Unearthly unions

Matchups between long-dead singers and groovy DJs can feel contrived, but King Britt's remix with the great Sister Gertrude is a revelation.

Published November 30, 2005 12:00PM (EST)

Not so very long ago, a record pairing a modern, forward-thinking DJ and producer with a little-known gospel singer who happens to have been dead for a quarter-century would have seemed pretty unusual. But the September release of "King Britt Presents Sister Gertrude Morgan" has to be evaluated as an example of what is basically a genre, encompassing work by Moby, the three "Verve Remixed" records and the Motown and Atlantic Records remix projects (all issued in the past three years), and even violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain and DJ Scientifics' forthcoming "A Civil Rights Reader for Strings, Laptop & DJ." Some of the more absurd virtual collaborations (the recent double-deceased duet of Biggie Smalls and Bob Marley, for instance) are proving that mere novelty is not enough, and there's a not-so-fine line between rediscovery and repurposing.

Sister Gertrude Morgan made one record in New Orleans in the late 1960s or thereabouts, and died in 1980. She is better known for her paintings, which fall in the folk or vernacular or naive (your pick) tradition: That is, she had no formal training, and most of her work was ignored for most of her life, but eventually it was "discovered" and celebrated. You always get the vague sense, looking at "outsider" art exhibits, that what you're really supposed to admire is not just the talent of the artist, but the taste -- the talent -- of the curator. Which can be irritating. Still, the idea of taste as a talent has its uses. In music it's often associated with the postmodern power of the DJ, but it's also what makes, for instance, Elvis Costello's "Almost Blue," or K. McKarty's album of Daniel Johnston covers, "Dead Dog's Eyeball," so much better than Rod Stewart's multiphase assault on the Great American Songbook. Cover projects, like remixes, work out better when song selection really is guided by taste and a passion for the material, as opposed to making a score with the grocery store background-music industry.

In this case, the story goes that Ropeadope Records founder Andy Hurwitz came upon a copy of Morgan's obscure release, "Let's Make a Record," in a New Orleans record store, and presented it to Philadelphia DJ King Britt as the possible basis for a project. In the original recordings, recently remastered and reissued by Ropeadope, Morgan sings gospel numbers that occasionally tip into full-on sermons, accompanied only by her own tambourine playing. It's a striking and raw performance, partly because her conviction is total and her vocal presence so vivid.

The next thing to consider, then, is the way the source material is treated. It's hard, for example, not to think of Moby's 1999 album, "Play," which included several meetings of modern recording wizardry and folk expression, and was a sensation. He basically treated his archival sources like anonymous found objects. "Natural Blues," the album's credits note, "features samples from the Vera Hall recording 'Trouble So Hard.'" The notes include several essays in which Moby shares his views on vegan dining and prisoners' rights, but nothing about who this Vera Hall person might be, or how her voice happened to arrive in his digital toolbox. Listen to Hall's a cappella performance, recorded by Alan Lomax in her Tuscaloosa, Ala., kitchen in 1959, then to Moby's song. There's no question Moby has excellent taste, and made something wonderful and new. But is Vera Hall's contribution merely a "sample"? Or is this a collaboration? A remix? A cover? (Commercial dimensions to this question later arose in connection with another sample-driven song from "Play" that ended up in an American Express ad.)

One of the more underrated remix albums of the past few years took an interesting approach to this issue: "Alan Lomax's Southern Journey Remixed," by New Orleans' Tangle Eye (2004), brilliantly combined samples with electronic beats and burbles and live playing by various New Orleans jazz musicians -- and explained where each sample came from. Of course, building everything around Lomax gave a bit more credit to him as a kind of ur-DJ for, say, locating the prison ax gang singing "Rosie" in the late 1940s than to C.B. "88" Cook for being the lead vocalist of that performance and thus of Tangle Eye's "Work Song."

King Britt certainly treats Sister Gertrude with the respect of a full collaborator, and sometimes even with reverence. Her song "Let Us Make a Record" gets a slinky, echoing rhythm track, with swelling beats and synthesizers rising to surround her cries of "Hallelujah! Glory! Praise Him!" The most explicitly danceable King Britt cut, "Live Like Jesus," takes its cue from the tambourine tempo on Morgan's similarly titled original, matches it with speedy beats, and throws in a few effects and strings. "I Was Healed by the Wounds" draws on a surprising collage, from funky guitar to some kind of whooshing thing that sounds like an electronic approximation of a barking dog. My personal favorite on the original Sister Gertrude Morgan record is "Take My Hand, Lead Me On," probably because it has the most accessible melody. Britt's mix is a model of respect, all-enhancing, swathing her voice in majestic bombast that finally drops out into quiet guitar noodling, a graceful end to the remix album. It feels like the climax to a sentimental Hollywood blockbuster -- or a Moby song. I mean all of that in a good way; it's a great track.

