In 1923 two forces were working in the South to transform the face of American music: the radio and the phonograph record. As the various forms of traditional and grass roots music encountered these new mass media, a curious and complex chemistry developed that gradually changed the nature of the music, the musicians, and the role music played in people’s lives. Music once designed for the parlor, the back porch, the barn dance, or the church was now the creature of the radio studio, the Victrola, the fiddling contest, or the vaudeville theater. Musicians used to playing for a local audience composed of friends and family now found themselves playing on records and on radio for unseen thousands, strangers they could not hope to know, who lived in towns and counties they had never visited. Conversely, the new records and radio brought into the homes of these musicians’ new songs and new performing styles in stunning and bewildering variety. Regional musics were becoming nationalized; ethnic musics were becoming homogenized. By 1923 it had already happened to jazz and to blues, and it was about to happen to country music. Within a few more years, it would happen to the fourth major type of southern music, gospel.
The center of much of this transformation was Atlanta, then a bustling city of over 200,000, the largest in the Southeast, and the center for southern political and cultural life. In 1922 the Atlanta Journal started radio station WSB, one of the first and the most powerful stations in the South. Partly as a result of some of the local singers and musicians who became early favorites on the station, the General Phonograph Company came into the town in the summer of 1923 to record. It recorded mostly blues singers, dance bands, and some jazz groups, but it also recorded a local fiddler named John Carson-mostly as a favor to a furniture store dealer named Polk Brockman, who agreed to buy five hundred copies of the record. The jazz and blues records were moderately successful, but the Carson record became a hit, thus establishing country music as a viable genre for the record companies. For the next ten years Atlanta became the center for recording activity involving blues or country records, and each spring and fall saw recording crews trucking their bulky equipment down to Peachtree Street to set up temporary studios for the season’s harvest. Other southern towns were to host recording expeditions, but Atlanta was to remain the undisputed center: it was the Nashville of the 1920s. Much of the talent-too much, probably-was drawn from the immediate north Georgia area and included in this talent were two men who were to take gospel music-the fourth great genre of grass roots music-and adapt it to modern electronic media. These men were Andrew Jenkins and J. Frank Smith.
During the early months of WSB, a number of gospel musicians from the region appeared on the schedule. Atlanta native Charlie D. Tillman, a well-known evangelist and composer (“Life’s Railway to Heaven”), began broadcasting over the station as early as April 13, 1922, barely a month after it opened. Tillman, who was then sixty-one years old and had enjoyed a long and successful career associating with nineteenth-century greats like Ira Sankey and Sam P. Jones, was a rare case of an older musician who eagerly embraced the new media; he later (in 1925) was to make some very early records. Tillman often appeared with Mrs. Jewell Tillman Burns, his daughter; their program of August 2, 1922, included Tillman’s own popular song “Old Time Religion,” as well as “One Day at a Time, “God so Loved the World,” and others. Bernard Owen, a blind singer-evangelist from Decatur, Georgia, became a semiregular on the station, and on August 1 the Sacred Harp Singers from the Atlanta Primitive Baptist Church offered what the Atlanta Journal described as “the first radio concert in history” featuring “old-fashioned fa-so-la songs.” Directed by B. F. White, Jr., whose father had edited the original Sacred Harp, the group performed “Pisgah” and “Easter Anthem.” The program was popular, and the group returned several times for more singing over the airwaves. While sacred singing appeared in the morning as well as late at night, much of it began gravitating to a noon-hour program called “The Industrial Hour,” designed to appeal to local factory workers taking their lunch break.
