The Voices of Panola, Co, Mississippi – Como Now
When I first learned about the Como Now album and its goal of recording the acapella gospel singers of Panola County, Mississippi, I immediately thought, “The ghost of Alan Lomax must be smiling upon this endeavor.” Unbeknownst to me, the legendary folklorist and musicologist had actually made multiple trips to Como in the 1940s and 1950s, recording the locals and their unique penchant for acapella singing. Apparently, due to a lack of funds, the churches in Panola County could not afford instruments for many years, forcing unaccompanied singing to take root in the community and becoming a staple of Sunday services, so much so that nearly everyone in the area grows up learning to sing and sing with confidence.
I’ve long been a proponent of Daptone Records and their uncanny ability to produce work that recreates a vintage soul sound with incredible authenticity. After success backing Amy Winehouse on her smash-hit Back To Black, finding their bands and work utilized by Kanye West and Jay-Z, and receiving much-deserved critical acclaim for signature act Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings’ latest album, 100 Days, 100 Nights, producing an album of acapella gospel music seems like a bit of a departure for the retro soul and funk label from the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. However, Daptone impresario Gabriel Roth disagree and states, “Though I’ve been into soul music for a very long time, it has only been in the past few years that I really got deeper into gospel musicand the line from soul to gospel eventually became much clearer to me. Less of an academic lineage than a visceral feeling that I started to get from listening to old records by the Soul Stirrers and the Highway Q.C.’s. Dorothy Love Coates, the Mighty Pilgrim Travelers, The Blind Boys, The Violinaires. They were the same sounds, the same feeling, as I got listening to James Brown, Tina Turner, Lee Fields when they were really wailing. Otis Redding when he was really pleading. Al Green when he was really moaning. Sounds that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. The recordings (producer Michael Reilly) played me gave me the same feeling.” Such a bold statement caused me to raise a dissenting eyebrow, but after repeated listens, one can hear a definite 1960s soul vibe in The John Edwards Singers’ “It’s Alright” and “New Burying Ground,” Como Mamas featuring Mary Moore’s “Trouble In My Way,” “God’s Unchanging Hand,” and “Send Me I’ll Go,” among other tracks. After all, rhythm and blues music was born when artists, such as Mississippi’s own Sam Cooke, ramped up the tempo while fusing gospel with the blues tradition, and you can hear the roots of that invention on this recording.
From a practical perspective, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to repeatedly listen to an album of acapella gospel music. At a certain point, one begins to yearn for an uplifting rhythm section that is often so vital to the gospel genre, and it would have been fascinating to hear what the Dap-Kings could have laid down against these fine vocal tracks recorded at Mt. Mariah Church on July 22nd, 2006. However, such a notion would be straying from the purity of these songs, and the beauty of Como Now is found in the passionate and inspired performances of these local residents who are merely delivering their words of praise and desperate pleas to their savior. The simplicity and clarity of these recordings is absolutely vital to this music, and while this album is not something that can be played at any time of day on any day of the week, after multiple listens, it does grow on you and provides a powerful and moving statement from a small corner of the country that certainly feels the spirit.