For weeks I’ve tried to wrap my mind around the importance gospel music has played and continues to play in Appalachia. It’s like something I feel deep inside but once I try to put my feelings to words they fall flat. Either sounding like a crazed religious fanatic or like I’m belittling the very people I’m one of.
I’m not talking about gospel music in monetary terms or successful performers, although a huge majority of country and bluegrass stars got their start singing in church. I’m thinking more about how it relates to people’s everyday lives. I can only speak from personal experiences, but I feel strongly that my thoughts about the relationship between gospel music and Appalachia would be shared by most who grew up attending church in Appalachia.
I’m a snob when it comes to modern praise music. I just can’t seem to lay aside the old hymns nor any of the songs of faith that I grew up with for the praise anthems of today. I realize the words are what matter, but somehow the songs cannot move me the way the old ones do, but I am glad they seem to move so many other people. A local pastor once reminded me, there was a time Hymns were thought to be too modern for the church too.
My first exposure to music as a child, even as a babe still in Granny’s arms, was to gospel music. It seems The Louvin Brother’s songs were the background music to my childhood. Sad warning songs like-Praying, The Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea, Satan Is Real, The Great Atomic Power and happier ones like-Love Thy Neighbor, The River of Jordan (my favorite!), and Born Again were often heard around Granny and Pap’s.
Even as a young child I remember being astounded by the power of songs of faith. There’s a palatable feeling that occurs when folks gather to lift their voice in worship and if you’ve never felt it I suggest you slip in the door of one of those little old churches scattered through out the Appalachian Mountains, sit down on the back row as the choir sings, and see if you don’t feel it too.
My friend, Sharon, and I shared a special bond when we were kids. We were in the same classroom at school and we went to the same church. We both liked the singing more than the preaching, as most kids are likely to do. We knew the page number to all our favorite songs and we’d anxiously wait to see if the song leader called out one of our favorites. Down On My Knees written by Mosie Lister, The Prettiest Flowers Will Be Blooming by Albert E. Brumley, I Want To Know More About My Lord by Lee Roy Abernathy, and Are You Washed In The Blood by Rev. E.A. Hoffman were a few of the fast upbeat songs we liked. But both of us had a love for the more lonesome gospel songs too like Lord I’m Coming Home by William J. Kirkpatrick, Almost Persuaded by P.P. Bliss, Oh Why Not Tonight by J. Calvin Bushey, and Take My Hand Precious Lord by Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey.
The lyrics of those old gospel songs I grew up with lend themselves to the culture of Appalachia not that they all were written here, most were not. But the strong recurring themes of God, Jesus, love, the cross, faith, death, blood, hell, rivers, long roads, toiling, snares, mountains, lights, rejoicing, happiness, joy, better times to come, dark valleys, and loved ones calling come fit perfectly in the mindset of most folks born and raised in Appalachia. I would go so far as to say the manner in which they were written, the words used, strike a chord with the language of Appalachia. Maybe in the same way the isolated nature of the region played a role in the continuity of our dialect it also aided in folks holding on to the hymns and sacred songs of our past.
Here’s one of my favorite old gospel songs. What A Savior written by Marvin P. Dalton in 1948.
I hope you enjoyed Paul and Pap performing one of the greatest songs of praise ever written. Harmony is no easy task, especially when it’s done with alternating high lead/low harmony and standard lead/high tenor like they do on this one.
Perhaps if I could find the words to explain the humbleness of gentle mountain men, women, and children coming together to sing in worship to their God you could understand the importance of gospel music in Appalachia, but I kinda feel like I’m a day late and a dollar short. The following story is a good example of what I’m trying to say:
One of the matriarchs from the church of my youth walked to church most every Sunday. As I look back it seems too far a piece for an elderly lady to walk. But she did. She spent her last years in the local nursing home. She seldom knew her family members, not even her own children. But any time someone came in to play the piano she’d sit right there and sing every word of the old gospel songs they played. She didn’t know her children, but those songs of faith that guided her through her long long life were still there for her to call upon when she reached the last mile of her way.
Portions of this post were originally published here on the Blind Pig in 2010-during my Spotlight On Music Series.