I must have been born too late. I love gospel music and nobody wants to hear it anymore.
I grew up in a little Methodist church north of Kingsport, Tennessee. We did the appropriate thing on Sunday morning, and sang with dignity out of the big, black “Methodist Hymnal.” It didn’t have titles over the hymns, just categories. It was hard to find your favorites, and it didn’t have many of those. But it contained the “ritual” we used every quarter when we had the service of Holy Communion. Otherwise, we flopped those big hymnals out just to get through the “preliminaries” and get ready to hear “preachin'”. Church was in two parts: Sunday School and Preachin’. I didn’t hear the word “worship” for the first 12 years of my life.
But Sunday night and Wednesday night were the times you lived for. Sunday night we’d sing with the help of some special paper back books, smaller than those big, black hymnals, and published by Stamps-Baxter music publishing house. Stamps-Baxter was the name of a four-part harmony quartet that sang in the 30s and 40s, and published music through the 1970s. There is a Stamps-Baxter school in Tennessee where musicians and singers can go to learn the technique of modern shaped-note singing and playing. It is really a cool thing. We loved singing out of “Inspiration No. 3.” That was the name of the edition we had purchased with bake sale and applebutter money. You can tell what country churches value by what they spend applebutter money on.
My uncle quit drinking and in his new life became our Sunday evening song leader. He loved to make us sing songs we didn’t even know. But Morrison Chapel knew how to read shaped notes, so it wasn’t a problem. We sang. And we sang with gusto. “Heavenly Sunlight,” “The Unseen Hand,” “You Hold the Keys (To the Kingdom of God),” “I Can Tell You Now the Time.” Many, many others. When Mr. Hamblin came over from the Baptist church to sing with us we could try something with good bass. “Jericho Road” was a favorite with him. “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” was another one. They just keep coming back in my mind. They were such fun songs. Of course the annoying thing was we never sang the third verse. I didn’t know the words of the third verse of any song for many years. And they are the best verses by far.
If you got bored during Sunday night preaching, you could look at the pictures on the cover of the Inspiration books and you could make it a good thirty minutes on them. The cover had a picture of Jesus, like Warner Salman’s “Head of Christ.” The back had a picture of Jesus reaching for the little lost lamb caught in a thicket. I don’t know what the preacher was preaching, but I came to know that Christ was in love with my soul.
Now I don’t have anything against the new music. It’s got its place. But I sure do miss the Sunday night singings that happened in Carter’s Valley near the state line. You would go home humming some tune that would get you through a lot of life’s messiness. And when I was in seminary chapel, sometimes those songs would just come blazing into my mind like a a sweet angelic message. I could go for weeks on the phrases and melodies from those books.
I give God thanks for the singing churches of my past.