I’m listening to Christian radio as I’m driving down the road. Some of it is really good. Some of it sounds just plain awful. I imagine if the sound engineer and the effects and the fog machines and laser light show wasn’t providing cover, the voice and the lyrics would be about as inspiring as some of the art work I’ve seen in the Atlanta airport. For a moment it makes me miss the old music.
I grew up toe tapping to gospel quartet singing and wishing I could belt out the low notes. This was before Led Zeppelin, in case you’re wondering. The four part harmonies still live in my head even if I can’t get them to come out of my mouth. I never was much of a singer.
Most of the gospel music I heard came from two places. One was the Gospel Singing Jubilee, which was on the TV every Sunday morning in our house. The Florida Boys, The Dixie Echoes, The Blackwood Brothers, the Lefevre’s and Hovie Lister & the Statesman. But my favorite was the Happy Goodman Family.
Vestal Goodman was a rather plump woman with a large hairdo and a voice to match. I’ve always admired folks who can really sing, who can hit all the notes effortlessly. The guy who sang tenor off and on for years was Johnny Cook. It was nearly unnatural, the range of vocal gymnastics that came out of his mouth. He and Vestal would often show off a bit on something like “How Great Thou Art”, which might seem odd that they would show off in front of God. But they were just having fun. Trying to see who could sing the highest note. Believe it or not, Johnny won every time.
Every now and then, on a Sunday morning, I’ll tune in the radio to try and find a Gospel Show on the low end of the FM dial. You can almost always find one. The host doesn’t have the best radio voice. He’s probably working out of his basement with old equipment and a KJV by his side. Doing his best for all 10 of us who have tuned in.
“Good morning and a blessed day to all of you. This is Dave on WRCK radio, bringing you all the gospel all the time on 89.3 FM, The Rock.” And by “all the time” he means the 2 hours of air time from 6AM to 8:00 on Sunday morning that he can afford. And every now and then, between the awful and the squeaky, Dave will fire up an old gospel quartet that’ll take you back to your roots.
The other source of gospel music influence from my childhood was the Sunday night singing at Berea Christian Church. The old building was made for voices that were not the best. Wooden floors slanted toward the front, wooden curved pews and a high ceiling. The whole sanctuary was a reverb chamber in its own right. If you missed a few notes, it didn’t matter because the echo bouncing around in there blended everybody into perfect harmony.
Marvin Daniel was our Sunday night song leader. Mr. Marvin walked with a pronounced hobble, and best I recall couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but for years he stood up front and called out the hymn numbers. He took requests most of the time. Not much was planned ahead and we all liked it that way. “I’ll Fly Away”. “When the Roll is Called up Yonder”. You know it’s southern gospel when the word “yonder” makes it into the title.
One of Mr. Marvin’s favorite things to do was to call up people on the spot to sing a special. Sometimes it was a solo, but more times than not, he would hand pick a quartet to try their hand at something like, “Victory in Jesus” or “The Old Rugged Cross”. No one in our small crowd was great at it, but that didn’t matter. The songs were all that mattered.
Even the congregational singing was mostly four part harmonies. My Dad almost never sang, but he sang the hymns in church. Mr. Ben Sims had a booming bass voice that rumbled in the mix. I admired the sound and tried to imitate him, which was hopeless for a 10 year old. This is the music and the singing that has stayed with me through the years.
One of the most embarrassing and awe-inspiring events of my life unfolded on a cool fall evening during my freshman year of college in 1974. My music choice was rock, not gospel. But some of my buddies and I saw in the paper that Jerry Clower was going to be on stage at the Atlanta Municipal Auditorium along with the Happy Goodman Family. We weren’t so much interested in the music as we were in the story telling of Jerry Clower.
Jerry Clower was a country mile wide drink of water from the parts around Yazoo, Mississippi. He was country all day long. He was legend in our circles. Dad had a cassette tape that we nearly wore out listening to his yarns. Stories about coon hunting and hog killin’s and out houses and chain saws. His favorite family was his Uncle Versie Ledbetter and his couins: Marcel, Ardel, Burnel, Raynel, W.L., Lanel, Odel, Newgene, Claude, and Clovis.
The four of us country boys figured we could tolerate a little gospel music for the chance to hear Jerry Clower live. And based on his stories, we dressed for the evening. We got out our best bibbed overalls, flannel shirts and brogan boots. Allen, Hank, me and Cam. We drove downtown Atlanta hunting a place we’d never been to before. We walked down the sidewalk hollering, “Knock him out John. Awe. Shoot up here amongst us. One of us has got to have some relief.” A line from one of his best stories.
You get the idea. We were hicks in the big city.
When we walked up to the front doors of the Municipal Auditorium, the crowd was dressed a little more classy than the four of us. Black tie and evening gowns to be exact. I’ve never felt more out of place. We hung our heads low at the ticket counter trying to avoid the looks. We were hoping that the crowd outside was not representative of the crowd inside. I hadn’t seen that much ruffle and sparkle since my senior prom.
We asked an usher if we could sit in the balcony. “There’s plenty of room on the main floor”, he said. We didn’t care. In the shadows we shot up the steps and found that we had the entire balcony all to ourselves, which, in this case, was perfect.
The lights went down. It was pitch dark. When the spot light came on, it was aimed at center stage. The only thing you could see was a small circle of light centered up on a man dressed in all white, standing against a red velvet curtain. It was Johnny Cook, and his voice broke the silence. No music. Just his silky tenor vocal, slow and almost mysterious.
Oh I wish I was in the land of cotton.
Old times there are not forgotten.
Look away, look away, look away, Dixieland.
The strings came up. The piano joined. The spot widened out. Vestal and Happy and the guy singing bass joined in. The pitch was perfect and the effect was, well, inspiring. Four young country boys from Dixie forgot about being out of place for a while.
It turns out that even though Jerry Clower got top billing in the advertising, the night was filled with a whole lot of the Happy Goodman Family and just a little bit of Yazoo, MS. But that was okay. I don’t really remember anything Jerry Clower said that night. I know we laughed. But I remember that song.
In my opinion, no one else has ever sung Dixieland like that. Not even Elvis. I still get chills just thinking about it. The old music still lives if you listen for it.
And that’s the gospel truth.