Primitive folk art painter, singer, poet, street preacher and "servant of the Lord" in several capacities (including running orphanages and missions in the poorest parts of New Orleans) Sister Gertrude Morgan was born in 1900 and died in 1980. That was long before she received international recognition for her artwork and former Digable Planets DJ and world-renowned remixer and producer King Britt remixed her music into a soulful psychedelic epic.
It's fitting that Morgan once made her home in the Ninth Ward, the destitute area most affected by Hurricane Katrina, because her voice now calls like a righteous, insistent spirit from that spoiled Southern soil. It's also fitting that the woman who ran an orphanage that was blown away by Hurricane Betsy in 1965 finally is being rediscovered, years after her death, in the wake of another, even more devastating, storm.
Long before this album (which ironically was released a short time before Katrina hit) and long before her renaissance hit full swing in 2003, when a limited-edition release of her lone album, Let's Make a Record (originally recorded in 1970), was issued to a small but vocal group of critics and collectors, Morgan was roaming the streets of New Orleans, preaching, singing and shouting from the city's street corners. Dressed in a pristine white nurse's uniform meant to signify both her self-appointed role as a "bride of Christ" and her role as a spiritual healer to the sick souls she saw wandering the streets of the French Quarter, Morgan would preach and sing, accompanied usually by nothing more than a tambourine. This a cappella style eventually was captured on tape in 1970 on the aforementioned Let's Make a Record, which King Britt and his crew recently reinterpreted.
The album that King Britt has made is fervently and unflinchingly religious due to the nature of the lyrics, but the power and passion of Morgan's voice truly transcend any denomination or belief. Less songs than chants, Morgan's improvised sermon songs slowly revolve around a central theme, such as "I Am the Living Bread," until her chanting, circular singing becomes a spiral, spinning her message up through infinity, a process helped along by Britt's alternately ecstatic and euphoric beats. This album is more mantra than Moby, who also famously employed unearthed a cappella soul singers on his enormously successful Play album. These tunes are aimed more at moving your spirit, not your booty.
Morgan literally created many of these memorable tunes on the spot, famously shouting to the original album's engineer, "Let's make a record for our Lord!" before shaking her tambourine and immediately extemporizing on that theme while the fellas with the tape machine rushed to push record.
It's this song, more than any of the others on the album, that really shows the inspired and spiritually uplifting strength of this collaboration. King Britt and his musical partner, Tim Motzer, labored for 12 months to make this epic reinterpretation of Morgan's work into a hymn to her genius, and on Let's Make a Record you can hear that effort. Britt and Motzer rarely let their sonic experimentation detract from Morgan's original intent. In most cases, and especially on Let's Make a Record, it sounds like she was as present at the making of this album as any of the other guest musicians. When a fuzzy '60s skwonking guitar counters her voice or a humming buzz echoes her droning vocals, it lends credibility to King Britt's assertion that Morgan was at the studio in spirit.
Everyone is looking for a way to contribute to the relief effort in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast this holiday season, and this record is one way to make a small but measurable difference in keeping alive a music institution such as Preservation Hall, which always supported Sister Gertrude Morgan and even in its displaced state continues to do so.