Robert Christgau on a Wave of American Epics

The Dean of American Rock Critics takes on the 'American Epic' soundtrack, a new Mahalia Jackson collection, a gospel guide, and a jug band blues retrospective.

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May 26 2017, 4:30pm

The self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau was one of the pioneers of music criticism as we know it. He was the music editor at the Village Voice for almost four decades where he created the trusted annual Pazz & Jop Poll. He was one of the first mainstream critics to write about hip-hop and the only one to review Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water with one word: "Melodic." On top of his columns, he has published six books, including his 2015 autobiography, Going Into the City. He currently teaches at New York University. Every week, we publish Expert Witness, his long-running critical column. To read more about his career, read his welcome post; for four decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.

American Epic: The Soundtrack (Legacy) There will be more of these—many more. In fact, there's already a five-CD set I may spend months with and may not, and on June 9 comes a 32-track Music From the American Epic Sessions double featuring such worthies as Nas, Beck, Raphael Saadiq, Christine Pizzuti, and co-producer Jack White that I hope I want to hear a third time. Artist and genre overviews also impend. And then there's the conflict that I've known Lo-Max Records' Bernard MacMahon, whose obsession clearly drove this project, ever since he started calling me from England circa 1990. But we've talked so little over the past decade that I was astonished to get this CD in the mail, and he had zero input into my theory that American Epic is a Sony plot to poach/rescue the American folk music franchise from the Smithsonian and the great Harry Smith. Still, isn't it obvious? All copyrights are public domain, and nowadays physical compilations are for the collector types who are Legacy's specialty. So these 15 tracks from MacMahon's three-part PBS documentary, overseen by his partner Alison McGourty, constitute a starter disc. Four repeat songs from Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music and six more select other material by Smith artists, all arduously remastered to augment depth and grain. But add Smith omission Sister Rosetta Tharpe as well as Lydia Mendoza, the Aloha Serenaders, and Big Chief Henry's Indian String Band, and note that two of the Smith artists are Cajun, and suddenly Smith's democratic gestalt has turned a third non-English, over a quarter female, and rather more rocking. The liveliest track besides Tharpe's "Up Above My Head" is the Aloha Serenaders' "Tomi Tomi," where the chorus races to keep up with Sol K. Bright's fleet steel guitar and tongue-twisting vocal, and right behind him comes Big Chief Henry, who never walks when he can run either. If this be political correctness, bring it on. A

The Rough Guide to Jug Band Blues (World Music Network) Beats me why nobody's done this before, but it's great top to bottom. The sole Memphis Jug Band entry among these 25 finds, Will Shade's take on the ineffable work of genius "Stealin'," isn't even best in show. That would be Tampa Red's Hokum Jug Band's take on the equally ineffable work of genius "It's Tight Like That," which in the course of topping the leader's canonical Georgia Tom collab on the same song encodes into history the elan vital of a woman who laughs a verse in tune. Tampa Red also musters up daredevil jug and kazoo solos, but they're a baseline—the chances taken on both primitive instruments are hilarious and heroic throughout. It's as if all these forgotten African-Americans seizing their moment in the studio are inventing not rock and roll but punk, where for a few months a simple formal idea combined with an irrepressible social possibility to light up one 45 after another. Difference is, the formal idea isn't about energy, much less anger—it's about what a precious thing pleasure is when its lucky moment arises. And it lasted the better part of a decade. A

Mahalia Jackson: Moving On Up a Little Higher (Spirit Feel) In part because deciding that Jesus wasn't my savior was the toughest intellectual work of my life, I'm not much of a gospel fan, and that goes double for the kind of stately midtempo message singers I avoid in every genre—I don't even really get Aretha Franklin's Amazing Grace, hailed as her very peak by many nonbelievers with their fingers crossed. Nonetheless, this is Mahalia Jackson, and I've tried, Lord, I've tried—particularly by buying her early stuff, from before Columbia turned her into what the indefatigable gospel scholar Anthony Heilbut once called "a black Kate Smith." But this career-spanning, Heilbut-compiled selection of live rarities reached me as my earlier tries hadn't, so with other Mahalia versions of half its songs already in my iTunes, I compared and contrasted. Heilbut's finds won every time. At their very best—"Keep Your Hand on the Plow," "Didn't It Rain," the storytelling "Jesus Met the Woman at the Well"—they rock and roll with such grace I shout about it. Often they remind me that the piano is a percussion instrument. And at the very least they're more relaxed. Yet in the end, there's still a bunch of stately message singing here. B PLUS

The Rough Guide to Gospel Blues (World Music Network) Given how much African-American rhythm sprung up in church, these guitar tracks tend shockingly static (Blind Willie & Kate McTell, "I Got Religion, I'm So Glad"; Rev. Edward W. Clayton, "Your Enemy Cannot Harm You"; Bukka White, "The Promise True and Grand"; Blind Joe Taggart & Josh White, "Scandalous and a Shame") *

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