Various Artists – Tompkins Square, Fire In My Bones : Raw + Rare + Otherworldly African-American Gospel (1944-2007)

Peter Blackstock

By Peter Blackstock

on 05.27.11 in Reviews

At first glance, this three-disc, 80-track collection seems dauntingly sprawling and somewhat unfocused, covering seven decades of recordings that range from in-the-field folklore projects to radio-studio one-offs to major-label releases. Compiler and eMusic contributor Mike McGonigal admits as much up-front: In his liner notes, he explains that his initial concept of chronologically succeeding similar landmark collections curated by the likes of John Fahey and Chris Strachwitz "basically dissolved in front of me" when he found himself feeling limited by such imposed parameters. Instead, he threw the door wide open; whatever the resulting smorgasbord may lack in thematic cohesion is overridden by the sheer joy of discovery.

A smorgasbord driven by the sheer joy of discovery

Part of the discovery is realizing that the passion which pervades Fire in My Bones transcends considerations of genre or peculiarity. If the territory seems esoteric, what becomes apparent when digging into this material is just how broadly appealing so much of it actually is. True enough, for example, that the chorus of harmonicas on "Better Get Ready," a 1948 recording by Elder Roma Wilson & Family, is historically significant — Mike Seeger apparently called it "the single most important selection by multi-harp players in existence" — but it's also simply an irresistible three minutes of music. It's almost impossible to listen to the infectious 1963 rendition of "Down By The Riverside" by New Orleans's Snooks Eaglin (one of the few "name" artists included in the set) without wanting to hear it over and over again. The most recent track, a 2007 recording by Rev. John Wilkins called "Let The Redeemed Say So," resonates with a fresh and lively vitality even as it recalls the guitar-picking legacy of Wilkins's Mississippi forbears.

Much of the fun here is in the obscurities, from a 1975 track titled "I've Got A Telephone In My Bosom" by the Amazing Farm Singers of Chicago to a rare fife-and-drum gospel number recorded in 1969 by the Georgia Fife & Drum Band ("Why Sorrow Done Passed Me Around"). But the universally familiar songs that pop up here and there provide minor revelations as well. Georgia's Precious Bryant sets "When The Saints Go Marching In" to a very different melody than the traditional version; Rev. Louis Overstreet and his choral congregation push "Working On A Building" higher and higher in a seven-minute workout that's the longest track on the disc; and Theotis Taylor's sweet piano-and-falsetto take on "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" is sublime enough to serve as a fitting closer to the entire collection.