Tuesday, May 09, 2006
When he died in the 1940s, the Rev. J.M.. Gates had what was described as the largest-ever funeral of anyone in Atlanta’s sizeable African-American community. It was only when MLK was killed in the 60s that the record was broken. It’s said that among old-time and race music record collectors in the 50s and 60s, Harry Smith types, that J.M. Gates records were sort of like the chaff that you had to sift through in order to find the real odd gems. Everyone had Gates records. It’s hard to fathom now, but his recordings – sermons, theological skits and rough-and-raw group singing – were some of the best selling 78s for the labels that released them. I once interviewed Chris Strachwitz, founder of Arhoolie Records, and I remember talking with him about recordings of preachers. When I mentioned that I liked Rev. J.M. Gates, Strachwitz was kind of dismissive, equating it with top 40, which seems pretty unlikely when you listen to him. But it's sort of true.
If I'm not mistaken, Gates was "discovered" by Polk Brockman, who also made some of the very first, if not the first, old time and country recordings. In the 20s and 30s, record labels were mystified by the black market, but they realized a big seller when they had one, and they just stuck with what worked, and as a result, you can hear multiple versions of Gates’ signature "Death’s Black Train" among his complete recordings, since Gates had more recording sessions than material. As a matter of fact, in his autobiography Malcolm X refers to recollections of listening to recordings of "Death's Black Train," undoubtedly one of the Gates versions. Part of the appeal must have been that you could get a jolt of sanctity without having to get dressed up and go all the way to church.
Blues scholars often point to Robert Johnson and certain other players as being among the first generation of artists who were learning as much from listening to recordings as they were by hanging out and picking up riffs by watching other players. It's the point at which local styles exploded and could go national. Suddenly you had guys from Georgia or Chicago playing a blues style that was very specific to a small area in the Mississippi Delta. The 100th Monkey phenomenon, only without the mystery. Jazz dudes will go on at length about listening to Coleman Hawkins' solo on "Body and Solo," picking it apart, marveling at it - something you couldn't do before the days of the record. I've always speculated about the extent to which Gates' popular recordings affected the sermonizing and testifying styles of preachers all over the country.
I love Gates' little froggy croak and the seemingly off-the-cuff slapstick banter he gets going with his "congregation" (a crew of three or four regular characters who would moan, offer well-placed rhythmic assent or shout "sing it!" and "well!" as needed, often repeating the last word of Gates' phrase for emphasis -- I particularly enjoy when one of the deacons gets all worked up in "The Flood of Alabama" after Gates delivers a line about the prisons being overcrowded and the congregation yells out "overcrowded!"). More than that though, I especially dig his almost universal suspicion. You name it and Gates' is not down with it. Wigs, bad. Chain stores, bad. Corn liquor, very bad. But more than anything, Gates distrusts rapid transport, and he sees it as a metaphor for the devil's ways -- he'll give you something quick and convenient, but he'll steal your soul. Gates has tracks railing against automobiles. And you don't want to get him started on flying machines.
Gates was big seller. But loads of other preachers ended up on records, trying to connect with glory while positioned in front of equipment with a technician standing there telling them when they've run out of time. You've got three minutes.
"I've Got a Ride to the Tree of Life" -- Sister Sallie Sanders
"Liar" Rev Isaiah Shelton
"I Am the Living Bread" - Sister Gertrude Morgan
"Devil in a Flying Machine" -- Rev. J. M.Gates
"Will the Coffin Be Your Santa Claus?" -- Rev. J.M. Gates
"I Wish I Could Sing" - Bongo Joe (sort of a secular preacher, on Arhoolie)