THE CRATE-DIGGERS’ SYMPOSIUM
4. MIKE McGONIGAL
Mike McGonigal compiled Fire In My Bones: Raw, Rare, & Otherworldly African-American Gospel 1944-2007 (2007) and This May Be My Last Time Singing: Raw African-American Gospel on 45rpm 1957-1982 (2011); both were released by Tompkins Square. He is also editor of YETI.
ASPREY: Did you grow up listening to gospel?
McGONIGAL: Ohhhh, no. I myself, I was raised Episcopal Lite—my personal churchgoing experience was more about animal crackers and cool stories at Sunday School with I suppose a smattering of sappy white people hymns here and there. I stopped attending regularly before I was ten years old.
My first real musical love was Electric Light Orchestra in the third grade (still love that group—very much, and unironically).
Getting into gospel—that happened slowly. I can trace a lot of my interest to picking up the Fred McDowell LP Amazing Grace: Mississippi Delta Spirituals By The Hunter’s Chapel Singers Of Como, Miss.. I had no sense of the history of sanctified blues. I just assumed that McDowell wrote or adapted these songs by himself. It’s no less powerful a recording later, now that I know that this kind of music dates back to before modern gospel. Thankfully, this Testament recording was reissued on vinyl recently by my friend David Katznelson.
ASPREY: How do you define ‘raw gospel’? In what ways does it differ from the postwar gospel people most people know? And what is its appeal?
McGONIGAL: ‘I know it when I hear it,’ is my first answer — and it’s definitely not the Winans. It’s not even classic gospel acts such as the Caravans, or the latest critically-acclaimed record by a gospel artist from the 1960s who’s now collaborating with Ben Harper and someone from Wilco. I’m interested in feeling like my gut got punched, but that doesn’t need to happen with caterwauling guitar or heavy shouts. It can also happen with something incredibly ethereal and with a feather-light-sounding accompaniment.
I’m definitely drawn to the more rough-hewn sounds of, say, the anachronistic 1950s-recorded street performers the Two Gospel Keys, or the husband and wife team the Consolers (who recorded strictly for Nashboro and are featured on a compilation I produced which is soon out on Tompkins Square). Cole Alexander from the Black Lips—a gospel enthusiast in a popular, skuzzy garage-punk band—he told me that he got into gospel simply because he wanted to find the best shouters on record. I love that. He went on to produce a reissue of ‘Hurricane’ Johnny Jones, an Atlanta preacher/singer, for the Dust-to-Digital label.
One of the things about gospel is that it’s first and foremost a utilitarian music. The purpose is to spread the word—’gospel’ of course translates as ‘good news.’ That’s what it’s actually about. So, while there is an ever-expanding gospel/Christian music industry, which is something of a mirror world to popular music. If one is of a cynical bent, one might state that you can take alt-rock, country, R+B or pop sounds from eight years ago, replace the word ‘baby’ with the word ‘Lord,’ and you will have a hit in the CCM world. That’s fine for what it is, but it’s not raw gospel.
ASPREY: One of the most conspicuous tracks on Fire In My Bones is Elder Beck’s ‘Rock and Roll Sermon’. He’s denouncing the devil’s music but his guitar player is rocking it out. Can you discuss the divide between the sacred and the profane in this era of African-American music? Did the secular stuff simply replace ‘lord’ with ‘baby’?
McGONIGAL: Ray Charles is of course the much trotted-out example for what I said there—’I Got A Woman’ being not at all loosely based on the Southern Tones’ ‘Must Be Jesus.’ ’Rock & Roll Sermon, Pts. 1 & 2’ by Elder Charles Beck is just such a killer song in so many ways. Elder Beck could always swing. He began his recording career as a gospel singer and pianist, later adding trumpet, vibraphone and even bongos to his musical gamut. Beck’s smooth, gorgeous recording of ‘Jesus, I Love You’ is regularly cited as the likely precursor to Elvis Presley’s version, while a song from his very first recording session with Curry, the deliriously rollicking and oft-anthologized ‘Memphis Flu,’ has, ironically, been referred to as an antecedent to rock & roll.
