Dang! When I said several days ago that, from now on, I was gonna write only when I felt like it and had something pressing to say, I didn’t expect myself to actually heed my own proclamation! I never do in other areas of my life! Honestly, I am preparing for the school year. I did start a mini-project to catch up on some films I’d neglected (The Witch, Anti-Christ, The Holy Mountain, Spring Breakers, My Darling Clementine–which of those things is not like the others?). I was striving to keep up my reading pace (16 books ahead of my Goodreads Challenge–what is it with me and goals?). I do have a darlin’ wife and some good pals. So I need to get off my own goddam back!
However, some music did burst through those teeming waves of other things to really get my attention. Prime among them was Dust-to-Digital‘s truly amazing Goodbye, Babylon (from 2003), a six-disc compendium of approximately 50 years of intense American religious music and sacred disquisition. Rather than describe how it’s packaged, lemme just show you:
The raw cotton’s inside the box, and that baby at the upper right is a 200-page book that’s worth considerable just by itself. Five discs of tunes, one of sermons that can make a confirmed atheist cut his eyes at his speakers. Here’s the box’s Bandcamp link, through which you can investigate the contents more closely; along with some very famous names are others that wouldn’t be if not for this, the performances are not only well-selected but also surprising, and do they sound great for their vintage!
Anyway, I’d broken it out way more often than the average box (box consumers, you know it’s true), and loved it, but the power, commitment, and yearning in the performers’ voices and instruments just hypnotized me for the entirety of the three discs I loaded–so much so I actually felt the need to break the spell and fix that downstairs doorknob that had been waiting for attention since 1999. Bit of a story behind how I acquired the fruitful thing, by the way.
For the last 10 years of my public school career (2003-2013), I had studiously applied for and procured annual grants to create an American music library in Hickman High School‘s media center. With the dedicated help of the center’s staff (especially my fond friend James Kome), I was able to do a pretty decent job. You be the judge. Over the years, the collection consistently enjoyed the highest usage rate of anything else in the center–even after the downloading boom–and I (and a few passionate students) even wrote descriptions for each of the many, many items.
When I saw Goodbye, Babylon advertised, I thought to myself:
a) perfect for the collection in terms of its content;
b) ideal for visionary, creative English, social studies, and music instructors;
c) deliciously tempting for a quiet, idiosyncratic student to explode his brain with; and, of course
d) convenient for me, since at that time I could not afford it.
I included it among that year’s grant purchases, and after greedily unpacking it, James and I marveled at its design, and the serious TLC put into it by the label’s astounding husband-and-wife founders, Lance and April Ledbetter (no mere hipsters, they).
Of course, we were very interested in whether or not it would be checked out. Whenever our grant goodies came in, I would always send out an all-school email highlighting the new selections, and I bent over backwards to make sure everyone saw we offered Goodbye, Babylon. I am sure James may have monitored its usage; I chose not to check because I didn’t want to see corrected my possible delusion that it was being fully exploited for ultimate edumacational gain.
I retired in 2013, but continued teaching at Hickman part-time until the spring of 2015, when the need for old-fart hangers-on apparently evaporated. I’d packed up nearly everything that evidenced my 20 years of existence at the school, when a not entirely selfless idea occurred to me: you best go check if anyone ever checked out that box. It’s called accountability, folks.
I swung by the media center to have James do a records search. Turns out the set didn’t exactly fly out from behind the counter. We made a deal: we would share custody of the child, with me taking possession of the actual artifact with the understanding that, should a student or teacher request it–it’s still linked in the database and bar-coded–I would promptly fork it back over. Since my other retirement gift from the school system, back in 2013, was an analog clock that looked exactly like a tombstone–very thoughtful for a retiring teacher who spent much of his work life keeping one eye on a clock on the back wall, don’t you think?–I considered Goodbye, Babylon the real token of the district’s esteem for my 25 years of sweat. I know: you want to see the clock, right?
It really needed to be engraved, “It tolls for thee.”
I just can’t shake the reflex of needing to buy a CD. One reason is the rush of those glory days when you could pull off the highway into an outlet mall and find some last-legs record store that was overflowing with cut-outs–like these:
$5 each, sealed, not even a slice outta them–maybe they weren’t even really cut-outs. Most important, though, is: have you heard the Stanley Brothers’ Starday recordings? Your ears may be better than mine, but explosion of bluegrass classics that there issued forth (“Rank Strangers,” “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” “Stone Walls and Steel Bars,” “Shackles and Chains,” “My Main Trial is Yet to Come,” “The Darkest Hour is Just Before dawn,” “Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown”–that ain’t nearly all), plus the clarity and simplicity of the performances and production are stunning, silencing, and sublime. I listened to ’em lined up Saturday and was a changed man after. These four discs are probably running pretty cheap on Discogs right now, and they don’t even comprise the group’s complete Starday recordings. If you’ve heard George Jones’ Stardays, these easily rival those. And that, my friends, is no paltry statement, especially coming from me.
S’posed to be “short shrift,” but I’d be remiss if I didn’t plug Bloodshot’s brand-spanking-new duet album by Robbie Fulks and the great yet still unsung Linda Gail Lewis, Jerry Lee’s wildcat sis who though a septuagenarian still has plenty in her tank. The album isn’t quite as wild as the cover advertises, and a few ol’ country tropes aren’t twisted quite imaginatively enough for my liking, but Fulks delivers (as usual) some sharp ones, especially the very Fulksian “Till Death,” and Linda Gail really digs into two old-timers, her brother’s gospel fave “On the Jericho Road” and the timeless “Your Red Wagon.” Musically, it’s damned sharp, with the great Redd Volkeart on guitar and Alex Hall on crisp drums and twiddling knobs. Plus: didja know Ms. Lewis can roll those 88s? She had a good teacher. Further evidence of that is found in her raw and ribald memoir, Me, The Devil, and Jerry Lee. She was too much a Southern Christian to have sex before marriage, but she was too horny to wait to get married…and that’s just within the first 10-15 pages. Style: “Jerry Lee is not a candy-ass” is a typical sentence. Avoid candy-assness yourself and take a flyer on a very entertaining tome.