Jenkins first appeared, apparently, on August 14, 1922. His program that day reflected the diversity of his repertoire and his versatility on different instruments. He opened by singing “The Gospel Train” and “When Jesus Found Me,” played two trombone solos, did a duet with stepdaughter Mary Lee Eskew (“Mothers Prayers”), presided over two light classical piano pieces by stepdaughter Irene Spain, and joined both women in a trio version of “I Am Happy.” While the program was largely sacred, it contained distinct concessions to current radio taste in the piano and trombone numbers. And it was popular. By September Jenkins was appearing regularly, billed by the Journal as “the newsboy-evangelist-poet” (reflecting the fact that Jenkins often recited his own poems, on a variety of subjects). Soon Jenkins was being asked to fill an entire hour of programming, and he included string bands as well as other singers; in early 1923 he added a “Sunshine Chorus” (the singing class of the Fox Street Methodist Church in Atlanta) to his show and had them doing sprightly numbers like “Gospel Waves,” “Raise Me Jesus,” and his own “Sing It and Tell It.” By February 1923 he was conducting an “old-time revival” over the air, in which he played the trombone, sang, conducted his Sunshine Chorus, and preached a sermon. On yet another program he demonstrated his ability to playa dozen instruments on the air, including guitar, harmonica, accordion, Jew’s harp, and banjo-in addition to his more common instruments. His success with the vast listening audience was now so impressive that the Journal dropped the “newsboy-evangelist” epithet and began calling Jenkins simply “The Reverend,” and more and more he began to concentrate on what the Journal called “old time gospel songs.” A review of a Jenkins program in June 1923 published in the Atlanta Journal gives some indication of how his programs were developed:
RADIO WORLD APPLAUDS HOMELY GOSPEL MELODIES ON DR. JENKINS’ PROGRAM
Fans seldom ever hear the kind of program broadcast by WSB for its Radio audience Wednesday night and The Journal station is probably the only one in the country that has broadcast exactly the type of concert that was in the air at that time with the Rev. Andrew Jenkins, blind evangelist-news dealer as the director.
A genuine old-time, old-fashioned program of gospel songs, sung and played by the versatile evangelist, assisted by his two daughters, Mrs. Irene Spain, pianist, and Miss Mary Lee Eskew, vocalist and accompanist, was the unique offering from The Voice of the South Wednesday evening.
Dr. Jenkins and his regular coterie of musical assistants has one of the largest following of any of WSB’s stars, especially at the noon hour broadcasts. That everybody loves the old-time religious tunes is plainly evidenced every time the Reverend comes to WSB’s studio. He has never yet carried out his prearranged program because of the flood of requests that pile in every time he gives a program. After his first number he is too busy trying to satisfy the demands of listeners to adhere to any prescribed schedule.
Though singing is Dr. Jenkins’ principal forte, he masters a variety of other accomplishments, among them being a harmonica, a guitar, a whistle, a kazoo, a trombone and sometimes the piano.
His two talented daughters have been his able allies since radio first discovered Atlanta’s remarkable character. Mrs. Spain is quite accomplished as a pianist and little Miss Eskew does her bit by joining with Dr. Jenkins in duets by sometimes giving the piano accompaniments and occasionally contributing a vocal solo of her own.
A few of the favorite old-time religious hymns that gave WSB’s Radio audience a taste of something different from the usual offerings were: “The Pearly White City”; “Onward”; “The Church in the Wildwood”; “Standing in the Need of Prayer”; “How Tedious and Tasteless the Hours”; “Abide with Me”; “Eat at the Welcome Table”; “Awake to the Harvest”; “Old Rugged Cross”; and a number of others.
As a note of contrast Mrs. Spain played as piano solos, “Napoleon’s Last Charge”; “Rose Dreams”; and “11 Trovatore,” while Miss Eskew held up her half of the duets with “Sweet and Low”; “Flow Gently Sweet Afton”; and “Shall We Meet.”
Jenkins had been born in 1885 in, oddly enough, Jenkinsburg, Georgia, and was partially blinded as an infant when the wrong medication was dropped into his eyes. (By coincidence, the blind singer Riley Puckett, Jenkins’s secular counterpart on the Atlanta old-time music scene, was totally blinded in a similar way.) As a young man, Jenkins had two passions: religion and music. Family members recall him mounting tree stumps as a child to preach to them and their neighbors, and in 1909, when he was twenty-four, he preached his first sermon at a church in Atlanta. He was doubtless influenced by the great renaissance in popular evangelism that preceeded World War I, with men like Billy Sunday using modern media and methods to attract huge crowds; two Atlanta residents, Charlie Tillman and Sam P. Jones, were especially interesting to Jenkins because they combined their music with their ministry. He began to travel around the country conducting revivals and tent meetings, eventually covering much of the Southeast. He began to write original sacred songs and published many of them with the Morris-Henson Publishing Company in Atlanta, one of the South’s leading publishers of church books and singing convention books. His output was large enough, and good enough, that he had published an entire collection of his own songs before 1920. In 1919 he married an Atlanta widow named Eskew and found himself stepfather to three gifted children, including a married daughter, Irene Spain, who was to become an important part of his career. She was a skilled pianist and could read and transcribe music. Jenkins formed a family singing group around these stepchildren, and this was the group he brought into the studios of WSB on that hot August day in 1922. At that time Jens was in fact a newspaper seller, working for the Atlanta Journal, having a newsstand in downtown Atlanta.