That song—when you get to part two, the flip side, wow. “Rock & roll is filling up the dope dens!” Elder Beck shouts, and from there he gets real gone, hammering home the fate of those who would succumb to the dreaded evil music with impassioned, beyond-hepcat fervor. “Rock & roll… Rock & roll all night long… Rock… One o’clock rock… Two o’clock rock… Three o’clock rock… Four o’clock rock… Five o’clock roll… Roll into the patrol wagon… Roll in before the judge… Rollin ‘out of the courthouse… Rollin ‘into the penitentiary… Rollin ‘into the electric chair… Rollin ‘out to the undertakers… AAAAAWAGGGH! WHOOO! ROCK AND ROLL! YEEEEAAAHHHHH! You better get readyyyy!” Sorry for going off on it like that! And then, just as the band really heads off into raw, revved-up rock, the guitarist peeling off bluesy licks that would make Keith Richards explode with jealousy, the song just fades out. You only get a taste, and you want to hear at least an hour’s worth. It’s the perfect, teasing end to a fiery sermon that ostensibly denounces rock & roll and yet shows that the right church is more raucous than even the heaviest rockers.
I’d argue that ‘Rock & Roll Sermon, Pts. 1 & 2’ is entirely aware of what it’s doing, of its own ironies and contradictions. I’d argue that gospel itself is more of an influence/root of rock & roll than the blues. This song is exhibit A.
ASPREY: Does the music hold a spiritual significance for you?
McGONIGAL: Ohh, of course. It’s so deeply that. You can never forget that gospel music exists to spread the ‘good news’, and that’s the entire reason that this beautiful thing is there for you. I can love it for so many reasons but I never want to disrespect that. My own religious/spiritual beliefs only mean anything to me; I hope I never throw anything onto them.
ASPREY: Can you give me some idea of the geography of the music you pursue? What kind of regional differences do you find? What are the key cities—or even specific churches?
McGONIGAL: Very loosely speaking, you will find the best music at a medium-sized COGIC (Church of God in Christ) on the outskirts of town. This has been true for decades. So if it’s a self-released 45 and it came from a small church and especially if that church looks to be from the Pentecostal/holiness tradition, then I’ll definitely give it a whirl.
The gospel I’ve been concerned with thus far is from the Midwest (gospel’s birthplace), the Northeast, and all over the South as well. There have been a couple West Coast tracks on these compilations. There certainly is a strong gospel tradition in California, particularly from the mid-1950s onward, but it tends to be centered on Rev. James Cleveland’s booming mass choir sound. I’d love to find some killer gospel from the Pacific Northwest. Outside of Rev. Louis Overstreet spending his last years in Portland, OR (where I myself lived the last 9 years), I’ve found zilch, however.
The best places to look for gospel records are economically depressed areas that are historically black. This is a bit of why I’m moving to Detroit, MI, by the end of 2013—to not only get closer to the artifacts but to the musicians themselves.
ASPREY: What are a couple of the weirder places you’ve found rare records?
McGONIGAL: I’m not nearly as lucky as friends of mine. I don’t find amazing records peeking out from behind a dumpster while waiting for the bus, or in Goodwills. I’ve been to so many Goodwill thrift shops in my life, and I’ve only ever found cool coffee mugs at them. Always look at the records there, but it’s always the usual—Andy Williams Christmas LPs, scratched-up classical, ‘80s country, Barbara Streisand, and maybe Ashford and Simpson.
A lot of the records I’ve gotten are online, but most are just from digging through boxes of 45s stashed in the back of a record store.
ASPREY: When did you realise you were going to be a music anthologist—and were there compilations (in gospel or other genres) that provided you with a template?
McGONIGAL: Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music is so crucial, and its deluxe 1990s reissue really inspired me a lot. I had already done quite a few compilations by then, though. I made my first vinyl compilation in 1986, a 7’ record that came with my fanzine Chemical Imbalance. There were the two best bands from Miami (where I was in high school then)—Broken Talent and the Chant—plus this great indie pop act called the June Brides from London, and Sonic Youth from New York City. I paid for it with a bit of money borrowed from a guy named Rich Ulloa who had a terrific record shop in Miami, FL called Yesterday + Today, while the rest of the money came from mowing lawns.
It took me years to realize it, but David Evans’ vernacular gospel collection Sorrow Come Pass Me Around (recently reissued by Dust-to-Digital) is a 100% perfect record. Evans made the recordings himself in the field, and it’s stellar, flawless. He even manages to have different versions of the same song appear on the record in succession and you do not get confused or tired while listening—that is a total magic trick I’d never try to pull off not even on a mix tape for a friend.
