Ben Bowen King,
Sidewalk Saints: Roots Gospel Guitar
(Talking Taco, 2007)

There is a rich history and backstory to the "sidewalk saints" that most people may not think about or even know. According to the album jacket notes, it's a history as complex and myriad as the performers themselves probably were, be it sinful blues players who would switch to gospel to stay out of trouble or earnest evangelists sharing a message less with their mouth and more with their music.

And message-through-music is what this album is all about. There are plenty of familiar favorites, such as the Carter Family's "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and gospel mainstays like "Amazing Grace," "Shall We Gather at the River," "Blessed Be the Name," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and even the campfire darling "Michael Row the Boat Ashore." And this familiarity is enforced by a seemingly simplistic instrumental presentation: just notes, no words.

Note "seemingly," the key qualifier. As simple as the songs may seem, there's a plethora of instruments that are hidden behind this veil of simplicity. Ben Bowen King performs on a resonator/slide guitar, harmonica, jaw bow and one-string fiddle. He's accompanied by Covita Moroney on all kinds of percussion instruments (Coke bottle, kitchen spoons, suitcase, bass drum, tambourine, Amen corner, bass guitar and Salvation Army cymbals) as well as vocals. Well, the "vocals" aren't really vocals, per se. Moroney utilizes a vocal style referred to as "the moan," or more specifically, the "Baptist moan." This sound originates from early 20th-century African-American Baptist Churches, in which choirs or soloists would react, answer or further emphasize particular melodies with their own voice. This "vocal style" acts more like an accompanying background instrument, accentuating the solemn or reflective mood of a tune.

The difficult thing in reviewing an album like this is that one could continue to emphasize particular elements of the album that contribute to its success. However, in the case of Sidewalk Saints, it's not so much the individual aspects (e.g. the intricacies of each performance of each instrument or even one particular track over another), as much as it's the experiential aspect of the whole album. The simplicity of King's presentation leads to not just an enjoyment of this particular historical musical era, but an aural engulfment.

This album will certainly take you back to the time of sidewalk saints, regardless of your age. Just imagine a walk downtown and hearing such wonderful music. With all the new urbanist and eco-friendly planning going into downtown revitalization across America, wouldn't it be wonderful to see sidewalk saints return to downtown America as well?

review by
C. Nathan Coyle

29 December 2007

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