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Rev. Edward W. Clayborn (1926-1928)

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Album Review

Whereas Blind Joe Taggart was technically the first "guitar evangelist" to cut phonograph records, he only beat Rev. Edward W. Clayborn to the Vocalion recording studio by one month, and on his records, Clayborn was billed as "the Guitar Evangelist". First released in 1994, the Document label's 27-track Clayborn edition demonstrates a much more uniform and strongly focused body of work than Taggart's piecemeal legacy, which is believed to include a small number of worldly blues recordings. The two men sang in a somewhat similar manner, although closer comparisons for Clayborn would be Henry Thomas (on his 1927 "Jonah in the Wilderness") and especially Blind Willie Johnson, although Clayborn applied his slide to the neck of his guitar much more lightly than Johnson. Clayborn's repetitive guitar plucking has been described as "hypnotic," and that word is entirely accurate, for this is an important element in his powerfully transformational art. With the exception of "Death Is Only a Dream," which is a waltz in 3/4 time, his basslines are steady, two-tone alternations which, when listened to in uninterrupted sequence, represent intimate rituals of the most direct and honest sort. Another important parallel exists, and that is with indigenous North American drumming which has more to do with straightforward repetition of tones than with the polyrhythmic traditions of Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. As he imparts moral advice and reassuring spiritual observations, Clayborn's gently insistent voice and incessant ostinato accompaniment are a fascinating combination, and impressionable listeners may get won over for keeps by the man's sincerity and the understated power of his mode of expression. It would be foolish and unfair to evaluate these recordings by entertainment-based standards, and any assessment of their true cultural value needs to stem from a respectful awareness of the spirituality and utterly unpretentious human feelings expressed therein. In 2005, JSP wove Clayborn's works throughout the first half of their four-CD box set Blind Willie Johnson & the Guitar Evangelists. That approach makes for good listening, but in a very real way Document's unflinching presentation of 27 consecutive Clayborn recordings may still be the best way to utterly divest oneself of preconceptions about how vintage African-American sacred music is supposed to sound. For those who are willing to meet Clayborn on his own terms, this disc may be richly savored as a mystic oratorio in 27 movements.


Genre: Blues

Years Active: '20s, '30s

Rev. Edward W. Clayborn (he is often listed as just Edward Clayborn, with the surname sometimes spelled Clayburn or Claeburn) billed himself as "the Guitar Evangelist," and indeed he was, singing a kind of blues gospel not unlike the work of the better known Blind Willie Johnson. A brilliant guitarist...
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Rev. Edward W. Clayborn (1926-1928), Rev. Edward W. Clayborn
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