The Staple Singers, Swing Low Sweet Chariot

Mike McGonigal

By Mike McGonigal

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

Swing Low Sweet Chariot

The Staple Singers

The Staple Singers 'second album consists of songs recorded in 1959 and 1961, and there's not a dud in the bunch. The Staples were a seasoned group by 1961, of course. Over the course of almost a dozen singles and the 1959 LP Uncloudy Day, the Chicago-based family gospel act had built a powerful bridge from the sanctified blues of the '20s and '30s to the mournful vocal stylings of contemporary acts like the Blind Boys and Highway QCs. But the Staples 'sepulchral yet bluesy sound was so original that their songs are instantly recognizable as theirs, and theirs alone.

The Staples’ sepulchral yet bluesy sound was so original that their songs are instantly recognizable as theirs, and theirs alone.

For years now, some of the Staple Singers 'greatest music has inexplicably been out of print or suffered from dubious reissues. Until now, their recordings from the late 1950s for Vee Jay were often issued on sketchy, crummy-sounding albums that hardly gave information as to what these tracks were, or where they were originally from. Their early 1960s Riverside back catalog remains a total mess, and their recordings for Epic have only been anthologized. What makes this extra strange is that the Staples were so important musically and socially long before they hit the big time with their pleasant and preachy funk-pop singles for Stax in the early '70s. Basically the house band for the Civil Rights movement, the Staples were among the best-selling gospel acts in the country. They were also the first African-American act to record a Dylan cover, while patriarch Pops Staples 'deep, reverb-saturated guitar sound has to be one of the most-copied/ least-acknowledged influences in the history of pop — from Keef to Sonic Boom.

Swing Low marks the start of a slow transition towards a more upbeat sound for the Staple Singers; it's not exactly dance music, but the songs have gone from sounding like swamp dreams to perhaps the accompaniment to a Saturday night Baptist service. Drummer Al Duncan's propulsive turn on "I'm So Glad" is a treat, while their dynamic arrangement of "The Old Landmark" has a curiously modern approach to call and response. This recording of their trademark "Uncloudy Day" is just a little bit faster and peppier, for instance, while these takes of "Good News" and "Pray On" are beautiful and forceful. Here are songs as eerie as they are earthy; if this music is not piped all throughout heaven that'll be a huge disappointment.