ASPREY: Do you feel that you’re doing something of a historian’s job when you compile your sets? Do your compilations seek to present a kind of secret history (forgive the cliché)? And how do your discoveries challenge the dominant historical understanding of African-American music?
McGONIGAL: It depends on the project, really. In general I’ve been working under different constraints in terms of what can be licensed and what cannot. Some of the projects I’d like to do are more geared towards trying to ‘fix’ certain perceptions, what I’d consider to be misperceptions. Mostly I’ve just been like ‘You have to hear this stuff it’s so great,’ operating from the superfan level.
Certainly a lot of people told me they had no idea that the kind of music on my first CD gospel compilation, Fire in my Bones, even existed, which was nice. It was also a bit strange to me, since that’s the kind of music I listen to so much—and that record was just a weird, scattershot collection. There’s still so much amazing gospel music that’s never been reissued in any form.
ASPREY: Can you walk us through some of your favourite cuts on Fire In My Bones?
McGONIGAL: Sure. Here you go:
‘Swing Low,’ Theotis Taylor. My friend Amos Harvey, who’s been in touch with Taylor himself, turned me on to his music. Brother Theotis Taylor recorded three spellbinding singles of his keyboard playing and falsetto singing for the Pitch label in the mid ‘70s. Keyboards and vocals—that’s all it is, but it’s so ridiculously timeless and lovely. I had to end the entire collection with that song.
‘Power Is In The Heart Of Man,’ Brother & Sister W. B. Grate. This is the best song on the compilation, one whose message is remarkably open-minded and not an ordinary evangelical message. I love the name—reminds me of sanctified singer Rev. I. B. Ware, that name. The record was released on the Port City label, which was likely based in Wilmington, NC.
ASPREY: A large portion of the cuts on This May Be My Last Time Singing were originally self-released 45s. What can you tell me about the economics of these records? How were they produced and distributed?
McGONIGAL: Actually, they all were—that was the main limit I set for myself when I came to assemble that compilation. The music on that compilation was all originally released on small label 45s, mostly in the 1960s and ‘70s. Many of these records were self-released, paid for by a church congregation or the artists themselves. Others were on regional labels (typically run by one single producer) little known today outside of a small circle of collectors. So, I chose to source this compilation entirely from 45s because of their democratic/DIY nature. The idea is that almost anyone could raise enough money to release a 7’ single. It might cost as little as a few hundred dollars to make a 7’ record back then.
I’m obsessed with the vernacular tracks, especially the solo-guitar-or-keyboards-plus-vocals numbers and the a capella songs. Stylistically, those recordings refer to sounds many decades old. On the Fire In My Bones compilation, the tracks in that vein had all been recorded by these great folklorists such as William Ferris and George Mitchell. And if released, it was on preservationist labels. Here, those recordings were presented as commercial artifacts within the local gospel community. And whether they were successful in the marketplace or not, that difference, to me, is huge.
ASPREY: What are your favourite cuts from This May Be My Last Time Singing:
McGONIGAL: ‘God Is Taking Care,’ Deacon James Williams. This one is so rad. A fine example from 1980 of mildly psychedelic drum machine gospel, it went through at least two pressings. Deacon James Fred Williams is the singer, while Brother Eli Taylor plays the organ, on this self-released Midwestern 45. I almost wish I hadn’t included it so that I could assemble an entire compilation of drum machine driven gospel at a later time.
‘Stop Now,’ Willie Cotton. This song is very straight-ahead, but I felt like it really fit somehow. And it often pops into my head without warning—it’s a real earworm. Cotton released a handful of 45s and two LPs for Brother Henderson’s L.A.-based label Proverb, from the mid 1960s until the label ceased operations when Henderson died in ‘72. On this 45 for the Ball label, Cotton was backed by his own brother Harold on drums and Prince Dixon on organ.
‘Stop Living On Me,’ Rev R. Henderson. What a revelation this 45 was! I bought it on eBay based on sound clips. It’s a totally strange, amazing record. Nothing is known about Rev. R Henderson. I now have three 45s by him, one of which is about the most I’ve ever paid for a 7’.
