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The Cotton Top Mountain Sanctified Singers may not enjoy much name recognition, but the group is beloved by at least one subset of music aficionados—the regular audience of The Dick Spottswood Show, WAMU’s two-hour, Sunday-afternoon sampling of vintage American music.
“Christ Was Born on Christmas Morn,” the group’s exuberant and jazzy 1929 cut (“proto-rock ’ n’ roll” that “hits heavy on the backbeat,” as host and music scholar Spottswood describes it) has been a staple of the program’s Christmas-season broadcasts for years.
“Of all the things that I have ever introduced on my program…that one has been a far-and-away favorite,” Spottswood says. Since the track was “on a phenomenally scarce 1929 Brunswick 78 disc,” it had long been in the back of his mind to arrange a reissue. “Every year I[’d] think, Gee, I forgot. Next year let’s do that.”
“Next year” came in 2001. Lance Ledbetter, head of Atlanta-based record label Dust-to-Digital, had been scanning the Internet for songs he hoped to include in a gospel collection. “[A] lot of them started popping up on Dick Spottswood’s playlist,” he recalls. He contacted the collector, and the two clicked.
In late 2003, the two began collaborating on a six-disc collection of gospel music and sermons, Goodbye, Babylon, which was released to critical acclaim that year. Soon after, they began assembling the two dozen Christmas-themed tracks that became Where Will You Be Christmas Day?, released in October.
“[The collection is] my old Christmas playlist,” Spottswood, who’s hosted his program since 1985, says. “And it hasn’t changed that much in 20 years, ’cause that stuff was old then.”
The collection offers an alternative to standard Christmas compilations teeming with the likes of “White Christmas.” “I don’t know about you, but I’m up to here with ‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,’” Spottswood says.
With tracks recorded between 1917 and 1959, Where Will You Be Christmas Day? mixes secular and sacred Christmas music of widely varied styles: Blues legend Leroy Carr answers the album’s titular question on Track 18 (“Christmas In Jail—Ain’t That a Pain”); Fiddlin’ John Carson and His Virginia Reelers offer a shot of Yuletide bluegrass with “Christmas Time Will Soon Be Over”; Italian bagpipes lend a wistful air to Pasquale Feis’ “Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle (Pastorale Di Natale)”; and Lord Beginner’s “Christmas Morning the Rum Had Me Yawning,” recorded in Trinidad, offers a calypso-themed Noel. The artists are similarly varied, mixing legends—Carr, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Bessie Smith—with more obscure performers such as the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers.
The eclectic results reflect Spottswood’s interest in music recorded between the wars—particularly the ’20s, when, he says, a still-young recording industry captured a “wonderful, kaleidoscopic melange” of sounds from around the world and wasn’t yet preoccupied with trying to smooth them out for mainstream palatability.
“It’s one delightful surprise after another….Nobody was even thinking about homogenizing all that music in those days,” he says. “It came rapidly enough, but it was nice while it lasted.”
And it will last a little longer: Where Will You Be Christmas Day? is just the first in a projected series of Dust-to-Digital compilations culled from Spottswood’s broadcasts. Next in line is a set of maternal tunes for Mother’s Day, which the label plans to release next year. According to Ledbetter, collections of music appropriate to Labor Day or the Fourth of July are future possibilities as well.
“We’re probably going to do, like, one a year,” Ledbetter says, “and just keep going till we run out of holidays.”