With the success of John Carson’s Atlanta-made phonograph records in 1923, Polk Brockman, the furniture dealer who had arranged for Carson’s recordings, began to act as a talent scout for the General Phonograph Company, lining up similar acts for them to record. Brockman had listened to Jenkins on the radio, noted his appeal, and arranged for him to record during the company’s field trip to the town in August 1924. The overall session included new material by Carson, as well as first recordings by banjoist Land Norris, singer Roba Stanley, and a handful of religious tunes by Mr. and Mrs. J. Douglas Swaggerty (he was a formally trained choirmaster of an Atlanta church) and by the Georgia Sacred Harp Quartet. The Jenkins family recorded eight selections: six Jenkins originals and two other familiar tunes, “If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again” and “The Church in the Wildwood.” Perhaps nervous about the appeal of “new” old-time gospel songs, the company released these last two titles first, on Okeh 40214. “If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again” had been written just two years before, in 1922, by John Whitfield Vaughan, with James Rowe. Vaughan (not to be confused with gospel publisher James D. Vaughan) was an Alabama native who, by coincidence, had studied at James D. Vaughan’s school of music and had himself established a sound reputation as a composer and as a singing school teacher. This song was to become his most famous, due in no small part to the remarkable sales of Jenkins’s recordings. The song was later to be recorded by dozens of gospel groups and by early country artists like Kirk McGee, Wade Mainer, and Mac and Bob. The other side of the release, William Pitts’s 1864 standard “The Church in the Wildwood,” with its chorus of “Come, come, come, come” known to every schoolchild, was equally popular, and in the fall of 1924 the record was selling as well as Carson’s fiddle tunes. Okeh quickly released the other six sides (one of which, “I Got Mine,” was a revival parody of a popular blues lyric about a dice game) and scheduled another recording session by Jenkins in December 1924. At the first session Jenkins and his daughters, perhaps awed by the technology of the recording studio, had sung rather stiffly and formally, and featured Irene Spain’s organlike melodeon. At the second session they loosened up and used mandolin and guitar accompaniment to Jenkins’s sprightly originals like “Sing It and Tell It” as well as old Fanny Crosby hymns like “Jesus Is Calling” and standards like “The Old Rugged Cross.”
The Jenkins family appeared to be on the verge of establishing themselves as the first successful white gospel group to record for a major record company, but history intervened. In January 1925 a Kentucky spelunker named Floyd Collins was trapped in a sand cave; efforts to get him out attracted national attention, and Brockman asked Jenkins to write a song about the tragedy. In four hours Jenkins composed “The Death of Floyd Collins” and sent it off to New York to be recorded by Vernon Dalhart. The lament was hugely successful and set off a national fad for “event songs”; soon Brockman and other publishers were beating a path to Jenkins’s door, asking for more songs about current events or recent disasters. Jenkins, a facile composer, complied, and he became known as the country’s leading songster in this mode. “Daddy made songs similarly to the mill grinding out wheat,” recalled his stepdaughter. Jenkins did not make as much money from these event ballads as he should have-he usually sold them outright for a fee-but they did give him a secure niche in the history of country music.
