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Gospel, Country Are Latest in Heritage Series

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

“I Hear Music in the Air” and “Something Got a Hold of Me” are the latest volumes in RCA’s excellent Heritage Series, which focuses on pre-World War II country and blues recordings that greatly influenced the direction of pop music in the rock era.

While earlier volumes in the series centered on country and blues (the titles have ranged from “Are You From Dixie?: Great Country Brothers Teams of the 1930s” to “Grinder Man Blues: Masters of the Blues Piano”), the new CDs deal with related church music of the period.

Subtitled “A Treasury of Gospel Music,” the “Music in the Air” album is a collection of a cappella songs and sermons that opens with the words of the Rev. J.M. Gates, a Baptist minister from Atlanta who is described in the liner notes as the first successful “recording preacher.”

“Life is uncertain, but death is sure,” the minister says, addressing the congregation during the introduction to “Death’s Black Train Is Coming.” Moving into the song, he builds upon his theme of salvation: “You’d better get your house in order . . . that train may be here tonight.”

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Other selections in the album range from the Heavenly Gospel Singers’ 1937 version of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand"--which was reportedly the first recording of Thomas A. Dorsey’s classic gospel number--to the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet’s 1938 recording of “Rock My Soul” and the Four Gospel Singers’ 1931 version of “Dry Bones.”

The second--and equally valuable document--is subtitled “A Treasury of Sacred Music” and centers on church-related country music. It opens with two songs by the legendary Carter Family, including “I’m Working on a Building,” a traditional number that John Fogerty recorded for his Blue Ridge Rangers album in the early ‘70s.

“A Hold of Me” continues with two mid-'30s selections by Charlie and Bill Monroe. The anti-materialism of “What Would You Give in Exchange (for Your Soul)” must have been especially moving during the Depression.

That blend of religious attitude and social comment is also present in several other tracks, including Grady and Hazel Cole’s “Tramp on the Street,” the Dixon Brothers’ “I Didn’t Hear Nobody Pray” and Blind Alfred Reed’s “There’ll Be No Distinction There.” The latter spoke about a time when the “whites and the colored folks, the Gentiles and the Jews” would sit together in the pews.

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Billy Altman, executive producer of the series, compiled both of these packages. About 45 minutes each, the albums are short by CD retrospective standards, but the sound quality is remarkable, considering the age of the recordings.

IN THE STORES: The flood of reissues and retrospective collections being released in time for the holiday buying period include The Band’s “Moondog Matinee” and “Stage Fright” (Capitol). . . . the Beach Boys’ “Holland,” “Sunflower” and “Surf’s Up” (Caribou). . . . Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman.”


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