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First Listen: 'When I Reach That Heavenly Shore: Unearthly Black Gospel 1926-1936'

African-Americans on their way to church.
Courtesy of the artist
African-Americans on their way to church.

In the history of American popular music, gospel is the great conveyor. People could hear it everywhere as the 20th century grew from infancy to adolescence: in churches, of course, but also on street corners, sung by wanderers whose guitar work and moaning vocals arose in dialogue with the blues; in factories and mines, where harmonizing quartets provided balm to frustrated workers; on the radio, where preachers and singers performed live to thousands of listeners; and through the new medium of recordings, which turned regional styles into national trends. Virtually every label that sold African-American music in the 1920s had a healthy roster of gospel stars, and those men and women of God were innovators intertwining jazz improvisation, religious call and response, the melodicism of sentimental song and the rhythms of the African diaspora. These gifted performers laid the groundwork for rock 'n' roll.

Today, however, gospel is too often relegated to a holy corner, treasured by believers and attracting some curious collectors but generally unacknowledged as the central source it is. That's why carefully remastered, meticulously presented boxed sets like When I Reach That Heavenly Shore: Unearthly Black Gospel 1926-1936 are so important. At first, such collections might seem merely novel — a bunch of dusty stuff communicating ideas within a framework so antiquated, the music has come to seem mystical. But spend real time with this collection, and you'll discover humor, craft, cleverness, profundity and an open-eyed connection to the culture of the time. Come for that unearthly vibe, but dive in deep to find something beautifully human.

The 42 tracks on this compilation come from the private stash of Christopher King, a revered, Grammy-winning collector, engineer and record producer whose restoration work has shed brilliant light on a wide range of prewar music, from the blues of Charley Patton to Greek folk violin to Third Man Records' famed Paramount project. Unearthly Gospel has the intimate feel of a passion project — King's liner notes mostly consist of quotes taken from his father's 1939 copy of the King James Bible. Initiates will recognize some tracks and many of the featured artists (much has been reissued by the British label Document and thrown up on YouTube by aficionados over the years), but the material has never been available in the U.S. in such pristine and well-curated form. In his notes, King observes that "the most powerful music ... has an effect that is both ineffable and carnal," and in striving for that balance here, he has created a historical soundscape full of interconnected details.

There is "I'll Be Rested When the Roll Is Called," by the guitarist Roosevelt Graves and his tambourine-virtuoso brother Uaroy — a rolling dance tune that some have praised as the first rock 'n' roll record. "Canaan's Land" by the evangelist Blind Gussie Nesbit presages the rough and mighty sound of midcentury Chicago blues. Ensembles like the Primitive Baptist Choir of North Carolina and the Laurel (Mississippi) Fireman's Quartette show the influence of vocal group styles from shape note singing to the barbershop. The proto-psychedelic East Texas preacher Washington Phillips is represented by a sermon, "Train Your Child," that leads into a lovely reverie he plays on the zither-like instrument he modified himself. Henry Thomas, a titan of Texas blues, is a vibrant presence on the jaunty, almost Caribbean-flavored "Jonah in the Wilderness," while Chicago's all-around talent Mother McCollum earns four tracks, with and without her Sanctified Singers.

Scattered among these amalgamators of pop, folkways and divine fervor are the preachers whose charisma and literary chops had such an impact on the church communities of this era. None is more regal than the Rev. A.W. Nix, who has two sermons here; but the blues-obsessed Rev. Emmett Dickinson is racier in "What the Men Wanted the Women Was Sitting On," and as far as inventiveness goes, it's hard to beat the Rev. J.M. Gates, who may have coined the popular midcentury phrase "there's a dead cat on the line" to describe a child who, perhaps because of a woman's adultery, doesn't resemble his father. (Listen to the sermon to appreciate his full analogy.) Invoking the news of the day, these preachers provided the glue that made biblical lessons stick in the contemporary moment, and their offerings are both highly entertaining and intellectually rich.

From the hard bench warmed by these discourses to the teeming sidewalks where gospel guitarists had to be flashy to gain souls' attention, King traces the wildly vibrant outlines of a moving stage where gospel told the African-American story. The sound of Unearthly Gospel does sometimes seem supernatural, bringing these long-buried voices so richly to life. But most of all, the music here speaks deeply of the world where it first came to life — a world every music lover needs to understand in order to really grasp how today's sounds eventually took hold.

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Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.