Unfortunately, his work as a writer of topical songs in the traditional style has overshadowed his work as a gospel singer and composer. Gospel songs were his first love: his stepdaughter estimated that he composed about three hundred ballads and “tragedies,” but possibly as many as five hundred gospel songs. His most enduring gospel song was “God Put a Rainbow in the Clouds,” still often heard and recorded today. Even in his event songs, though, he tried to insert some modicum of morality by adding a characteristic “warning verse” at the end of his songs. After the fad for event songs passed, the Jenkins family continued with their radio work and recording; they were to remain on WSB weekly until 1931 and were on other regional stations until Jenkins died in a car wreck in 1957. But when they returned to gospel music recording after a digression into the pop field, the gospel record market had already been breached by another north Georgian, J. Frank Smith.
The man who was to revolutionize gospel music recording, J. Frank Smith, was born in 1885 near Braselton, Jackson County, Georgia, about fifty miles northeast of Atlanta. His family originated in Tyler, Texas, and moved back into Georgia sometime before the turn of the century; there Frank Smith grew up, attending rural singing schools taught by area musicians, one of whom was composer and publisher John B. Vaughan from nearby Athens. He became a barber by trade and by 1910 had married and established a shop in Braselton; in his spare time he taught rural singing schools and organized a quartet to sing at local churches and funerals. Sometimes in early 1926 the quartet traveled to Atlanta to sing over WSB; this was a common practice in the mid-1920s, and every Sunday WSB airwaves were filled with various amateur groups from the outlying areas. Smith’s group did well and impressed Frank Walker, a talent scout and A &R man for Columbia records.
Walker had arrived in Atlanta on April 17, 1926, to seek out and record fresh talent for the newly created Columbia 15000 series, the “Old Familiar Tunes” series, designed to appeal to rural and southern audiences. Walker was following the lead of Brockman and Ralph Peer, who had demonstrated that there was at least a limited market for old-time music on record. Two of the more successful recording artists for Okeh were Carson and the Jenkins family; Walker felt he had found a Columbia counterpart to Carson in a new fiddle band he had just recorded, the Skillet Lickers, and was now interested in finding a Columbia answer to the Jenkins family. When he heard Smith’s Sacred Singers, he invited them to come in for a test recording on April 23, at the end of his week’s recording activities.
The group that appeared at the temporary Columbia studios set up in the Kimball House Hotel in Atlanta that morning consisted of Smith himself, who sang lead; the Reverend M. 1. Thrasher, who sang bass; Clyde B. Smith (no relation to Frank), who played the violin and sang baritone; Clyde’s nephew, Clarence Cronic, who had an amazingly high tenor voice and played guitar; and Mrs. T. C. Llewellyn, who played piano. All were from the Braselton area and from diverse backgrounds. Smith was a devout Methodist; Thrasher was a Congregationalist minister; Cronic was interested in country music as well as gospel music. All could read music, and, though Smith had carefully rehearsed them, all sang from their shape-note songbooks at the session. Smith had coached them ahead of time: “Every noise will come out of your mouth,” he told them. “Be sure you do not pat your feet.” After voice tests were completed, the Columbia engineers marked each singer’s position on the floor with chalk; with only one microphone used, each person had to stand just the right distance to get the correct balance.
Smith had chosen for his two test records “Pictures from Life’s Other Side” and “Where We’ll Never Grow Old.” The former was an old favorite by Georgia composer John B. Vaughan, who had published it in one of his songbooks (Windows of Heaven, no. 8, ca. 1900) brought out in Athens, just a county away from where Smith grew up. (Again, this John B. Vaughan should not be confused with Tennessee publisher and composer James D. Vaughan nor with Alabama composer John W. Vaughan; none are related.) “Where We’ll Never Grow Old” had been written by another Georgia native, the Reverend James Cleveland Moore from Paulding County (west of Atlanta), and published in 1914, when Moore was barely twenty-six. Both Moore and John Vaughan, though a generation apart, were products of the rich singing convention heritage of north Georgia. A 1922 Atlanta Journal article on Vaughan (who died in 1918) remarked that it was in the area of “the all-day singing societies” that Vaughan “contributed the wealth of his genius.” For his part, Moore was a singing school teacher for some twenty-three years and an officer in the Georgia-Florida-Alabama Tri-State Singing Convention. Any rural north Georgia singer in 1926 would probably have known both songs; and, in fact, “Land Where We’ll Never Grow” had been recorded a month before by the Jenkins family for Okeh, but the record had not yet been released.
