Title: Prodigal Son
Artist: Reverend Robert Wilkins
Label: Bear Family Records
Formats: CD, MP3
Release date: March 23, 2014
The prodigal son left home by himself…
An unseen light source illuminates the yellowing walls and rusting porcelain. A dirty pipe runs up the wall past messages scrawled in pencil. It’s a nasty bathroom. The oppressive stall conjures up feelings of loneliness, of desperate men. But the graffiti that covers the wall—“Heavenly King,” “Thank-U-Jesus,” ”Old Time Religion”—is oddly uplifted. In the midst of the decay, declarations of faith shine through, and it is with this dissonance that Bear Family Records sets the stage for their newest musical portrait.
By the start of the 1960s, American fervor had begun building around the crackly collections of Harry Smith and the Lomax family. The reignited interest in acoustic blues sent young white music enthusiasts scurrying, eager to find living sources of the haunting records emanating from America’s south. The early half of the decade led to the unearthing of titans. Tom Hoskins searched out the gentle plucking of Avalon’s Mississippi John Hurt, finding him alive and well. John Fahey rediscovered the lonesome howl of Skip James and the pounding rhythms of Bukka White. Mance Lipscomb, Fred McDowell, Reverend Gary Davis and Son House were all among those artists whose careers had peaked in the ‘20s-40s, only to find a voracious new audience waiting for them in the form of the folk revival. A contingent of old timers from the Memphis scene also saw resurgence, including jug-stomping Gus Cannon and blues luminary Furry Lewis. Some of these quests for old bluesmen were tortuous, winding across years of obstacles and often facing hostility. But fittingly, in 1964 when ethnomusicologist Dick Spottswood caught rumor that another Memphis musician, Robert Wilkins, was still alive, the path to finding him was straightforward and elegant. Spottswood sought out a Memphis directory from his local library and, upon finding two Robert Wilkins listed, he composed two identical letters, mailing them to both addresses. Remarkably, the only Robert Wilkins that responded was the musician in question, and a meeting was arranged. Wilkins, who had cut a small batch of 78s from 1928-1935, was known solely as a bluesman, and a damn fine one. His no frills guitar accompanied confident vocals, fusing Mississippi flavor with Memphis-borne style. Yet to his surprise, when Spottswood found Wilkins he did not find a veteran bluesman, but rather a proud man of God.
Born in the late 1890s, Robert Wilkins grew up in a poor family near Hernando, Mississippi on the storied Highway 51 just south of Memphis. He never knew his real father, a small-scale farmer named George Wilkins, who had been forced to escape the law after striking a white man during a gambling-related altercation. Instead, Wilkins grew up with a cantankerous, alcoholic stepfather named Sam Oliver. Oliver’s short fuse and drinking caused strain for the household, as drunken rage would regularly turn into violence directed at Robert’s mother, Julia. Wilkins went to school through fourth grade before picking up the family trade full time. At sixteen he received his first guitar and at year’s end he was playing like a pro. A man named Buddy Taylor taught Wilkins his first few tunes, classic repertoire like “Frisco Train” and “Casey Jones.” In 1915, after cutting his teeth at dances and fish fries, Wilkins headed for Memphis to pursue a career as a performing musician. The dream of finding that success was soon tempered due to the competitiveness of the industry, and Wilkins sometimes had to find work in other non-musical endeavors. He served in the army, returned to farming, spent three years as a Pullman porter and would occasionally work for a bakery and candy maker.
Wilkins had a stint as a recording artist, but it was a run marred by bad luck and injustice. He claimed that his rendition of “Kansas City Blues” was lifted by fellow guitarist Jim Jackson, whose rendition scored a best-selling record in 1927. The song has since become a blues standard, with Wilkins’ name far from credited (on the contrary, Jim Jackson’s rendition was entitled “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues”). A year later, Wilkins got a shot to record with Victor records, but the session was far from ideal. He was given a damaged guitar whose strings had been tuned down to an uncomfortably lower key. Wilkins did find some recording success with his 1926 release “Rolling Stone,” carving out solid local sales in the Memphis market. The popularity of his song brought about a historic invitation to be the first black performer on Memphis radio, appearing on WHBQ. Wilkins had prepared a diverse set list for his on-air performance and would finally reach a larger audience with his versatility and rock solid fundamental blues. Unfortunately, another cruel twist of fate intervened. The public loved his performance of “Rolling Stone”…too much. Listener calls poured into the studio demanding encores, and Wilkins was made to repeat the song over and over for the entire remainder of the performance.
