Reviewed by Johan Palme on 10th December, 2017
The folk movement has always had an interesting influence on Christmas music. Not least, its claim to somehow know what’s genuine – that it should be acoustic, traditional, without influence from recorded music – has spread into Christmas recordings, that often more than anything desire realness. Producers of big, contrived, intricately arranged Hollywood bombast, very much the opposite of the folk movement’s supposedly primitive and authentic field recordings, would nevertheless use their full arsenal tricks to make their records sound just that little bit simple and folksy.
Of course, by the late seventies, the folk movement wasn’t holding up very well any more. The idea that there was any music in the US, anywhere, that was completely uninfluenced by recorded music was silly. Music was mediated, whether the moguls on the Upper West Side liked it or not. So you’d have groups creating new material in a previous style (inevitably, and ironically, recorded), roots-hungry ethnomusicologists would head out into different parts of the world. And then you’d have records like this gem of a gospel Christmas album, still a field recording, but in a totally different ball park.
I guess being unable to help themselves, in the liner notes the record company still talks about “the complete history of black american music” being the driving force. But this is anything but roots music. Becky Carlton, playing an utterly electric Hammond organ, was a studio musician for many years, deeply immersed in funk and theatre music. Rev. Bronson was a university lecturer in Psychology. (It shows.)
If anything, the magnificent gospel music they make together is innovative and grand. Half-improvised, half-full of separated pieces of gospel memes, this is a sophisticated way of making music in the extreme. And with its culmination, a 30-plus-minute rhymed sermon that slowly builds up into a crescendo of spiritual power, it’s probably more real than any supposed roots recording.