On “Pictures from Life’s Other Side” (the title is often mistakenly given as “A Picture….”) Frank Smith sang the verse solo over rather fast 3/4-time guitar chords by Cronic; he delivered it in a strong, yet not stilted, style, full of glides and “feathering”-high pitched catches characteristic of many traditional ballad singers. When the Sacred Singers came in, on the chorus, Cronic did an “echo” on the last two words of the line, a stylistic trait of the southern singing convention style, which had been written in Vaughan’s original arrangement of the song. The text of the song was a classic moral lecture that brings to mind one of eighteenth-century painter William Hogarth’s “progresses,” or series of pictures, such as Gin Lane, which were intended to shock and reform.
In the world’s mighty gallery of pictures, Are the scenes that are painted from life, There are scenes of quiet grief and of pleasure, The picture of love and strife. A picture of youth and of beauty, Old age and a blushing young bride, All hung on the wall, but the saddest of all, Are the pictures from life’s other side.
Tis a picture from life’s other side,
Somebody has fell by the way,
For a life has gone out with the tide,
That might have been happy some day.
The poor old mother at home,
Is watching and waiting alone,
Waiting to hear, from a loved one so dear,
Tis a picture from life’s other side.
The first one’s a scene of a gambler, Who had lost all his money at play, Drew his dead mother’s ring from his finger, That she wore on her wedding day, When at last the pleasure he sated, And vows that his game he might hide, When they lifted his head, they found he was dead, Tis a picture from life’s other side.
The next was a scene of two brothers, Whose paths in life differently led, The one was in luxury living, The other one begged for his bread, Then one night they met on the highway, “Your money or life,” the thief cried, He then with his knife took his own brother’s life, Tis a picture from life’s other side.
The original text of Vaughan’s song contained yet one other picture, an unmarried mother and her baby about to jump into the river, but the three-minute limit of the phonograph record made Smith omit that one. Though not a gospel song in the strict sense of the term-there are no overt references to Jesus or salvation-the song was representative of many sentimental songs that were to find favor with the new generation of gospel singers. “Pictures from Life’s Other Side” went on to become a country and gospel standard; it was featured in the 1930s by Bradley Kincaid and turned into a recitation by Hank Williams in 1950. It was even featured by vaudeville singer Hal White, and by 1928 it was considered enough of a chestnut to show up in More Pious Friends and Drunken Companions, a popular compilation by Frank Shay and artist John Held, Jr.
In spite of all this, Smith felt that the serious side of his first record was “Where We’ll Never Grow Old.” This is a more stately performance, with a formal piano introduction; it is delivered in a more straightforward manner, with little part singing. Three voices seem to sing the verse in simple harmony, Smith’s lead prominent among them; they are joined on the chorus by Thrasher’s bass. Though the voices are much more expressive-full of glides and hitches—they are reminiscent of the older, formal quarter style featured on earlier records by northern singers like the Peerless Quartet and Mel Trotter’s Quartet. Unlike “Pictures,” “Where We’ll Never Grow Old” does contain specific references to Christ:
I have heard of a land, on the far away strand, ‘Tis a beautiful home of the soul, Built by Jesus on high, where we never shall die, ‘Tis a land where we never grow old.
Like “Pictures,” this song too became a standard in country and gospel circles in the later 1920s and the 1930s: it was widely reprinted in Stamps-Baxter songbooks and was often recorded-“recorded on practically every phonograph record,” mused Otis Knippers in his 1937 directory, Who’s Who among Southern Singers and Composers.
The main reason for the continued popularity of both songs was the success of Smith’s record, which was released August 30, 1926, on Columbia 15090. Sales were sudden and spectacular. Within sixty days Columbia’s Atlanta office alone sold 15,000 copies, and Columbia officials in New York were claiming that “the record had made the largest sale since its release of any sacred record ever released by the company”-including earlier records by artists like Homer Rodeheaver. Sales were eventually to top over 277,000, making Columbia 15090 one of the highest selling old time recordings of the 1920s. (It was topped in Columbia’s “Old Familiar Tunes” series only by Dalhart’s 1925 Columbia version of Jenkins’s “The Death of Floyd Collins.”)
