Reviewed by Nigel Harris
Rev A W Nix never matched the success of his 1927 recording 'Black Diamond Express To Hell, Parts I and II' but his record company Vocalion made these further recordings between 1928 and 1930 before apparently dropping him. His declining popularity is evidenced by the fact that 13 tracks recorded between 1929 and 1931 have never been located, so Document Records have dropped the 'Complete Works' title for this second CD release. Each sermon runs to about three minutes, the average duration of a 78 rpm record, and features the preacher with a small but very vocal congregation. Although this is essentially an album of the spoken word, Nix's fiery delivery becomes almost a solo blues performance after the first few seconds, the rhythmic phrasing and repetitions creating a surprising musicality which more than one music historian has suggested was the birth of hip-hop. Contrary to what you might expect, neither Nix nor Rev Emmett Dickinson (whose sides are also compiled here) spend much time preaching from the Bible. In fact, few of these 21 sermons make any direct reference at all to Scripture. The preacher introduces his theme - "Love Is A Thing Of The Past", "Pay Your Honest Debts", or "Sleeping In A Dangerous Time" - and then lets the congregation have it with both barrels. Immorality, dishonesty, gossip, modern fashions, etc are all decried in graphic terms. Nix was not a man to even let up at holiday times, so his Christmas 1929 sermon was the gritty "This Little Thing (ie, sin) May Kill You Yet"! Nix took the theme for several sermons from the titles of popular blues songs (curiously, selecting titles released on the same Vocalion label), including "It Was Tight Like That" and "How Long - How Long", which gives him an opportunity to repeat these titles frequently as a sort of refrain. It may be that he was encouraged to use them as a marketing ploy to attract audiences. Another diversion he tried in 1930 was to bring in singer-actress Nina Mae McKinney to contribute some, clearly scripted, congregational responses and well placed interjections. Among these tracks are some humorous moments which may or may not have been intentional. Too little is known of these recordings to be sure that they were completely serious. For example, in the Easter sermon "Who Dressed You Up For Easter?" Nix holds forth on the theme that everyone should have a hot bath and dress up in their best clothes on Easter day (because that was the day the Lord made all things new). As he commends the smart clothes his congregation are wearing one woman answers that he paid for her fine new clothes, and she didn't care who knew! He admonishes her for "joking" in front of the congregation (and his wife) and swiftly moves on. During Dickinson's "Things That Don't Concern You", which seems to be more of a three minute personal rant against his congregation than a spiritual message, you can clearly hear one of the deacons continuously calling out for a "whiskey bottle" in the background. This is a fascinating glimpse of black American church preaching in the 1920s and 1930s and Document Records have done an excellent job in cleaning up and preserving these old 78 records for posterity.
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