Saturday, February 9, 2008

Good Old Gospel Singing

I grew up on Southern Gospel music.

Every Sunday morning as we were getting ready to go to church, my parents watched two shows on one of the Atlanta television stations. One was the Singing Lefevres’(pictured) program The Gospel Singing Caravan (I remember that it was sponsored by Boomershine Pontiac) and the other was the Gospel Singing Jubilee “with your hosts, the Florida Boys.” The latter show featured such well-known groups as the Inspirations, the Hinsons, the Happy Goodman Family and the Dixie Echoes. It also featured a young fellow that they billed as “Little Stevie Sanders” who would grow up to replace William Golden in the Oak Ridge Boys for a while. He later took his own life. Very sad.

The church in which I grew up, The Midway Baptist Church on City Pond Road (although I thought during my childhood that the road was named “County Maintained” because that was what the only sign on it said) four miles outside of Barnesville, Georgia had a Gospel Singing one Saturday night each month. Midway also held Homecoming on the second Sunday in June (I think they still do) and that day included all-day singing and dinner on the grounds (that means we set the serving tables up outside, if any of you are city folk or otherwise among the uninitiated). The gospel groups that were invited to sing at Homecoming had usually been screened at the Saturday night singings.

I remember a few of the groups quite well. One was the Crossroads Quartet. They were pretty good but they earned an infamous place in Midway history when they recommended a prospective pastor to us who proved to be very controversial. When the vote on calling him as pastor deteriorated into an election between him and our former pastor, the beloved Preacher Bill, and he lost, half of the church left to go start another church. I think he preached for them for a little while.

The piano player for the Crossroads Quartet, who was a young fellow, left them to start another group made up of men who were young like himself. He called the group Ronnie Calhoun and the Psalmist. They were the most professional sounding group we ever had at Midway. I must say, though, that the teenage girls of our church embarrassed themselves whenever the Psalmist came around. You’d have thought we were having a visitation by the Beatles or at least Herman’s Hermits. So far as I know, no one ever threw any undergarments at the lads.

One Saturday night the Psalmist and a family group whose name escapes me were the featured acts. Ronnie and his group played first and did their usual smooth job. Then the other group took the stage. They were something of a bluegrass group. I don’t think they were very good, but I was really in no position to judge such music. Following the Psalmist, though, they didn’t come off very well. Lots of people walked outside while they were singing. I was one of them. I’m not proud of that. But I was probably fifteen years old; lots of the folks who walked out should have been grown enough to know better.

Another group that I remember was the Melody Makers. They, like the Crossroads Quartet, had both male and female members in the group. The member that I remember was the pianist and lead singer. He was a large man with a small head who thoroughly enjoyed what he was doing. I even remember one of their songs. It was called Termites in the Temple. Midway was one of those churches that was filled with instigators and agitators and the song surely fit us. Of course, the protagonists in whatever conflicts were going on assumed that the lyrics fit the folks on the other side. The song talked about troublemakers in the church. The chorus said,

Termites! Exterminate them!
Ever more the church must stand!
Praise God there’ll be no termites in the temple
Over in the Promised Land!

And all the people said, “Amen.”

When my father was the song leader at Midway (he was qualified, I guess, by the facts that he did not read music, could not play an instrument, didn’t sing particularly well, but didn’t mind getting up and calling out hymn numbers and waving his arm a little bit), he invited a group called the Canadians to sing. I remember him saying, “When they get up there you’re going to wonder what they’re going to do but after they start singing you’ll know.” They did sing right well. There were three of them. I think that two of them actually were from Canada. They were lumberjacks. One of them was killed by a falling tree. Very sad.

What got me to thinking about that good old gospel music was a trip taken by our church’s senior adults a couple of weeks ago in which Debra and I participated. We went to the Abbeville Opera House in Abbeville, South Carolina to see the show Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming. It had a lot of gospel songs in it. While the play had some serious aspects to it, they played a lot of it for fun. Some of our folks wondered if they were making fun.

I didn’t think so. It is what it is. Some of it is hokey; some of it is outlandish; some of it is bad theology. But somehow, I know and believe, Christ is proclaimed. And that’s really all that matters.

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