Columbia rushed Smith’s group back into the studios on November 2, 1926, to do ten more sides, and signed him to an exclusive contract. The amazing string of hits continued: “Shouting on the Hills” and “The Eastern Gate” (Columbia 15110), released on December 20, eventually was to sell over 68,000 copies; “Going Down the Valley,” dating from 1890, was paired with “If I’m Faithful to My Lord” on Columbia 15128, released on March 20, 1927, and did almost 75,000 copies; a cover of “I Will Sing of My Redeemer,” the old Bliss-McGranahan song popularized by Perry Kim and Einar Nyland three years before, coupled with “He Will Set Your Fields on Fire” on Columbia 15144 (May 1927), sold almost 40,000. Sales were helped when the first two Smith records were selected for inclusion in the 1927 Montgomery Ward’s catalogue, which featured a small number of Columbia releases. This was at a time when the average Columbia release was selling 20,000 to 25,000 copies, and smaller labels were selling far less.
The lesson was not wasted on Columbia’s rivals, and by mid-1927 the first big gospel boom in records was on. Companies fell over themselves to find their own sacred singers, or, lacking that, to create them. Okeh quickly redubbed the Jenkins family the Jenkins Sacred Singers and rushed them into the studio to cover “Pictures from Life’s Other Side”; a few months later they found Matt Simmons’s Sacred Singers in Winston-Salem and released a half dozen records by them. Brunswick executives created a studio group called the Old Southern Sacred Singers, composed originally of Vernon Dalhart, Wilfred Glenn, Bob Gardner, and Lester McFarland-all veteran recording professionals-and in May rushed them into the studio to do a cover of “Pictures” and “Where We’ll Never Grow Old.” Later that year Brunswick was to find a more authentic group, the Flat Creek Sacred Singers, from West Virginia, but their records were not as successful as those by the studio group. The Old Southern Sacred Singers went on to record some twelve songs for Brunswick, many of which sold well. Brunswick’s sister company, Vocalion, even persuaded Tennessee banjoist and songster Uncle Dave Macon to convert his string band, which he called his Fruit Jar Drinkers, into the Dixie Sacred Singers for one memorable session of sacred tunes in May 1927. Several months earlier Victor had done the same thing with Ernest Stoneman’s band, persuading them to record ten sacred selections as the Dixie Mountaineers before doing a set of fiddle tunes as Ernest Stoneman’s Virginia Sorebacks.
Meanwhile, back in Georgia, Smith was starting to get some idea of the excitement he was causing in the record industry and with thousands of listeners throughout the South and West. Braselton was so small that the town had no mail truck, and the post office soon found that it had to deliver Smith’s huge sacks of fan mail in a wagon; his daughter recalls, “There were so many letters, there wasn’t any way of keeping them, but he kept some he wanted. He laughed and laughed about one letter-they wanted to know if it was a colored quartet.” Another letter that pleased him was from a man in Baltimore, who had had the recording of “Going Down the Valley” played at his father’s funeral. Invitations poured in from everywhere asking the group to come and sing, but they seldom traveled more than a hundred-mile radius from Braselton, usually singing at church gatherings, funerals, and all-day singing conventions. They never attempted to professionalize their work beyond this. Smith was deluged with free songbooks from the various publishers-Henson, Stamps-Baxter, and Vaughan-in hopes that he would select one of their new songs for one of his recordings. Here, too, though, he resisted the temptation to affiliate with anyone publisher, though Henson, based in nearby Atlanta, made a strong pitch. Smith continued to work quietly as a barber, enjoying small-town life and reading the Sunday comics to the neighborhood children on his porch. From time to time he would get letters from Columbia asking him to prepare songs for a new session, and he would select his songs and begin rehearsing his group.
