One of my great joys is “disc-overy” through the old-time music captured on phonograph records. The brittle old 78s are talismans, handled by long gone people, their life stories embedded in the groove. The music takes me to times, places, and sensibilities I would never experience directly. And so it was with Goodbye Babylon, a brilliant collection of American religious roots music. The title track was derived from an unissued test pressing, recorded by Reverend T.T. Rose of whom almost nothing was known. The performance is exuberant with rollicking piano and a male voice backed by hand-clapping female singers.
Session logs reveal that Reverend Rose cut a total of ten sides on four occasions, three in Chicago in April, August, and March of 1927 and a fourth three years later in Grafton, Wisconsin in March 1930. His backup singers were billed variously as either “Gospel” or “Sanctified” singers, or just plain “Singers.” That’s it. Nothing more.
It turns out Reverend Rose was a giant of a figure driven by an ambition to make a difference in the struggle for Civil Rights, if not through music, then through directly ministering to African American communities. Noting that Reverend Rose had several Paramount sessions months apart in Chicago, I surmised that he must have lived in commuting distance, if not in the city perhaps in the surrounding area. So, I began searching regional historic newspapers for any hint of information. I realized I was on the right track when I found a mention of a Rev. T.T. Rose as a local dignitary attending a ceremony in 1940 marking the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation on the site of Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, Illinois. I also learned that by the 1950s, Rev. Rose was a leader in the regional Church of God in Christ and working in the Illinois State House where he developed a friendship with then Governor William Stratton who often came to him for advice concerning issues of race.
This information opened a door that eventually led me to Rev. Rose’s family and his daughter Dorothy (who sent us the photograph used in this article), with whom I had some fabulously illuminating conversations. The nub of the Rev. T.T. Rose story is this:
Born near Chicago in 1904, Reverend Rose was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. As a young man, though, drawn to the jubilation in the music he heard in the church services, Reverend Rose switched affiliations to the Church of God in Christ. In his twenties, Reverend Rose had the idea that through musical performance and the reach of phonograph records, he could be a force within the African American community at large in combatting the injustices of segregation and racism. And that’s what he set out to do when he started recording for Paramount in the 1920s.
Some of his songs were traditional, others original, as is the case with “Goodbye Babylon.” After Reverend Rose walked away from recording in 1930 to become a leader in the COGIC, he frequently used his performing and artistic abilities to spread the good word. In addition to writing and performing self-accompanied songs, he wrote original sermons and plays that congregants acted out in church. “Goodbye Babylon,” his daughter told me, was plain and simple about leaving sin behind.
Reverend T.T. Rose was a Bishop and leading figure in his regional church when he died in Springfield at age 93 on October 9, 1997. A life well lived.
– Jerry Zolten, contributor to Rise & Fall of Paramount Records.