Despite the bad luck and mostly poor record sales in the wake of The Depression, Wilkins remained in good spirits, finding happiness in studying medicinal herbs and in his new wife, Ida Mae. The married couple struggled to make ends meet with a rapidly expanding family, and upon the birth of their eighth child, Ida Mae fell gravely ill. When the doctors said his wife was beyond medical help, Wilkins appealed to the heavens, pleading that he would take his wife’s health in exchange for one of the few things in his possession—his blues songs. Miraculously, Ida Mae made a full recovery, and true to his word Robert Wilkins never sang blues again. Instead, he devoted himself to religion, bringing with him the same muscular guitar work and earnest singing. He found a place in the Church of God in Christ movement, and was ordained as a minister in 1950. Wilkins continued on his path of righteousness through a decade and a half before Dick Spottswood made contact in 1964. Spottswood convinced Wilkins to hop on the surging folk revival, but again it would seem the reverend’s talents went largely underappreciated. Gospel music did not resonate with the youthful audience as much as blues would have, and his live appearance at the Newport Folk Festival that year was received with tepid enthusiasm; more unfairness for a man so deserving of a good break. It would be more than understandable if Wilkins became jaded and angry. He was good enough. He deserved better than he got. But Wilkins, forever patient and graceful, dealt with all in signature poise. He recorded a gospel LP for Spottswood’s Piedmont label (this time with a working guitar), but the release sold poorly and was quickly passed by. Wilkins quietly returned home to Memphis, living out the rest of his days in support of a loving family and adoring congregation until his passing in 1987. This new compilation from Spottswood and Bear Family Records contains the recordings from the 1964 LP in addition to four other uncollected hymns.
There is no shortage of country gospel available to us, but Wilkins unorthodox arrangements of standards and clever originals make this album essential listening. The collection opens with a four-note introduction, tumbling and descending before landing at the start of the classic “Jesus Will Fix It All Right.” Here, Wilkins grooves wonderfully as a solo performer. His alternating thumbed bass line and strumming on the offbeat create the uncanny illusion of multiple instruments. But unlike so many blues virtuosos of the time, the guitar work is utilitarian, providing only what is needed to make a bed for Wilkins powerful vocals. The proclamation that “Jesus will fix it all right” is not sung with the desperate fire of a Gary Davis, but rather a matter-of-fact confidence. It’s the confidence of a man who has experienced first hand the powers of faith in his own life. The lyrics consist of no more than the title repeated, and that’s plenty. Fitting perhaps, that for a performer like Wilkins, a declaration of faith in his lord is all that’s needed.
Wilkins’ reserved playing on the opener wastes no time in giving way to a more acrobatic style in the instrumental piece “Thank You Jesus.” The song struts and gallops, demonstrating an arsenal of various guitar licks. Wilkins’ slide guitar makes for thrilling listening as he growls up the bottom string for an ascending walk up before ducking back into a musical refrain. He then shoots up the fret board and if you listen closely, you can hear the four-syllable song title articulated brilliantly in musical notes. It’s a clinic in tension and release, with passages of dissonance giving way to welcome resolution.
“Just A Closer Walk With Thee,” while not ever credited with an original author, has largely remained constant in its arrangement and chord structures. Listeners at all familiar with religious music will know that “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” is one of the most oft-performed gospel tunes in history. You pretty much know what you’re going to get when it’s on the track list. Wilkins, however, delivers a wholly different take on the song, providing a completely different vocal melody and progression than expected. His rendition trots with a sense of adventure, like a traveler hitting the open road, equipped with little more than a guitar and an unwavering faith in God. This totally left-field take is a really fresh update to a pleasant but perhaps safe standard. The song leads nicely into a more up-tempo (but more stylistically conservative) “Do Lord Remember Me.” With a familiar southern folk melody, Wilkins acts as rough and tumble as Elizabeth Cotten, plucking out the vocal melody on guitar between vocal segments.
Wilkins continues with well-worn melodies on “Here Am I, Send Me.” “If you can’t sing like angels/if you can’t preach like Paul,” he crows “oh you can tell the love of Jesus/you can say he died for us all.” You can hear in his voice how much he buys into the song’s message. Luckily, Wilkins has the ‘sing like angels’ thing covered but for those in his congregation who couldn’t, Wilkins undoubtedly used this number to make a point— anyone can take onus and be proactive in their religious endeavors.
