I’ve often joked that nothing good ever happens in songs set by a river. Seriously. You go down to the river, and the next thing you know innocents are being deflowered, or someone’s getting shot (Neil Young’s “Down by the River”) or bludgeoned with a rock (Nick Cave’s “Where the Wild Roses Grow”), or a dead body is being disposed of (Jim White’s “The Wound That Never Heals”). Joni Mitchell’s “River” makes celebrating Christmas sound like as much fun as eating cold porridge.
But there is a whole other subset of river songs (a tributary, if you will) that radiate joy and ecstasy: “Take Me To the River,” “Wade In the Water.” And you’ll find a slew them in the CD tucked in back of the new book Take Me To The Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography 1890 - 1950. These vintage country and gospel sides are full of singing and shouting and sermonizing, the sound of the spirit moving through the Carter Family, the mysterious Washington Phillips, and 23 additional souls of righteousness.
Published by Dust-to-Digital, the musical archivists responsible for the Grammy-nominated Goodbye Babylon box set, Take Me To The Water showcases photographs from the collection of Jim Linderman. In the introduction, he writes of collecting these fragile artifacts with a passion that recalls roots music aficionado Joe Bussard and the documentary Desperate Man Blues. Yet that enthusiasm pales compared to the raw, unvarnished emotion that leaps out from these tattered and torn, sepia-toned images.
These are not tots being lightly drizzled with holy water from a font by some kindly parson, but rather congregations of full-grown adults -- often attired in their Sunday best -- washing their sins away in the depths of lakes, swimming holes and, yes, rivers. You want to talk about faith? About truly wanting salvation? In two different pictures, folks are getting dunked in bodies of water that are frozen over; the ice has been chopped through to make a baptismal pool.
As Luc Sante observes in his opening essay, “Whether you have ever actually experienced a baptism or not, where you are a believer or not, these pictures and the music that accompanies them transmit all the emotional information: The excitement and the serenity, the fellowship and the warmth, the winds and the water.” Amen, brother. Whatever your beliefs, you’d have to be made of ice yourself not to be moved by the spirit coursing through the images and music of Take Me To The Water.
DJ El Toro is the host of the overnight show In Between Sleep & Reason, Wednesday mornings from 1 AM to 6 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and kexp.org. His column, Weird At My School, appears every Monday on the KEXP Blog. You can now follow DJ El Toro on Twitter!