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"Preacher's Hellbound Train" from Sidewalk Saints (Talking Taco Music)
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Ben Bowen King, Sidewalk Saints (Talking Taco Music) View Additional Info

Sidewalk Gospel and Roots Guitar Decoys: Ben Bowen King is the Latest "Sidewalk Saint"

It's a hot summer afternoon on the downtown streets of a Texas city in the hardscrabble years of the Great Depression. In a patch of shade on the sidewalk sits a blues musician, busking for some change with a guitar and a slide. He sits with a friend, the rhythm section, playing an old suitcase, a rub board, a bottle. You may catch a few bars of a risqué blues song, only to hear him switch mid-tune to a devout hymn as a pious storeowner or policeman strolls by. Or he may be one of the many sidewalk preachers ministering to passersby with a unique mix inspired by Delta blues guitar, Appalachian banjo, and early jazz rhythms.

You just passed a "sidewalk saint", a common figure in the early 20th-century Midwest and South but little more than a folk music footnote today. That is, until Texan guitarist Ben Bowen King decided to revisit the repertoire of these nimble traditional guitarists, as part of the recent "roots gospel" revival. The movement seeks to return the sounds of soulful worship to their source: the good old hymns heard at country chapels, church socials, and Sunday picnics, once the bedrock of American communities. The joyous sounds of this American legacy can be heard on Ben Bowen King's latest recording, Sidewalk Saints: Roots Gospel Guitar (Talking Taco Music).

Sidewalk saints came in various stripes. Stories abound about Texas bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson who asked friends to keep a lookout so he could switch from blues double entendres to the God-fearing strains of a gospel hymn when church-going folk were in earshot. Other sidewalk saints like Willie Johnson used the pavement as their pulpits and played only gospel. Still others were early country musicians like banjo virtuoso Dock Boggs, who would often turn to sidewalk gospel playing in North Carolina towns to earn gas money.

Musical street preachers came up with clever ways to get their message across while saving their voices during hours on the sidewalk, turning gospel songs into innovative instrumentals and six-string sermons, illustrating the world's temptations and perils. A quick wit for improvisation and an ability to draw on diverse traditions grew out of these unique circumstances and powerfully capture the spirit of American music making.

The resonator guitar, with its brass body and internal vibrating "speakers", was the ideal instrument for a sidewalk gospel musician. It was several times louder than a traditional guitar, perfect for rising above the din of the city. The saints took full advantage of the resonator's distinctive tone and favored banjo-inspired tuning. "This non-traditional 'G tuning' was often called 'preacher tuning'," King explains, "because the ringing sound it produced was ideal for leading a congregation or bringing the good news to the streets."

The slide has a longer, more exotic history, stretching back to 19th-century Hawaii, where, legend has it, an Indian sailor impressed locals by running an ivory comb along a guitar's strings in hopes of recreating the unfretted sound of Indian instruments. From there, the technique jumped to the mainland at the turn of the 20th century, when Hawaiian guitarists played at the St. Louis World's Fair and then on early phonograph records. By the 1910s, blues players in the Deep South had mastered slide guitar, and the rest is history.

By the end of World War II, sidewalk saints were history, too. King, a native of Austin, grew up hearing stories from his father and grandfather about the "saints" who used to play along Congress Avenue, the city's main drag. "Throughout the South, the sidewalk saints were done in by new city ordinances aimed at keeping the sidewalks clean and easy to navigate for potential shoppers." King notes. "Store owners were quick to back these laws, thinking they would lead to increased business. Ironically, just the opposite happened in many downtown areas: They lacked the sidewalk saints, corner preachers, card sharks, and vendors -- and people went elsewhere to do their shopping."

King's musical career began in his teens when he would lie about his age to get gigs at biker and blues joints in the bar district on Austin's notorious Red River Street. "Back then, I played at the One Knite, which featured a coffin as the front door and complementary interior design. It's now the famous Stubbï's bar and concert hall, a mainstay of the hipster South by Southwest scene," King recalls. He later became deeply fascinated by Texas traditions, recording three albums of Tex-Mex music, as well as jazz, and eventually founding his own label.

Though King is passionate about the Lone Star State's many musics, he has long felt a special affinity for the sidewalk saints. "As a fifth-generation Texan, I grew up hearing stories about various aspects of Southern folklore like the blues, but I was particularly drawn to the music of the sidewalk saints because of the 'message' of the music. While most typical blues songs are about the usual cheating, drinking, and so on, the sidewalk saint took the same musical elements and transformed them into music that has so much more to do with faith and renewal."

King pursued his interest by listening to the "greats," musicians like the Rev. Blind Willie Johnson and Rev. Gary Davis, whose works were passed down to later generations via recordings. Yet King began to think about all the other unknown and unsung "saints" and ask himself "What did this music really sound like on a busy street corner, and what would the musicians have done to attract attention and get their message across to passersby? My thinking is that they would have made it relevant to the music of the day, which was everything from blues, jazz, and early country to church music," King comments.

While reviving the forgotten music of the "saints," King also discovered the fascinating past of America's beloved gospel songs. "I've encountered many raised eyebrows when I announced traditional hymns like 'In the Sweet By & By' or 'Amazing Grace' and then proceeded to play them in the sidewalk saint style, complete with blue notes, slides and syncopated rhythms," King recounts. "The sidewalk saint style is just one of many variations these hymns have undergone, and people are amazed when they find out that 'Amazing Grace,' for example, was written by a back-sliding, slave-trading sailor."

Other gospel hymns featured on Sidewalk Saints have equally intriguing histories. "In the Sweet By & By" was written by a concerned Wisconsin pharmacist and his depressed friend, who took the pharmacist's words of comfort and created this moving hymn in about half an hour. "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" came into the world far from the hills of Appalachia and the land of the Carter Family, and was composed by a prim British Bible scholar. "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" came into the American song canon thanks to the Fisk Jubilee Singers, whose performance of this traditional gospel song in Brooklyn in 1874 inspired the congregation to turn out their pockets in a gesture of pious giving that captured the nation's interest and resulted in a worldwide tour for the group.

Another instrumental of note on Sidewalk Saints is "Preacher's Hellbound Train." King describes this six-string sermon's tale of hard-partying souls' trip toward damnation: "The tune starts with the sound of a pick scraped across the resonator guitar grate to sound like a train. Later, as the train picks up steam, you hear a medley of juke joint tunes, and predictably, the song descends into the depths of Hades and cacophony as passengers receive their just rewards for drinking gin and dancing the hoochie coo."

Such musical object lessons are overshadowed by the beauty of the sidewalk saints style and King's take on gospel gems, complete with the "gospel moans" -- improvised vocalizations popular starting in the 1930s, provided by singer Covita Moroney. These songs of praise stand out in stark contrast to today's slick musical commodities produced for megachurch consumption and hearken back to a past of sidewalk piety and Sunday socials. "King is able to use his roots gospel guitar to 'preach' and 'wail in soulful beauty,' transporting you back to a lost chapter in American music," as a reviewer for Southern Soul & Blues Review put it.

This soulful beauty has quietly made its mark on the blues community, though Sidewalk Saints departs from the territory traveled by many of the popular blues and Americana releases out today. Coming out of left field, King's slide gospel is now appearing on blogs and on radio charts, gradually gaining converts like the pavement preachers to whom he pays tribute. Sidewalk Saints has also been embraced by "church folk," listeners who hunger for old-time religious melodies in a market awash with pop-oriented "praise and worship" music.

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Sidewalk Gospel and Roots Guitar Decoys: Ben Bowen King is the ...
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