As the album crosses its halfway point, Spottswood makes it clear that we’ve arrived at the crown jewel: the 10-minute winding tale of “The Prodigal Son.” In 1929, Robert Wilkins penned the fantastic “That’s No Way to Get Along,” but upon pursuing religion, found the lyrical content to be inappropriate. As a solution, Wilkins kept the song structure but replaced the lyrics to make it a cautionary tale about a boy who demands that his father give him his inheritance so that he may leave home for a life of independence. Broke after quickly squandering his inheritance, the boy is forced to find work feeding swine as a famine descends on the land. Hating his menial work, the wasteful son tearfully returns to his home, praying that he’s forgiven for his actions. The father, remarkably, welcomes his son back, gathering the rest of the family to mark the joyous occasion of a family reunited. The song did not appear in Wilkins’ church services, as it was deemed not exciting enough for his congregants. Instead, the piece was reserved as a late-night solo, played for small audiences in the comfort of his living room. The quiet picking, repetitious bass note run and Wilkins contemplative drawl make for a hypnotic mix and the quickest 10-minute song I’ve ever encountered. The open tuning allows for a richer low end and frees Wilkins left hand to speak easily with his slide. This song may sound familiar to classic rock fans. Indeed, rock and roll bad boys The Rolling Stones adapted this song for their own interpretation of “The Prodigal Son,” appearing on their acclaimed album “Beggars Banquet.” Initially, it appeared this would be yet another slap in the face for Wilkins, as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards credited themselves with authorship. Luckily, on later pressings the wrong was righted and Wilkins’ name appeared in the byline. The album became one of the bands most beloved releases and the royalties generated by the sales created a solid supplementary income for Wilkins and his family in the reverend’s later years. The dilapidated bathroom featured on the cover of this compilation is actually a clever spoof of the cover for “Beggars Banquet.” It is never clarified through the liner notes if this was intended as a friendly nod or perhaps a small slice of ribbing—for once young white musicians on the other end of appropriated art.
The cavalcade of gospel continues on with “Jesus Said If You Go” and “I’m Going Home to My Heavenly King.” The former employs a technique often found in congregational gospel music, staying on the root chord while the song leader half sings, half preaches before ripping once again into the chorus. The latter is what can only be described as a powerhouse rag—a two and a half minute onslaught that starts out quaint enough before diving into a ragtime prance conjuring up echoes of Charley Patton. The tune screams for joy with its unrelenting drive and must have been such a rush for audiences to experience live.
The listener is given a short breather on “Old Time Religion.” In this song more than any other, you can hear the age in Wilkins’ voice. His timbre quavers but remains resolute as the reverend yearns for the simplicity and timeless appeal of traditional Christian living. It was good enough for his mother, it’ll be good when he’s dying, and it’s good enough for him.
“I Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down” stands as the first song Wilkins learned on guitar, and he plays it with a sure-handedness that comes from living with a song for many, many decades. A similar ease is found in his rendition of “It Just Suits Me.” It’s a sweet tune, gently pushing forward with alternating bass line and fervent singing. In classic Delta blues technique, the vocals and slide guitar find parity, with the strings sometimes finishing a line sung by Wilkins.
The final tune is “The Gambling Man,” which finds Wilkins warning against the dangers of a sinful lifestyle, embodied by a habitual gambler. The guitar drones on as the reverend paints a picture of hardship for sinners and deep sorrow for their families. Perhaps it serves as much as a reminder for himself as for his congregants. Without religion, Wilkins could have easily found himself living as an unfortunate character from his own songs, rather than working in service of the lord.
Prodigal Son is 56 minutes of some of the finest gospel music available, and it is presented with a dignity and sophistication that would have made Reverend Wilkins proud. The man who endured so many slights over the course of his career finally gets the attention and treatment his work has always warranted. Spottswood handles this collection with care—the CD booklet includes 28 pages of documentation. Over a fruitful career in ethnomusicology, Spottswood has perfected the delicate art of compilation, guiding the listener through long forgotten material, but always careful to let the performer and his work take center stage. It’s a wonderful addition to the shelves of both serious archives and the casual listener. He may have left home by himself, but at long last the Prodigal Son returns home to find music fans the world over awaiting him with open arms.
Reviewed by Aaron Frazer