A new book, I Got Two Wings, released last month, chronicles the life of Elder Utah Smith, a Southern evangelical pastor electric-guitar pioneer who came onto the tent-revival scene during roughly the same period as fellow Church Of God In Christ axe-slinger Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Although the music that Smith played in the 1940s was undeniably gospel, it's a predecessor to early rock n' roll.
His music and life story are captured amazingly well in this new book/CD format compiled by Lynn Abbott, who has a lot of experience writing about popular forms of black music from the early part of the 20th century.
After the jump, read a review of I Got Two Wings by New York-based music writer Saby Reyes-Kulkarni.
The Elder Of The Electric New book/CD package examines the life and music of electric guitar wiz Elder Utah Smith.
New book/CD package examines the life and music of electric guitar wiz Elder Utah Smith.
With the entire world awash in the sound of the electric guitar these days, it's easy to lose perspective on the impact the instrument had -- and can still have -- in settings where people haven't been previously accustomed to hearing it. In the early 1940s, when traveling evangelical tent preacher Elder Utah Smith is estimated to have first brandished an electric in his sermons, the instrument had yet to captivate the heart of the nation and culture at large. So, while Smith pioneered its use within the Christian milieu, he was also pioneering its use overall.
The CD portion of I Got Two Wings, the handsome new cd/book package released by Alabama-based sacred music specialty label CaseQuarter, begins with a fiery guitar lick that, even without the benefit of being able to listen in its original context, still conveys Utah Smith's nerve and power as a shredder. A booming presence both vocally and instrumentally as well as physically, Smith started out on the harmonica, moved to steel guitar, then to a wooden "box" guitar, and eventually the electric, according to his daughter Lula. Another daughter goes as far as to propose that her father was the first black man to ever so much as own an electric.
Pinpointing Smith's exact position along the timeline of the electric guitar's development is tricky, but three things are clear today, thanks to music scholar Lynn Abbott, who authors the biography that comprises the bulk of I Got Two Wings: Smith was one of the instrument's earliest proponents, and he pre-dated rock and roll. He also had abundant stage presence. Over 109 pages of breezy, engaging text, Abbott recovers Smith's history via personal anecdotes and newspaper accounts. (Hence the book's subtitle, Incidents and Anecdotes of the Two-Winged Preacher and Electric Guitar Evangelist Elder Utah Smith.)
While one might be tempted to check out this release based on historical curiosity, Smith's performance style doesn't lend itself to mere academic consideration. The CD consecrates Smith as an essential artist rather than just an important one. Meanwhile, Abbott does a fine job of preventing the text from getting dry. After all, we're talking about a man who, donning a pair of wings on his back, would make an entrance by running down the aisle and leaping ten feet into the air.
Of course, it's no secret that religious music in the black community has always been high-energy fare. But as a byproduct of his fifty-year journey criss-crossing the country to save souls, Smith left behind a modest body of recordings that should by all rights have fans of gospel, blues, African-American pre-blues roots music, R&B, rock, rockabilly, psychobilly tent revival satirists like the Rev. Horton Heat and Legendary Shack Shakers, and the guitar itself queuing up to understand the sounds they love in a whole new perspective.
By Saby Reyes-Kulkarni