Unlike many early gospel groups, Smith’s Sacred Singers went through several important personnel shifts. By mid-1927 the Reverend Thrasher had dropped out, feeling he could do better with his own group; meanwhile Smith moved from Braselton to nearby Lawrenceville and found it more convenient to recruit a new set of singers from there. Thrasher took some of the original group-including the Cronic Brothers-and began recording under his own name for Columbia, with some success; his “When the Role Is Called Up Yonder” and “What Shall We Do With Mother” (Columbia 15207, 1927) sold almost 50,000 records. Willie Fowler joined Smith as second tenor, Charley Hall sang baritone, and W. A. Brewer (later Bob Coker) did the base. For a time a Mrs. John Wheeler sang with them, and accompanists included a blind fiddler named Cooper, from Dacula, hometown of Gid Tanner, leader of the Skillet Lickers. Indeed, on one occasion Skillet Licker Fate Norris rehearsed with Smith’s singers, though he never actually recorded. (A more typical relationship between Smith and the Skillet Lickers consisted of Tanner and crew mugging through the studio glass to try to distract Smith’s group as they were recording.)
Smith went on to record a total of sixty-six songs for Columbia between 1926 and 1930-more than any other single gospel group in that time recorded for any company. In 1934-36 he recorded an additional thirty-eight titles for Bluebird, the Victor subsidiary, with a group that included tenor Joe Day, bass Bob Coker, baritone Willie Fowler, and, on one session, a young Byron Whitworth (then with the Henson company in Atlanta) on piano. Almost every one of his Columbia records sold as well as the secular efforts of Riley Puckett, Charlie Poole, Darby and Tarlton, the Skillet Lickers, and even Vernon Dalhart. Later hits included “City of Gold” “Climbing up the Golden Stairs” (1927) and “Gospel Waves” (1928), which sold almost 100,000 copies; many of the songs were to become favorites of later generations: “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning” (1928), “My Latest Sun Is Sinking Fast” (“Angel Band”) (1928), and “The Unclouded Day” (1929).
Unlike some of the quartets affiliated with publishing houses, Smith’s Sacred Singers did not stack their repertoire with new singing convention or quartet specialties. They continually drew their more successful pieces from the rich tradition of nineteenth-century gospel hymnody with which Smith himself had grown up. Many of his songs came from nineteenth-century north Georgia composers like Vaughan, Tillman, Moore, and F. M. Ferrell, author of “Gospel Waves.” At least twelve of the songs came from one source alone: the 1895 compilation of Gospel Hymns, Nos. 1 to 6, edited by Sankey, McGranahan, and Stebbins. “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning” is a Phillip Bliss song, and “Going Down the Valley” dates from 1890, while William Bradbury’s “Oh Come, Angel Band” dates back yet another generation. The Reverend J. K. Alwood’s “The Unclouded Day” had been a favorite of Homer Rodeheaver, who had made several earlier recordings of it. Smith’s role was to take these songs, many of them known to his audience, and perform them in a familiar southern singing style, with the accompaniment of the fiddle, guitar, or piano. In doing so, he, more than anyone else, convinced the big commercial record companies that white gospel music had a place in their catalogues of old time and country music. By the time he died, in 1937, every company had recorded major gospel singers and composers.
Charles K. Wolfe (1943-2006) was a professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University. He was the author of the award-winning A Good-Natured Riot: The Birth of the Grand Ole Opry and many other books on Southern music.
NOTES ON SOURCES
The materials in this essay have been drawn from a variety of sources, both written and oral, over a period of years. Listed here are the most useful and most reliable of these sources. For the history of Andrew Jenkins, I have drawn primarily on the papers and correspondence between Irene Spain Futrelle and Archie Green in the archives of the John Edwards Memorial Foundation at the University of California at Los Angeles, as well as files of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, the research of D. K. Wilgus, Archie Green’s early article, “Hear These Beautiful Sacred Tunes” in 1970 Yearbook of the International Folk Music Council, reprinted by the JEMF Reprint Series, UCLA, an Judith McCulloh’s “Hillbilly Records and Tune Transcriptions,” from Western Folklore, 26 (1967), also available as a JEMP Reprint. For the history of Smith’s Sacred Singers, I have drawn on personal interviews with Mr. and Mrs. Sid Mosely, Lawrenceville, Ga., 1977; Mr. Wilie Fowler, Stone Mountain, Ga., 1977; and Bob Coker, Buford, Ga., 1977. Supplementary materials were provided by the staff of the University of Georgia Library, Athens, and by David Freeman.
American Music Spring 1983 ©1983. Used by permission of Mary Dean Wolfe