“The four walls of my room were like the four walls of my grave. . .” The most moving document of The Zion Travelers may be “The Blood,” an ecstatic testimony of a near death experience. Lead Traveler L.C. Cohen’s soaring tenor blisters and quakes above a feverish bed of group harmony. As they hold and stretch a chord over the word “blood,” their timing begins to feel elastic, pumping rhythm like a bodily organ in the throes of struggle. The song’s salvation is attributed to the spiritual, but there’s a corporeal truth in the cry “Blood, runnin’ warm in my veins!”
The Zion Travelers were based in the Los Angeles area for their lengthy existence, fronted by Cohen and Bartha L. Watkins and anchored by the forceful swing of Felton Vernon’s bass. Their first record appeared on the Atlas label in 1947, but they hopped labels over the next two decades, cutting for Rex, Aladdin, Ebb, and Excell. They even plattered another sanguine single–“God’s Blood”–on the Ruby label in 1953. However the group’s biggest success happened with “Two Little Fishes” on Trumpeter Dootie Williams’ Dootone label, headquartered on South Central Ave. in LA. The Zion Traveler’s early output is difficult to come by, but Ace Records collected The Dootone Masters on a CD reissue that is compulsively listenable.
The Dootone sessions occurred in ’56-57 and ’61-62, and the whole range of 40’s & 50’s jubilee quartet style gospel can be heard in these recordings. This collection’s liner notes insinuates that The Zion Travelers were imitative of the landmark gospel groups like the Soul Stirrers or Swan Silvertones, but Cohen, Watkins and ensemble manifest a distinct personality on these Dootone sides. There’s a marked edge: raggedy, distorted guitar accompaniment and the rapturous lead vocals make young Sam Cooke sound downright polite. Yet they’re absolutely dynamic and tightly controlled. On tracks like “God I’ll Live” and “I’ve Started” they are temporal sorcerers, bringing the beat to within an inch of a standstill, while “The Death of Jesus” impresses like a mantra or hypnotist’s spell: “no He never said a mumbling word…” words / a spoto