20. The Cleveland Colored Quintet

Good Bye Pharaoh. In America, white interest in black music has always centered on recognition and distance. The origins, history and social status of black Americans produced music both familiar and remote, thoroughly American but not the America experienced by whites. That tension spread black ideas into mainstream popular music, most famously in the guise of jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. This movement is often portrayed as singular and decisive, yet is really one turn in a lengthy back-and-forth between all the peoples of the New World. Black music in America was as much shaped by as shaped its musical surroundings.

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For the dominant culture, in this case whites, the price of dominance is cultural anxiety. Blacks are derided for poor social accomplishments and integration but lauded for a sharper cultural edge. The two are intimately related- it is often precarious social standing that produces musical innovation that is truly disruptive rather than merely progressive. Today, at least for middle class whites, there is a nervousness that affluence and authenticity are at odds. It is all nonsense, of course, but palpable nonetheless.

But what happens when black musicians self-consciously take up elements of white musical sensibility? There is the case of The Cleveland Colored Quintet.

Rummaging through a used record store in Las Vegas, of all places, I came across two 78s by the Cleveland Colored Quintet on the Sacred label. The group’s name and track titles suggested material in the tradition of the early gospel artists, such as the Fisk Jubilee Quartet. Indeed, once I heard the records, such as On the Jericho Road and Reign Massah Jesusit was clear that these pieces were antiquated even at the time of recording- Sacred Records did not begin production until after World War II. I was intrigued and looked for more information. 

The Cleveland Colored Quintet (CCQ) fall into the category of black musicians who made early recordings but whose music was judged “not black enough” to be included in the first three editions of the landmark Blues & Gospel Records discography. The CCQ were a male vocal group with a repetoire that spanned both African-American spirituals and late nineteenth and early twentieth century white religious fare. Formed in 1914, the group enjoyed some success touring the north east United States and Canada with various preachers. The CCQ made about twenty recordings between 1923 and 1926 in Columbia’s Personal series, for sale at church gatherings. The recordings appear under the name of The C. & M. A. Gospel Singers or Quintette, referring to The Christian & Missionary Alliance, the church group the members were associated with. The CCQ did not record commercially before the 1940s.

The 1920s recordings were reissued on the Document label in 1997, but the notes make no reference to the Sacred Records discs I had found. Recorded too late for the Blues & Gospel Records 1890-1943 discography, the CCQ’s subsequent records turn up in the companion volume The Gospel Discography 1943-1970 by Cedric J. Hayes and Robert Laughton. The latter lists 28 sides, all recorded in 1947, on Sacred and a number of other labels, all issued commercially. The earlier discography makes no reference to later recordings, such allusion being standard practice, and the later discography is silent on earlier ones. The group’s two names may be to blame- the 1920s recordings using the church affiliation, and the later ones The Cleveland Colored Quintet. According to Colin J. Bray, the author of the notes for the Document CD, the second was the group’s “correct” name.

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The abrupt end to recordings in 1947 appears to have been due to the sudden death, on stage, of Alexander E. Talbert, the group’s bass. This is a reminder of the group’s vintage. The men were likely born in the 1880s, and appear quite elderly in a publicity photograph from the 1940s. Some may have been born even earlier, judging by what appears to be a 1920s photograph used for the cover of the Document CD. This explains the CCQ’s devotion to an earlier style of gospel singing, honed by the group before the race record explosion in the 1920s.

Prior to that period, much white interest in black music in America was a matter of “refining” the latter in the manner of the former- harmonizing spirituals for the parlor piano and the like. But the effort was not one-way. The original Fisk Jubilee Singers from the 1870s embarked on a concert tour to raise funds for the recently founded yet impoverished Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, an institution designed to advance higher education for freed slaves after the Civil War. The Singers found most success with renderings of old-time religious music molded by slaves from scraps of white Christianity and African legacy. In a climate of newly-found dignity for blacks, the combination of “roughly-hewn” spirituals and well-educated singers harmonizing in the European concert tradition seemed most fitting, from the perspective of many blacks as well as whites. The minstrel show, the most prominent portrayal of black music in America at the time, was generally much less positive and nuanced.

The Singers sparked a “jubilee craze” raising large sums for the University and prompting many imitators, both genuine and otherwise. Relatively few such performers made recordings prior to 1920, but a later group of Fisk singers, the Fisk Jubilee Quartet, first recorded in 1909, was positioned as a valuable exclusive for the Victor Company. According to estimates by Tim Brooks, author of Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, the Fisks sold two million records over a decade, on both Victor and Columbia, and were probably the second biggest-selling black recording artists prior to 1920, after Bert Williams.

In the 1920s, with the surprise success of early jazz records and blues singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, the “jubilee” sound began to seem old-fashioned. The appearance of country blues records later in the decade further sidelined the jubilee style. All these developments turned the jubilee logic on its head, finding success with less “managed” black voices, with any non-black influence more marginal. The gospel sound evolved too, with more personal lyrics, more complex and forceful vocals and more contemporary music.The 1930s saw a new breed of quartets, such as The Heavenly Gospel Singers, Golden Gate Quartet and Dixie Hummingbirds.

So it perhaps not surprising, but intriguing nonetheless, that even by the 1940s, the CCQ were still firmly in the jubilee vein. The 1947 records make no attempt to keep with the times, and may have traded on a nostalgia among older folks. Indeed, some of the CCQ’s 1947 recordings appear to be one of only a few times certain pieces were captured commercially post-war. What I’m most interested in is how groups like the CCQ have been viewed since their demise. These artists go entirely against the grain of how black music in America has been regarded, by blacks and especially by whites, who emphasize what is perceived as primitive, earthy, raw, etc. Indeed, much mainstream western popular music since the 1950s is premised on judicious use of this black American “edge.” Widespread white adoption of black musical features is either praised or taken for granted, whereas black “imitation” of whites is often looked askance at.

