David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 337: The Swan Silvertones (Trouble In My Way)

March 26, 2024

Those 1950 pop records that my parents played when I was really young, and ultimately ended up in a box in the storage area next to my basement bedroom, fascinated me (see Day 37 Mongo Santamaria and Day 153 Tom Lehrer), but mostly from a visual perspective. Musically and lyrically, those records seemed boringly romantic or mindlessly quirky. Sure, "Sentimental Journey" is a lovely song, and "Istanbul" (in a version 30 years before I might discover it through They Might Be Giants) was kind of fun, but I swear to God, I might never have known a swath of popular gospel music existed if the world was contained to that box. The box had no Blues; I can't imagine it would have ever been allowed in our house, as that might admit to some underlying discontent.

As a result, even when I got into my early 20s, exploring music prior to Orbison or Presley just didn't enter my  mind. Those days were the dark ages for popular music in my mind, representing part of a long gap going back to the classical composers I learned about in history: Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Bach. And, then, as has happened with other songs referenced in this song series, I found my MOJO, specifically the music magazine formed in the early 1990s for the baby boomers. I hesitated to see myself as a boomer, being born at the end of that generation, but the magazine would cover many of the artists I had loved, and still provided at least brief reviews of newly released records. They also often included compilation discs with the magazine, which became buried treasure chests for me.

That's how in 2000, I ended up with Silver Disc: 25 Years of Ace, which compiled one song from each of Ace Records' releases between 1950 and 1975. I quickly realized that B.B. King did not "upsets me, baby" as much I thought, thanks to his 1954 release "You Upset Me, Baby," although the juxtaposition of Creedence Clearwater Revival (1970) alongside Mary Love (1966) or Fatback (1974) did rattle my foundations a bit. Intuitively I knew record companies would reach across many genres and styles to create their catalog, but here was a slap-in-the-face reminder.

Most importantly, early on Silver Disc: 25 Years of Ace was a great old gospel song called "Trouble In My Way" by The Swan Silvertones (1953). The song starts simply enough, traditional barbershop quartet, rich vocals against a subtle simple drum beat. If that's all the song was, basically the first 30 seconds, a tale of someone mourning the trouble in his way, bleeding heart, crying all the time, I doubt I would have done more than smile a little, thankful to have a brief reminder of other times, and not think much about this song ever again.

However, The Swan Silvertones quickly elevate the song as they work toward the core idea of redemption: "Jesus will take me/by and by." Claude Jeter's lead vocal (and I am assuming this as I have not found a whole lot of definitive information about the recording) wails wonderfully about his wounded heart, about "father" (for the life of me, I don't know if they are singing "father of Abraham," which you can find at some dubious online lyric sites, or "father of Heaven," found at other equally dubious online lyric sites). The impassioned lead vocals are surrounded, supplemented and ultimately saved (in this idea of redemption) by the sensational background vocals. It turns out I could listen to this kind of gospel a lot more than I realized.

Then, I eventually tried to figure out a little more about The Swan Silvertones. The minimal liner notes on Silver Disc: 25 Years of Ace described them as having a "fearsome reputation as genuine 'house-wreckers,'" a term I absolutely love, given the spiritual nature of the music. More interestingly, I discovered that their first recordings were done in a Pittsburgh radio station. Digging a little deeper, in other words past these liner notes, I learn that they were formed in Coalwood, West Virginia, several of them coal-miners who turned to gospel music as an alternative career. I don't think any of us would begrudge a bunch of coal-miners for singing "I got trouble in my way, child," and for harping on bleeding and wounded hearts, and for repeating by the end of the song, "I know you hurt/even cry."

Coalwood, which I had to look up, despite being a native Mountaineer, is way deep in coal country, almost as far south as you can go in West Virginia, dangerously close to War, West Virginia, one of my favorite of many West Virginian town names. It also was the setting for Rocket Boys and its film adaptation, October Sky. All of this context helps clarify the Silver Disc liner note that the group felt they had been "forced to deliver 'hillbilly gospel'" early in their career.

I have no idea how my parents would have felt about "hillbilly gospel" in 1953. They would have been living in either Boston or Princeton, New Jersey, having no clue about a future in West Virginia. Given my mother's concern about being from the other side of the tracks in Great Falls, Montana, I can't imagine she would have had much patience for The Swan Silvertones. Agnostic that my Dad was, that genre really must have turned him off. It should be no surprise that I found no Swan Silvertones' discs in that box by my room.

On the other hand, they got the moniker Swan from a local bakery that sponsored them. Given the Fleming love of food, that should have piqued my dad's interest.

The Swan Silvertones. "Trouble In My Way." Silver Disc: 25 Years of Ace. Ace, 2000. Link here.

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See complete list here.