Folk art is as much about the artist as it is about the art. The unconventional aesthetic decisions make you wonder what's going on. How did the work get this way? Why did the artist think this was a good idea?
This is as true of Sister Gertrude Morgan's music as it is of her paintings. Let's Make a Record, recorded in 1970 and recently re-released on Preservation Hall Records, features Morgan singing a cappella, accompanied loosely by her tambourine. Her songs are really chants that have a lot more in common with Mardi Gras Indian compositions than hymns, and like Indian chants, there's a lot of private imagery in the songs. She announces Jesus is a lawyer and doctor, then sings, "Take Dr. Jesus with you everywhere you go" in "Take the Lord Along With You."
Morgan's paintings are almost compulsively filled with people, so much so that figures appear to be in danger of tumbling off the bottom corners of some canvases. Morgan similarly fills all her available sonic space with words. The lopsided compositions of her paintings suggest she didn't plan them much, and her recordings feel similarly improvised. Whether they are as long as "I Got the New World in My View" or as short as "Power," her titles provide the phrases that serve as verses with minor variations. She doesn't mess around with choruses.
That repetition, while certainly a tradition in hymns, doesn't seem much like a nod to the genre. Nothing here suggests a consciousness of form or of audience, making the repetition feel more like Morgan waiting for inspiration to tell her where to take the song. The performances point in that direction as well; halfway through "Power," she breathlessly stops singing and playing tambourine to say, "Power! Power, yes Lord, power to trouble the people. Don't let them rest; continue. Let them know they got a soul to save! Shake 'em up and wake 'em up." She sings the word "power" a few more times, starting quietly and revving up before preaching: "Yes Lord, put their mind on the kingdom. Pray that prayer! Thy kingdom come! Now, they're not preparing for the kingdom. They don't believe in the kingdom. Amen! Talkin' 'bout everybody got to die."
These miniature sermons ad-libbed in the middle of the songs mirror the structure of church services, and like her paintings, these recordings were ostensibly teaching tools to help save souls. However, after looking at the paintings and hearing her recordings, it's hard to imagine how they would work for that purpose. They're too wild and spontaneous, and they say far more about her own faith than about religion or God. The title track is the key to the album. On it, she sings, "Let's make a record / for my Lord." She chants the vocal as much as she sings it, only changing "for" to "of" for the length of the first verse, and in subsequent verses, she mentions the "prophet Isaiah" and Ezekiel, and how they too made records for her Lord. The songs, like her paintings, are records of her love of God. There's no doubt that for her, both her life and her art are not only tributes to him but evidence of his existence.