The fact that groups like the CCQ performed black and white music in equal measure is often seen to imply that the performers were “too middle class” to be sufficiently in touch with their roots, in thrall to white values, trying to please white audiences or some such argument. Of course, the CCQ’s “colored” label is one more reason to for us to feel uneasy. Given the reaction, you might think it inconceivable that the CCQ members actually appreciated both styles or had legitimate reasons to want to appeal to different audiences. Just as white middle class affluence and U.S. industrialization prompted a longing for a simpler past, so the constrained existence of most blacks prompted interest in progress and sophistication. Jazz, city blues and modern gospel represented such change, but so did more direct black fascination with non-black styles.

One could argue that groups like the CCQ were actually remarkably well-rounded and pioneering, sidestepping rigid racial divisions and embracing musical diversity. The contributions of middle class blacks like the CCQ should be regarded as just as significant and interesting as those of their more numerous less fortunate bretheren. For the prevailing culture to ultimately value black music as a symptom of second class status, and dismiss other black paths as suspect, puts a disturbing slant on our artistic fascinations.

The likes of the CCQ were grudgingly included in the latest edition of Gospel & Blues Records 1890-1943. Some of this music does sound somewhat staid to modern ears, used to “raw” as the standard, but I think we are far from a full assessment of early black recording artists that tried to transcend as well as embrace the status quo.

I’ve uploaded The Cleveland Colored Quartet’s Reign Massa JesusLet me know what you think.

19. Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard- Hard Time, Good Time & End Time Music 1923-1936

Try Harder. Great story, mediocre music. That’s how I’d sum up Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard, the 3-CD compilation of American county music released in 2012 by Tompkins Square.

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Let’s start with the great story. In 2010 in Louisville, Kentucky, Nathan Salsburg, noted guitarist and curator at the Association for Cultural Equity, the Alan Lomax archive, stumbled across news of a local man, recently deceased, with 78s in his house, destined for the dumpster. Salsburg rushed over to discover a large stash of early country records hoarded by little known collector, Don Wahle. The collection included many rare and un-reissued sides. Salsburg stayed the dumpster hands and rescued everything not already succumbed to mold and disintegration.

Salsburg, entranced with Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, had long been mulling an aggregation in the same vein, and saw in Wahle’s hoard the opportunity. Of course, the difficulty for Salsburg is that Harry Smith’s Anthology stimulated modern interest in early recordings of country, blues and gospel music in America, whereas Work Hard follows decades of exhaustive reissues and examination. Smith had the field to himself, with the choicest cuts still unknown to the wider world. Today, there’s a reason why some sides remain unissued- they’re not very good. Contrary to booster rhetoric, by definition not every old country record can be a classic. Inevitably, many old sides are thoroughly derivative and second-rate. Yet to my ears, that’s primarily what is offered by Work Hard.

To the uninitiated, and that may be the primary audience for Work Hard, the collection may appear fresh and unexpected. The old photographs, quaint imagery and raucous delivery may be compelling to many a casual listener. The tale of the old record collector who’s precious finds were nearly lost to the crusher is a great lead that garnered much more mainstream press interest than is typical for this kind of release. If nothing else, the “work, play, pray” themes grasp at a little more coherence than Smith’s “ballads, social music, songs”.

The couple of stronger tracks come from familiar sources. Buell Kazee’s Poor Boy a Long Way from Home is another slice of that performer’s insistent banjo and dark notes, in stark contrast to the also-rans crowding the rest of the set. Elder Golden P. Harris, who made two custom recordings for the Consolidated Recording Corporation in New York in 1931, and made two more, date unknown, on his own label, also gets a spot. I had heard only the stunning I Want to Lead a Christian Life, so was excited to experience one of the remaining three. I was not disappointed- same fervent voice and ancient violin propel My Christian Friends in Bonds of Love. No surprise that both the Kazee and Harris tracks have been reissued previously, but so far as I know, there is no in-print CD collecting the works of Kazee or Harris. Now those would be fine additions to the 78 reissue canon.

Guest essays, particularly that by Amanda Petrusich on the “Work” theme, are a welcome complement to the standard discographical  ephemera and biographical scraps. Petrusich asks the intriguing question as to when we stopped writing songs about work. The main reason a fair number of old country records are about work is because the performers were typically no more than semi-professional. There was also a deep association between this country music and a certain way of life. But I take issue with Petrusich’s cheap swipe at the “bloodlessness of the modern-day desk job,” which she contrasts with the supposed nobility of more physical labor worth setting to music. Lazy boredom in the present, dependent on yet dismissive of the fruits of technology, obscures the weaknesses and romanticizes the strengths of the past. I find it easier to romanticize pre-modern rural life from a laptop in an air-conditioned office. Modern work is a rich source of material, and it’s lack of imagination that dictates relationships and partying as the only things to sing about.

I feel a curious sense of guilt criticizing so many of the reissues reviewed on these pages. The passion and care of the compilers, the exquisite packaging and the voiceless dead seem to deserve more. But as I will continue to argue, without sharper perspective and more debate, without pushing beyond reverence, without trying harder, reissues also risk neglect, dumpsters and ketchup.

Verdict: Both Work Hard and Pray Hard averaged 1.75 (c.59th percentile), with Play Hard, weighed down with one too many cheesy sketches and workaday breakdowns, bringing up with rear at 1.64 (82nd percentile). The 3-CD set is available from Tompkins Square.