Take Me to the Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography 1890-1950

Justin Brooks

This is a beautiful multimedia experience of music, photography and essays.

Take Me to the Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography 1890-1950

Publisher: Dust-to-Digital
Author: Jim Linderman, Luc Sante
Publication date: 2009-05
“You been baptized?”

“Just on the head.”

“Just on the head, he says.”

“That ain’t no good. It wont take if you dont get total nursin. That old sprinklin’ business won’t get it, buddy boy.”

-- Suttree, by Cormac McCarthy (1979)

“I stood waist deep in the muddy brown waters of the Big Coal River with my Presbyterian father on one side of me and a Baptist preacher on the other. I remembered the deep breath I took just before they dipped me down into the river, but more than that I remembered how it felt when I came up again. Even though the water was muddy I felt clean, felt as though all my sins had been washed away.”

-- Dr. Jim Somerville. First Baptist Church, Richmond, Virginia (2009)

Lance Ledbetter is a genius. He isn’t making music like the famous blues musician that his surname evokes. He’s not a music writer like Greil Marcus, who digs into the “old, weird America” as far as possible and comes out with something entirely new and downright cerebral. Ledbetter is however, an artist in his own right.

He is the founder of Atlanta-based record label Dust-to-Digital , and he’s quite simply the most important living music archivist that we have. Following in the tradition of Harry Smith and John Fahey, he has devoted his time to preserving and issuing old folk, blues and gospel music. I’ve only corresponded with Ledbetter via e-mail, but from what I can tell, he doesn’t seem to have the-for lack of a better term-crazy streak that ran through those two gentlemen.

What he does share with them is the pedantic, scholarly nature that this type of work necessitates, combined with a genuine love of the music. I mean, Bob Dylan was giving out copies of their Grammy-nominated Goodbye, Babylon set for Christmas! Isn’t that alone enough to make you want to follow the company’s output?

More than any of DTD’s other releases to date, Take Me to the Water is a multimedia experience. I’m not sure if Mr. Ledbetter and the Dust-to-Digital team would necessarily prefer that term, as it evokes shiny, digital technology and not scratchy old 78s, but that’s what it is. So take the disc out (carefully) and put it on your hi-fi. Turn it up loud enough for the neighbors to hear the surface noise from those old recordings and for them to wonder what in the world that bohemian fellow over in the next apartment is up to now. Has he gotten that old time religion or is he merely being ironic? Now, sit back and enjoy the photographs. Later, read Sante’s wonderful (albeit brief) essay.

Absolutely none of these cuts should be familiar to the average person. All apologies to my distant relatives The Carter Family, but “Denomination Blues, Part 1” by Washington Phillips is the only track on this compilation that I’d ever actually heard before. A good deal of the artists were familiar to me by way of my immersion (sorry, couldn’t help myself) in Dust-to-Digital’s staggering Goodbye, Babylon box. Evoking that former release, the compilers make no effort to segregate the music in any way: string bands and hillbilly hollers jostle grittier blues and folk numbers for breathing room.

Unlike Babylon though, the sermons included here are interspersed throughout, making for a slightly more diverse listening experience. While we are on the subject, this reviewer sees Take Me to the Water as-among other thing-a beautifully packaged addendum to the already splendid Goodbye, Babylon.

There are 25 tracks on the disc that accompanies this set and quite frankly, most of them are jewels. As with any compilation or proper album, a certain song may strike you just the right way on a particular day, so with material of this quality, the best cuts ultimately depend on the listener.

Washington Phillips, a ‘jack-leg preacher’ of the first degree, is represented here with “Denomination Blues Part 1”, in which his delicate vocal is accompanied by a strange zither-esque “novelty instrument.” This cut may be the catchiest pre-war gospel/blues since Skip James’ “Jesus is a Mighty Good Leader.” Now that may mean a little or a lot, depending on how far down the rabbit-hole of this kind of music you want to go.

By far the most popular artist represented here is The Carter Family, whose “On My Way to Canaan’s Land” may just be an artistic representation of Mother Maybelle’s actual baptism. Classic call and response of the hillbilly variety is accounted for too with the Carolina Tar Heels’ “I’ll Be Washed”. The intermingling of the sermon fragments -- which often break out in song -- with the tunes is a sly move on the part of the compilers, as the preachers’ intonations always take on a rhythmic quality and the fiery intensity helps move these pieces, and the set itself, forward.

The meat of this book is of course the gorgeous set of black and white photographs culled from the personal archives of collector Jim Linderman. I’m embarrassed to admit that I was expecting a yuppie coffee-table book where these old photographs made for interesting conversation (and obscure one-upmanship, sure), albeit with a stunning disc of accompanying tunes (this is Dust-to-Digital after all). What I found, after reading Linderman’s introduction and Luc Sante’s brief essays were incredibly moving photographs of true spiritual experiences culled from America’s not-too-distant past.

One gets the feeling that, with the men in their Sunday finery and the women in their hats, the people in white robes standing in the river, this specific type of Sunday morning may be long gone. Maybe I’m just old fashioned. These people’s spiritual experiences no doubt never left their hearts and now, thanks to the painstaking work of collectors and archivists like Linderman and Ledbetter, the feelings these eerie and beautiful photographs can evoke are there for anyone who wants or needs them.






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