Swing Low Sweet Chariot

The Staple Singers

2000: Rhino/Collectables COL-CD-7132
(originally released in 1963 as Vee-Jay 5030)

  1. I’m So Glad
  2. Swing Down Chariot
  3. The Old Landmark
  4. Good News
  5. Each Day
  6. Uncloudy Day
  7. Let’s Go Home
  8. Pray On
  9. Help Me Jesus
  10. Going Away
  11. Don’t Knock
  12. Swing Low Sweet Chariot

Searching for another recording of “The Old Landmark” to put James Brown’s blisteringly fast & hot rendition on the Blues Brothers soundtrack into perspective, I saw this album online somewhere and bought a copy. When I started listening to the album I didn’t simply jump to that track, of course, and if I had I might not have been so immediately smitten with it; I played it from the beginning, and from those first couple of bars of down-and-dirty electric guitar twang I was sitting up, eyebrows arched, fully on alert for what was to come.

And come it did. That vocal performance on “I’m So Glad” was an eye-opener, alright: both tight and loose, using three or four distinctive voices in an unlikely but fascinating arrangement that bops along over hot and cool tones and ends far too soon. The Staple Singers curve around and into their chords on “Swing Down Chariot” and howl those near-dissonances from dangerous to liberating, and when the track morphs into “Bound For Higher Ground” the major chords only nominally get control, the vocals still sliding around it like tentacles of some octopus doing Shiva’s dance (or a hypnotist act).

“The Old Landmark” doesn’t hold a candle to James Brown’s version, but at least here I can hear the lyrics (for the most part); “Good News” sounds more Memphis than Mississippi, but it’s awfully well presented, the backup singing providing a lovely lonesome-train-whistle ambiance to the proceedings. “Each Day” is the kind of arrangement that could clearly turn into a rollicking bring-the-house-down session in a sufficiently revved-up church, and this sounds like the backstage runthrough of that, just covering the elements and general tempo: with only a simple guitar base under them, their voices are far more powerful than they would seem to need to be for such an intimate arrangement.

Of the remaining tracks, before the final one anyway, there’s not much more I could add…the pleasant shock of the initial impressions recedes into general expectation that things will continue to be that yummy, and the rest of the album certainly doesn’t disappoint in that. There is one thing, though, which makes for an uneven listen overall, and that is that many tracks begin after the song has already been started, so we suddenly jump into action (the opening track, for example, on which that adds to the surprise of the group’s sound).

“Help Me Jesus” does segue into The Lord’s Prayer, albeit not a conventional version, and Mavis Staples’s voice gets a showcasing and workout; her amazing and deep voice is justly remarked upon by many people who hear the Staples Singers, but “Papa” Staples has a similarly quirky but higher voice that often leads the songs, and the collective effect of all the voices is, as the saying goes, greater than the sum of its parts.

The album’s closing track, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” made me do a true double-take and wonder what went wrong with the recording equipment while they were in the studio for this album: everything seems to have been slowed down by about a third. But that’s really how they were playing it, and it is AMAZING to hear: the song becomes a dirge, almost, and the strange shifting harmonies they’ve used throughout the album as grace notes at higher speeds become here more bizarre as separate voices. It kind of makes me picture this as a Judgement Day scenario, as the Dead rise from their coffins, only there doesn’t seem to be any bright herald up there urging them on….