Reverend J.M. Gates: Are You Bound for Heaven or Hell?: The Best of Reverend J.M. Gates

Reverend J.m. Gates
Are You Bound for Heaven or Hell?: the Best of Reverend J.M. Gates

A good enough term for the churchy character of some jazz, Sancticity is the title of a riff tune Coleman Hawkins composed on top of “Old Time Religion”. That latter tune’s own name sums up something of what we have here. Some current jazz musicians have of late been very publicly inward, upward, eastward, Godward. Religion is a serious interest among them, as well as various community concerns (I would say Communitarian, but gather that word has been somewhat misused by American peddlers of views tending to sink personal morality in what are really statist-collectivist schemes of moral dogma).

In 1945 Reverend Gates ended his biblical three score and ten years of life before the realisation of the fall-out from that year’s big bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was given the biggest African-American funeral Atlanta had seen until Martin Luther King’s. Earthly ties of a certain sort didn’t bother him. The record companies which earlier or later saw the market for sermons had neglected to tie the knot with him and he performed — not for all of them, since he performed for the Almighty — under their various auspices. The same sermon came out in a different preaching on more than the one label, and there were plenty sermons. Of recorded sermons of this species listed in the now pretty well complete detailing of all Blues and Gospel Records 1897-1943 (a vast discography remarkably complete in its second edition of over 30 years ago — some Americans who should know of it plainly don’t!) one quarter were by and under the name of Reverend Gates. The Document company, founded by Johnny and Evelyn Parth in Austria at least 30 years ago, and now based in rural Scotland, has issued as far as possible every recording listed in Godrich-Dixon and still extant. I think it’s all been on CD; a copy of one vinyl LP of Gates material has been sitting unbought in one of my favourite secondhand emporia for ages now.

I am not sure whether Document issued the first two of the present set’s 19 78-rpm sides, drawn from collectors in cases where Sony’s Columbia Legacy’s access to archives revealed no surviving original. The CD topside is itself a splendid reproduction of an old Okeh label.

An impressive and hitherto suppressed performance finds the pastor at his most communitarian, almost predictably too hot a potato for issue. Reverend Gates was concerned that flocks all over the place continue to purchase their cold potatoes, and other provender and necessaries, in local stores and corner shops. He saw these convenient homely outlets as liable to suffer a chainstore massacre. If people patronised, say, “Piggly Wiggly”, the local independent would close — and whoever heard of a chain-store giving credit! In those days people could starve without as yet the preliminary option of being fleeced first at store card ramped-up interest rates.

Rev. Gates commends prudence. Pay your policy (he means the sometime penny a week plan which accumulated to cover funeral costs). Some but not all of the sermons turn into singing, like the anti-chainstore one, which ought to be updated and belongs in somebody’s repertoire. There is a tradename metrically ideal as a substitution for “chainstore”, and chain megastores sited for car-users only have been a nuisance in my own home town. Some sermons are highly rhythmic and have a sung style of delivery comparable in real musical interest to where full-blown singing does break out. Is this “the best of” from a point of view of documentation, or listenability? The interest of this CD might be a little less for its being more than half talking. The booklet does mention other historic figures of African-American church music, such as Arizona Dranes, whose piano solo “Crucifixion” is as stunning as when resurrected on vinyl in an early 1920s jazz series almost 50 years ago now. She wasn’t just the first African-American Gospel woman pianist singer on disc, she was an amazing one.

On the items included here, Rev. Gates had a congregation of three, and on one of the 19 sides (he takes two 78-rpm sides over chainstores) there is an organ. He has a token congregation of three: the gentleman (Deacon Leon Davis) was very capable, apart from having had to be bailed from jail when required to come wail (perhaps the principle “better one sinner who repents” applied?). The patter can be good, Sisters Jordan and Norman sanctified comediennes/soap-opera stars, whose folk humour satirises human vanities, manners, mannerisms, poses. “Kinky Hair [and a black face] is no disgrace” in fact manages to cover a decent range of moral issues in questioning the valuations implicit in certain external cosmetic practices. He certainly didn’t agree with some of his white neighbours on the skin question. He too had a dream.

I have to complain, however, about the liner notes’ reference to “Mannish Women” as “anti-gay”. Homosexuality was liable to be so abhorrent to Rev. Gates and his congregation, deemed a depravity beyond public mention, that his topic was surely and literally (as touched on in another sermon) women who coveted public roles, manners of conduct and dress, hitherto reserved to men. Isn’t the dig at men who move like women also part of the same jag at mannerisms, styles or poses of diminished humanity? Unlike the late D.F. Stove I see no evidence of women being inferior to men, and I’m not that sure Rev. Gates did. He seems to have believed in a divine scheme and found satirical capital in certain proto-feminist behaviours, but as an old innocent exponent of one brand of simple-lifer-ism he wasn’t necessarily less theologically sophisticated than some of his more eminent countrymen latterly. We may also be dealing with someone who took literally Jesus’s injunction to the faithful to match the sinners in cunning — look at how many recording dates Rev. Gates had (nine CDs in Document’s chronological series, 1926-1941).

While as a poetic image “Do You Spend Christmas Day in Jail” is potent and telling (Rev. Gates enumerates why you might be doing so and why you wouldn’t want to be) a decent brimstone reek lingers about the smokestack of the “Hell Bound Express Train”. If it has to be said that this falls somewhat short of Rev. A.W. Nix’s “The Black Diamond Express to Hell” (which pulls into the station conveniently to let you turn over the 78-rpm disc), well, everything else does. That is one of the absolute pinnacles, there’s nothing quite like it. Rev. Gates does however raise considerable power in quite a range and number of performances. It’s no wonder he was a star, and that his little discs with two three-minute sermons — or one of six minutes with a turnover pause — sold. He invariably –ah, um, and with the help of, you know, pauses — sounds spontaneous. His turn of phrase is telling, he doesn’t lack humour and there is the invisible badge of that anti-chainstore essay’s longtime suppression.

Great God Almighty, issued at last!

Why did the curiously titled “Scat to the Cat and Suie to the Hog” remain unissued? Too much comedy and charm to match the company’s idea of even a rustic sermon? The message is simply that people ought not to snap, nark, and claw at one another.