS members were likely "singing school"-trained; thus, their style would be closer to "Sacred Harp" than not.  Aren't you glad I cleared that up?

Life's Railway to Heaven might have been my late foster mother's favorite gospel hymn, since the text is such a brilliant exercise in sustained spiritual metaphors: The spiritual journey of life as a train ride.  She was an OSU English prof and thus appreciated all expert vernacular examples of that literary device.  She also loved the allegorical aspect of A Tramp on the Street (aka, Only a Tramp), in which the tramp turns out to be no less than Christ himself.  Allegory-wise, Deliverance Will Come (more often titled Palms of Victory) is a condensed version of Pilgrim's Progress, that 1678-1684 work chosen by the Guardian as the greatest novel of all time.  SSS takes Deliverance at a slow tempo, in contrast to later versions.  

Oh, and apologies for the wrecked condition of Shouting on the Hills, but it's too good to omit.  Plus, it increases the track count from thirteen to fourteen.  Not that I'm superstitious, but I'm superstitious.

As mentioned before, the 1928 Bud Billing/Carson Robison Will the Circle Be Unbroken presents the 1907 hymn as written, its lyrics intact (save for "Is a better world" revised into the more hopeful, "In a better world").  Though beautifully done, the recording is not something modern ears are likely to regard as remotely folk--or country, for that matter--but for 1928 listeners, it was a different story.  That is to say, the 1920s had its pop-country variant, just as we have ours today.  In fact, the latest variant is something I can happily do without, though I like the now-"classic" country of Marty Robbins, Hank Snow, and Johnny Cash.  A reminder that "authentic," "classic," etc. are temporally specific labels (and, usually, in reference to our own period).

To the downhome goodness of Smith's Sacred Singers:

DOWNLOAD: Smith's Sacred Singers, Feb. 2024

We Shall Rise--Smith's Sacred Singers, 1927

He Will Set Your Fields on Fire--Same, 1927

I Will Sing of My Redeemer--Same, 1927

The Church in the Wildwood--Same, 1927

Will the Circle Be Unbroken--Rev. J.C. Burnett and His Quartet, 1928 (Take 2)

Deliverance Will Come--Smith's Sacred Singers, 1928

The Home Over There--Same, 1928

Life's Railway to Heaven--Same, 1928

Meet Me There--Same, 1929

Working for the Crown--Same, 1929

City of Gold--Same, 1927

Climbing up the Golden Stairs--Same, 1927

Will the Circle Be Unbroken (Habershon-Gabriel)--Bud Billings and Carson Robison, 1928

Shouting on the Hills--Smith's Sacred Singers, 1926



Anonymous said...

Thanks Lee, for another SMG, even if it is on an MA. I first heard SSS, back when I was a kid in the early '80s, through a regional paint-burner (radio station with some power), where the owner of said, played classic recordings, from the early days of commercial Country (and such) recording and yes, the station's early days, too. Re: their recording of Fields, it's hard not to play one side without the other, eh? I first heard both sides, through another radio friend/mentor, via a tape he made of some 78s and yes, even some more SSS cuts were on it, too. This next answer may be visible somewhere, but, who is the Pump Organist on the Billings/Robison cut and is it me, or is the Guitarist awfully close to the end of the strings with his pick? Good stuff and again, thanks, love and prayin' for ya.

Romans 11:33-36 KJB


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Buster said...

I was looking through Carson Robison's recordings on Internet Archive the other day - he was amazingly prolific as writer and performer.

SecondHand Songs is a favorite of mine, as well.

I was just listening to some recordings from 1934, and I noticed the 2/2 - 4/4 ambiguity you describe.

Thanks for these!

Lee Hartsfeld said...

Josh and Buster,

Thanks for your comments! And, Josh--wonderful to learn that SSS were given some early-80s radio play. That's marvelous! My introduction to the group was courtesy of Salvation Army, where I came across their biggest hit, "Pictures From Life's Other Side," a song which exists in at least three variations and which originated in the latter 1800s as a typical Social Gospel number (of the parlor type). For some hilarious reason, I thought the number might be supernatural in theme, but I wasn't disappointed--I recognized it as an early type of quartet singing. And I was hooked. And the organist in question is Lew Shilkret, Nat Shilkret's brother (info from DAHR)! I'll have to listen again to the guitar.