While "Play" was a breakthrough, it had a number of aesthetic antecedents. In 1998, Fat Possum Records released an R.L. Burnside disc called "Come On In"; the Burnside material was not archival (he was alive and performing through this year), but it was given an extreme makeover by producer Tom Rothrock that converted country blues into thumping, grinding modern mixes of fantastic effect. Also, San Francisco musician Greg Hale Jones added modern beats and musical parts to vocal tracks from old field recordings from the Library of Congress, creating hybrids that appeared on the soundtrack to the forgettable John Travolta vehicle "The General's Daughter," and on Jones' 1998 record "Now There Is a Tree of Ghosts."

(One of the pieces he worked with was "Sea Lion Woman," a recording of two young women named Christine and Katherine Shipp in Mississippi in 1939; Nina Simone also recorded this tune, in a version that was slightly modernized and greatly extended by Masters at Work on the first "Verve Remixed" release. Another of Hale's sources was an Alan Lomax recording of "22" and Group singing "Early in the Mornin'," which he turned into "Gonna Rise and Fly." Interestingly, this same piece became "Workaholic Song" in the recent Wayne Horvitz-Tucker Martine project Mylab; it's a little surreal to contemplate how many ways the forgotten "22" has contributed to the musical achievements and reputations of other people.)

In all these instances, and the many that have followed, the basic appeal stems in part from a very simple idea: Contrast can be interesting, whether it's in the form of a vintage sound melded to a modern one, "Graceland"-era Paul Simon's Western pop melodies set against South African rhythms, checkerboard Vans, or a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.

Of course, mere contrast doesn't always work: Too much of it and old-meets-new sounds like a gimmick; too little and all you've really got is a disco version. One of the more unforgettable tracks on the original Sister Gertrude Morgan record is called "Power" (actually there are two renditions of it), which largely consists of Sister Gertrude reaching an increasingly ecstatic frenzy of repetition of that word, over and over, occasionally spiced with "send me power," or "power, Lord, power." When she takes a break for another brief sermon, she sounds so consumed with her message that she might just lose it at any moment. It's unnerving, but magical. This is the one cut where Britt doesn't get the contrast right: His cluttered, voodoo-drum mix overwhelms the vocal track. It also lasts almost eight and a half minutes.

This brings up one last point about the virtual collaboration genre: There are a lot of examples of spiritual or religious source material, but more often than not that aspect of the music is basically ignored. An exception might be made for "Help Me Somebody" and "The Jezebel Spirit" from the 1982 Brian Eno and David Byrne record "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts," which set the sermon of a New Orleans radio preacher and the insane-sounding shouts of an "unidentified exorcist" against African-inspired rhythms (perhaps anticipating this entire genre -- not to mention some of "Graceland"). But the attitude there was basically ironic, and that is not how King Britt treats Sister Gertrude. His record is scattered with a few brief (and pretty much superfluous) spoken "scenes," one of which has King Britt musing, "What I learned about religion from her is that it's not for one person and it's not one way." It's not clear how he arrived at this: Pretty much every word she sings on "Let's Make a Record" makes it clear that religion is definitely for one person (Jesus) and it is fundamentally one way (Praise Him). There's nothing New Age about Sister Gertrude.

But never mind what he says; listen to what he does. In her original "I Got the New World in My View," Morgan essentially delivers a sermon that goes on for a couple of minutes, and only the presence of her unshakable tambourine holds it together as a song until she gets back around, at some length, to the chorus. Britt's version, "New World in My View," is a slow-building trance, with what sounds like a synthesizer approximating a choir, and then, charmingly, applause and amens and other crowd noises from a conjured audience that hears and loves her words, while a piano line sneaks in to add drama. It's a transformation. It delivers Morgan from a lonely room in New Orleans over to an adoring audience; it is, perhaps, a kind of redemption. Which is, I suppose, one way of describing the whole point of the project.

By Rob Walker

Rob Walker writes the Consumed column for the New York Times Magazine and is the author of "Letters from New Orleans. Thanks to Marc "Disquiet" Weidenbaum for tips on Greg Hale Jones and Daniel Bernard Roumain.

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