This track, side two, ‘Stop Living On me,’ was recorded really quietly, and is a total noodling guitar driven dirge. Meanwhile the A-side, ‘The Lord Will Make A Way,’ sports a backing band and congregational accompaniment, and it sounds super distorted as it was recorded entirely in the red! The backstory I’ve created for the record is that someone in Henderson’s church got their cousin, fresh out of rehab but still messed up on methadone, to man the controls.
ASPREY: How do YETI magazine and Verse Chorus Press fit into your activities?
McGONIGAL: Steve Connell from Verse Chorus Press is my business partner in YETI. I’ve known him for some time because he used to edit and publish the great ‘zine Puncture in the ‘80s and ‘90s. VCP was already set up with its own book distribution so the first number of titles were partnerships with them. VCP is actually not part of YETI and I’m about to buy out Steve so it will just be me doing YETI. I might rename my label Social Music as just YETI. Not sure? Initially Social Music referred to the third volume in Harry Smith’s Anthology; now, people think ”Facebook?” I started to work on YETI in 1999, a year after moving to Seattle to work as a music editor for Amazon. I spent much of the 1990s as a low level hack writer, scribbling wherever I could for ten cents a word and also supporting myself as a bookstore clerk, museum guard, bicycle burrito delivery boy and a grant writer. When I found myself at a ‘real’ job, even though I was often working ten to eleven hours a day at that job, I found I still wanted to do my own fanzine. I really missed that curatorial thing, the satisfaction I got from putting together an entire issue of a magazine myself—just stuff that my friends and I were interested in, no other considerations aside from that. I’d started my first ‘zine Chemical Imbalance with lawn-mowing money when I was fifteen years-old. YETI needs to be run more like a business and less like a compulsion; we’ll see what happens in the future but it’s been fun to work on. Basically, I always have something to do. I’m always behind in my work; there are dozens of projects at a time.
I remain obsessed with this music, and in 2014 I’ll make my own documentary film working with Jeff Economy. It will be on surviving vernacular traditions in contemporary gospel. We’ll be hanging out with a fellow who owns one of the last surviving gospel-only record stores (New Sound in Chicago) and also covering hard shouting quartets, sacred steel music, preacher/ singers, fife + drum gospel, churches where they sing lining hymns, a capellas sung in various ways, a gospel blues singer, shout trombone groups and what I would call visionary gospel in the guise of Rev. Raymond Branch.
ASPREY: What’s next? Which of your gospel discoveries most needs to be rereleased?
McGONIGAL: The Nashboro compilation is out in two months. It’s amazing music! I’m so glad I got to produce that reissue for Tompkins Square. A licensed collection of Jamaican gospel I’ve worked on for years which was to be on Honest Jons fell apart last month, and that was a big letdown. I’ve done two bootleg LPs, where I only made a few hundred copies of each and when I was able to track artists down later (as happened with the patriarch of the music, Otis Wright) I paid him very well, so that was cool—and will lead to further LP reissues on my own label licensed directly from the artists. But I want this Honest Jons record to be the best it possibly can, and I am disheartened that we now have to work from a smaller pool of talent.
Have you heard Jamaican gospel?
ASPREY: Not yet.
McGONIGAL: It’s really unlike anything else I ever heard. There are clearly Caribbean and Jamaican elements to the songs, as you’d expect. What might be a surprise is how closely the music hews to Southern gospel and country and western music. I’m told that part of the reason for this stems from the fact that radio stations throughout Jamaica used to shut down early in the evening, allowing high-wattage AM stations from the American South to waft in unimpeded.
I hope to produce a handful of Staple Singers reissues on vinyl. The fact that their very best and most important records have incredibly poor availability is very strange to me. Among those projects I hope to reissue their very first 78 from 1952, for the first time.
The first of (hopefully) many contemporary gospel recordings I hope to release is a collection of new and archival recordings by Rev. Branch, who I got in touch with after his 45 from the 1960s was included on Fire in my Bones. His voice is now a lot harsher and he used to have great facility with the guitar but his use of his hands has diminished. So he plays this electric harp thing instead, an omnichord. It has affinities to me with the great Washington Phillips. I find it really lovely stuff. Not sure how much of an appeal it has, but I am willing to gamble. I think the record will have to be named for this song, ‘Radio Television in my Heart.’