Sorry, gang, but in an unprecedented development here on Fingertips, a song I linked to that was originally identified without question as a free and legal MP3 turns out not to have been a free and legal MP3. The record label (we're dealing of course with a big record label) was shocked--shocked--to find out that the company they hired to help market the album, a company well known for using free and legal MP3s with every artist they promote, was in fact planning to use an MP3 and not just a stream. So down it goes. And a Keith O.-style "worst person in the world" award goes out this week to Nonesuch Records and their lovely parent, Warner Brothers. Pleasure to do business with you.
Another rich slice of idiosyncratic marvelousness from Sam Phillips, "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us" uses the real-life 20th-century gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (one of the first to make a career singing secular music) as a jumping-off point for an evocative song about love and loss and the latent power of the self, particularly when challenged. One of Sister Rosetta's bigger hits was the song "Strange Things Happening Everyday"; Phillips begins her song with the line "Strange things are happening everyday" (and ah! that somewhat odd and bewitching voice of hers!) and takes us from there on a strange journey herself. The jaunty melody sounds like something from the '30s, a bygone aura enhanced by the use of a Stroh violin (as played by Eric Gorfain), an early 20th-century contraption that has strings and a bow but uses a metal horn rather than a wooden body to amplify its oddly clarinet-ish sound.
It was on her 2001 album Fan Dance and then, more thoroughly, on 2004's A Boot and a Shoe that Phillips first explored this old-fashioned musical landscape, although never succumbing to mere nostalgia. That's really what has made the music so compelling, I think: she takes sounds from the '20s and '30s and gives them currency and vigor through the quality of the musicianship, the allure of her smoky-buzzy voice, and the casual brilliance of her songwriting. Listen to the ease with which "Sister Rosetta"'s melody uses so many different notes in the scale, but listen too to how focused and down-to-earth her language is. "Though the sound of hope has left me again/I hear music up above:" fourteen words for just seventeen syllables, and all three two-syllable words have only five letters; and see how she yet hints at the ineffable core of life itself.
"Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us" was first recorded by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant on their 2007 CD Raising Sand; it's sort of like Phillips covers her own song, since her version came second, showing up on Don't Do Anything, which she released earlier this year on Nonesuch Records.