Tuesday, April 6, 2010

"He Got Better Things For You" - Memphis Sanctified Singers


Set Two: Social Music; Disc Two; Track Seven: "He Got Better Things For You" performed by Memphis Sanctified Singers. "Vocal duet with guitar." Recorded in Memphis on October 1, 1929. Original issue Victor 38559B.

The Memphis Sanctified Singers consisted of Bessie Johnson, Sally Sumier, and Melinda Taylor. They also recorded as Bessie Johnson and Her Sanctified Singers. They were a Pentecostal vocal group. Bessie Johnson was originally from Columbus, Mississippi, although her birth and death dates are not known. My searches have yielded no biographical information on either Sumier or Taylor, although it is likely that the three women were close contemporaries. The Memphis Sanctified Singers recorded six sides under their own name between 1927 and 1929. They also appeared on recordings by Elders McIntorsh and Edwards.

Although the label identifies this recording as a "vocal duet," is clear that there are three voices. Johnson sings the powerful lead, occasionally lapsing into the fiery "holy roar." Sumier and Taylor sing backup, with Taylor supplying the lower vocal parts. The three women are accompanied by guitarist, bandleader, and Victor talent scout Will Shade. Shade was a member of the Memphis Jug Band, who appears on the third volume of this set.

"He Got Better Things For You" is a fairly simple song consisting of three verses and a chorus which is repeated after each verse.

Kind friend I want to tell you
Because I love your soul.
No doubt you been converted
But half ain't never been told.
Some people they'll try to fool you,
Say there's nothing else to do.
But Jesus Christ my savior
He got better things for you.

He got better things for you,
No one on earth can do.
He got the Holy Ghost and the Fire,
Sure can make you true.
He got better things for you,
No one on earth can do.
Oh place my mind on Jesus,
He got better things for you.

Cornelius he was humble,
He prayed to God alway.
But that was not sufficient,
God let him in his grave.
God sent to him an angel,
And he told him what to do.
Today he's waiting in glory,
With better things for you.

He got better things for you,
More than your friends can do.
He got the Holy Ghost and the Fire,
Sure can make you true.
He got better things for you,
No one on earth can do.
Oh place my mind on Jesus,
He got better things for you.

Saint Mary was a virgin.
She birthed the son of God.
But that was not sufficient,
She had to be well shod.
God sent her to Jerusalem,
And there he made her new.
Today she's waiting in glory
With better things for you.

He got better things for you,
More than your friends can do.
He got the Holy Ghost and the Fire,
Sure can make you true.
He got better things for you,
No one on earth can do.
Oh place my mind on Jesus,
He got better things for you.


Unlike "Judgment," which promises holy retribution for those who sin against God, "He Got Better Things For You" takes a softer approach. Here, there is a promise of reward in heaven rather than a threat of punishment in hell. The song begins with the assumption that the listener has been "converted," but warns that this is not "sufficient" and that there are other things that must be done in order to win God's favor. Unfortunately, the song doesn't really specify what must be done. The song does, however, offer two object lessons.

The first refers to the story of Cornelius, whom we are assured was "humble" and prayed to God "alway." The tale of Cornelius is related in the tenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. Cornelius was a centurion (and therefore a Roman) who was instructed by an angel to send for Peter and to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, making him the first gentile to join the ranks of the earliest Christians.

The second story refers to the virgin Mary, the earthly mother of Christ. According to the song, having "birthed the son of God" is not "sufficient," however, and God sends Mary to Jerusalem and "made her new." Now, perhaps this just shows my ignorance of scripture, but I can't find anything in the Bible about Mary being
"made new" in Jerusalem (much less about her needing to be "well shod"). I have found an interesting tidbit about an alleged tomb of Mary in Jerusalem (she has two. The other is in Ephesus) which is venerated by members of the Eastern Orthodox Church (which holds that Mary was not assumed bodily into heaven, but that she died a natural death). What any of this has to do with the song is unclear, but it just goes to show that no two denominations agree on anything.

The contrast between the fire and brimstone of "Judgment" and the gentle promises of "He Got Better Things For You" make another of those contrasts that Smith seemed to be so fond of. It almost amounts to a Pentecostal "good cop/bad cop" routine.

Bessie Johnson and Melinda Taylor appear on the very next selection, "Since I Laid My Burden Down."

"He Got Better Things For You" is one of the few songs on the religious disc of the Anthology to get a fairly high profile cover version. Gospel star BeBe Winans recorded a version of the song on his 2002 album Cherch. The song was also performed as a part of The Harry Smith Project, where it was performed by Mary Margaret O'Hara (sister of actress and comedienne Catherine O'Hara).

The Shameless Plug Department: The fourth episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast is still the most recent. Now that I am finished with "Mockingbird," I am currently in the process of putting together a new episode made up of jazz recordings from the 78 era which should be up within the week. In the meantime, you can listen to this all-blues episode where you'll hear New Year's greetings from Lightin' Hopkins and Mary Harris, as well as Delta Blues by Son House, Willie Brown and Charlie Patton. You'll also hear recordings by more obscure figures like Geeshie Wiley, Blind Joe Reynolds, William Harris, and more. Also available on iTunes! Subscribe today so you don't miss a single episode. It's free and it doesn't hurt. Who can ask for more?

You can also become a fan of "Where Dead Voices Gather" on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Where Dead Voices Gather: Using today's technology to promote yesterday's music!

Memphis remains home to some amazing gospel singing. Here's a rather shaky hand-held video of the University of Memphis Gospel Choir singing "Jesus."



Download and listen to Memphis Sanctified Singers - "He Got Better Things For You"

2 comments:

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  2. I read your lyrics here. Not bad, but listen to this link for a better quality recording: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SvieImJdpW4. This artist's grandmother (whence he learned the song) was quite probably a contemporary of Bessie Johnson, so his version of the lyrics are likely authentic. They also carry wording and parallelism that is more characteristic of early 20th century holiness music, as is the reference to "made new," meaning "spiritually regenerated." Johnson and her singers, as Pentecostals, were referring to the baptism of the Holy Ghost, finding resonance of their own life-changing spiritual experience in the biblical account of the first outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem. Hope this helps!

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