Yes, Carson was like a one-man ethnomusicology department! I have some of his songbooks, and I'm guessing he played as important a role as Burl Ives in the popularizing of American folk material. As you may know, Robison provided the vocal for the infamous 1930 Hoagy Carmichael/Bix Beiderbecke recording of "Barnacle Bill the Sailor" (featuring Joe Venuti's hilarious lyric substitution that the engineer somehow didn't' catch). And, in the area of jazz/dance performances, the 2/2-4/4 overlap (so to speak) led to the standard four-beat pulse of swing. That pulse, often as not, was suggested by the banjoists, who plunked out straight eighth notes under the 2/2 meter.

Diane said...

Wow! I've been away from your blog for awhile, but you are still KILLIN' it. Great to see. I've missed your amazing finds/restorations.

Lee Hartsfeld said...


Thanks! This post started with a request for "Shouting on the Hills." I couldn't find my old rip, so I did a new one--then I decided to go full-post. (Full-post?) Hm. "Full-post" sounds illegal...

Anonymous said...

You mentioned Pictures. Back when we lived in NWGA, one afternoon, my wife and I walked into a local thrift store and right off the bat and in the open, we found it, too! Never played it, 'cause I don't have a turntable with 78 on it (haven't had one in years), but still got it LOL. Oh and on SSS geting airplay in the early-mid-'80s, said was a common occurance on Saturday afternoon, usually, right after the Obits. Said 78s were (and still are, I might add) spun on Saturday afternoon, over WPAQ, Mount Airy, NC. 'Til next, please keep the SMGs going, however often ya can, love and prayin' for ya.

Romans 11:33-36 KJB


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musicman1979 said...

Off-topic but I personally think you should have posted the Hits A Poppin 108 Full-length version of "A Big Hunk Of Love" on Lee's Fake Hits. The second guitar solo is probably one of the best parts of the whole disc, yet Prom lopped it off of their 45 EP version.

Looking forward to your next post here.

Lee Hartsfeld said...


Oops! I should always go for LP tracks over (potentially shortened) EP cuts. And a post coming soon. I've just been having blogger's block or something!

musicman1979 said...

Hopefully you will get around to posting here again soon. A good post idea would be to include both of RCA Camden's Biggest Hits of '58 LP's in one post, and compare how the sound shifted when they went from making their own knockoffs to using SPC's for the remainder of the decade. ''

Scored my first fake hits LP for 2024 for a quarter at Goodwill yesterday. Volume 14 of the Current Hits series from Hit Records. Some pretty bad fakes of "Can't Buy Me Love" and "That's the Way the Boys Are" Yet, some unique twists to "Twist and Shout" (no pun intended) and the Four Seasons' take on Maurice Willams' "Stay":

Lee Hartsfeld said...


Thanks! And a new post either tonight or tomorrow. And, as with the previous LP (Sammy Kaye's twist LP), I'm not sure what I think of it. It's not as interesting as I'd hoped, but of course that doesn't mean it's bad. And I never wholly rely on my own mere opinion. It's Raymond Paige's RCA Camden LP (and I'm almost sure I used to own it in its original "Camden" edition), with easy-listening tracks from 1940 and 1941. So, it's automatically interesting as a piece of history, and in terms of how it compares (or doesn't compare) to Kostelanetz, Gould, and Al Goodman. The arrangements lack the imagination of Kosty's, but they're otherwise very much like AK. I just have to edit two more selections. Congrats on your fake hits find! That's one HR comp I don't have.

musicman1979 said...

Concerning Kaye, maybe you ought to be on the lookout for the album Dance and Be Happy from around 1966 or '67. It has more of the same kind of "oldies" featured on the Twist album, yet more in the style of the Dancetime album, albeit with a stronger Easy Listening slant to it. I just got a new copy of the album earlier this year at a thrift store: