Take Me to the Water
Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography 1890-1950
Collectors who have salivated over the Grammy-nominated Goodbye Babylon from Lance Ledbetter’s Dust-to-Digital imprint, take heart: Take Me to the Water, a compilation advertised as “what could easily be seen as the seventh part of the acclaimed…box set,” is the next best thing.
In truth, this handsome hardcover coffee-table tome has its own soul. It is resplendent with ancient sepia-toned photographs of countryside baptism ceremonies. Like opening a stranger’s scrapbook, the reader is excused if he feels an admixture of wonder and religious voyeurism while peering at the aged photographs of men and women dressed in white, standing waist-deep in ponds, lakes and rivers, waiting for the moment of immersion signifying holy conversion. Equally fascinating are the faces of the congregation, sometimes just a few and other times dozens, crowded on the riverside.
While most of the 75 vintage photographs are of anonymous crowds, one dated August 20, 1945 captures the enigmatic Daddy Grace performing a mass baptism of more than 200 in Philadelphia.
Dust-to-Digital’s 25-track companion CD is a splendid soundtrack to the captivating photographs. It contains quality sound reproductions of pre-war 78 rpm recordings by black and white artists performing folk songs and folk sermons on the subject of baptism. Of particular interest is the mournful lining hymn singing accompanying Rev. R.M. Massey’s 1928 two-sided disc for Paramount, entitled “Old Time Baptism.” On the opposite end of the spectrum is Bill Boyd and His Cowboy Ramblers’1937 western swing recounting of the baptism of “Sister Lucy Lee” that, with its vaudeville delivery, is wryly erotic.
As one might imagine, the CD contains plenty of variants on the spiritual “Wade in the Water,” but it never gets tiresome. The Carter Family’s “On My Way to Canaan’s Land” and J.E. Mainer’s Mountaineers’ “Goin’ Down to the River of Jordan” will be familiar to African American listeners who have heard countless jubilee quartets performing these exact arrangements back in the day.
Speaking of jubilee and spiritual quartets, the companion CD features the work of several top-notch and rhythmic but rarely anthologized quartets and singing groups, including the Southern Wonders Quartet, Empire Jubilee Quartet and Rev. Nathan Smith’s Burning Bush Sunday School Pupils.
Offering the Holiness argument is Elder J.E. Burch, who in his 1927 “Baptism by Water, and Baptism by the Holy Ghost” sermonizes how baptism by the Holy Ghost trumps baptism by water, followed by vigorous singing by the studio congregation.
It’s hard to see how Dust-to-Digital could have selected a more perfect blend of recordings to accompany Take Me to the Water. If nothing else, the reader and listener will finish the book with a sense of how Christian religious ceremonies and sacred singing by black and white congregations in segregated America had more in common than not.
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