Rediscovered: an occasional aria on some forgotten favorite

The Happy Goodmans, “I Hold a Clear Title.” The Goodmans occupy a seminal place in sg, in large part because they popularized a particular kind of run-and-gun performance style that stands in such stark contrast to the polished reliability of groups like The Statesmen or the Blackwoods or Blue Ridge (for a textbook example of Goodmania, see the live recording the Goodmans did yeas ago at the Civic Center Coliseum in Huntsville, Alabama, re-released in the 90s by Crown Music). The Goodmans were very uneven performers - an unavoidable byproduct of their rode-hard-put-away-wet brand of singing. But when they were on, they were spectacular: Rusty Goodman, especially, could bring a prison full of reprobates to redemption in a single performance of “Had It Not Been.” In my favorite live recording of the song, a high, sweet fiddle line comes in on the second verse, accompanying Rusty’s plaintive voice with indescribable beauty. All the more beautiful, I think, because the Goodmans were often such unlovely singers (for instance, the ending of “When Morning Sweeps the Eastern Sky” on the Huntsville recording is a horrendous, careening affair during which, among the four of them, they sing - I swear - every tone in the scale). The speed with which the Goodmans could go from howl to hallelujah is jarring, like whiplash. And the best of the hallelujah performances may well be “I Hold a Clear Title.” One of the finest recordings of the song is on an early Gaither Homecoming project, Landmark III: Remembering Where God Has Met Us. This was before Gaither Homecomings became highly manicured things of coiffed perfection. And in this recording, God indeed meets us, clear title in hand. Vestal Goodman’s voice was not sweet or subtle, but it was very powerful, and even well into old age she was able to wring a great deal of pathos out of single words, as in “the daaaauuyyyy Jesus saved me fuhhhruuuhm sin,” or “when from this life here, I CEASE-UH to roam” - words and phrases that accrue a great deal of emotive force from Vestal’s emphatic and highly stylized delivery. And especially in their later years, Howard and Vestal perfected a style of attack on lyrics that was present in the early days but not nearly as pronounced as it became: words like “title” or “murmur” or “price” play out little dramas with emotional arcs, with peaks and troughs of intensity unfolded in the space of a few syllables. Michael English sings with them on this recording, expertly bridging phrases with little ornaments like the “ohhhh” he sings in between the words “repair” and “the termites.” But the song’s real center is the move from Vestal’s second verse to the chorus: the piano starts punching up the intensity as Vestal stamps out the verse’s closing image: “waiting” [piano punch], “Jesus” [punch], “call me” [punch], “lay down” [punch], “cross” [punch], “goin’ home” [punch punch punch]. The bass runs up to meet the drums as the piano lands on the tonic of the chord. English gives out one of those little phrase-bridging vocals (this time a cross between “yeah” and “ohh”), at first at a distance from the microphone, then more closely as the word morphs into the “I” of “I hold a clear title …” Howard joins in, a rim-shot rings out, and the crowd explodes as the chorus opens up and the Goodmans call fire down from the sky.

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