We drive around these days listening to the radio, free or paid; listen to music from our TV satellite service; watch musical videos that entertain visually more than stimulate our hearing sense; and have a band accompanying many church services so the voices can’t be heard well. Many people can’t read music, can’t play an instrument and are uncomfortable when singing. For many we have lost that intimate connection to making music. That was not the case for many of our ancestors in northwest Florida. Music was a personal endeavor. Communities got together to sing, they enjoyed the art of lifting their voices together in harmony and many played some kind of instrument, though none were electric or amplified. What might we have lost in this transition from music as a personal expression to a passive entertainment?
My Own Music Background
Music was an integral part of my childhood. My Dad taught himself the piano (organ, accordion, and guitar) as a child, and both of my parents had beautiful voices; together and separately. My Dad could play most anything except classical music. His style was a bit like Jimmy Swaggart’s or Jerry Lee Lewis’, including the right leg out a bit from the piano and often thumping the floor in time with the song. His size 12 shoe could do a lot of thumping. My Dad sang baritone and played piano with so many gospel groups during my childhood that I can’t remember all of them, though I do remember sitting through hours of rehearsals. My Mom sang what we called a whiskey tenor. Tenor an octave higher. When singing in the choir or in a solo, she sang soprano. When singing with my Dad, he often sang lead and she sang harmony. She has a natural ear for harmony and can make nearly anyone she sings with sound better. I speak from experience. At different times of my life I’ve played the organ, guitar, violin and harp and I’ve always liked to sing – if only in the shower or the car.
My first memory of singing was a Christmas program. I was suppose to sing a duet with another little girl. Away in a Manger, two verses. I had memorized the song. My compatriot on stage didn’t and struggled with the words and the melody, not necessarily unusual for young children. My Mom says when I walked off the stage that I whispered, “Mama, she can’t sing.” I hope I’ve learned a bit more grace in the intervening years.
When I was about eight, my Dad spent a couple years working part-time as a gospel sing promoter; mostly in Florida, Georgia and Alabama. That’s when I remember meeting many of the gospel groups that are hallmarks of Southern Gospel Music in the mid-20th century: The Florida Boys, The Harvesters, The Blackwood Brothers, The Happy Goodmans, The Stamps, The Statesmen, and The LeFevres. I also got to see in concert: The Carter Family, The Chuck Wagon Gang and many more whose names have passed from memory. I last saw the Carter Family, including Mother Maybelle, a few years before she died. My first plane trip was with my Dad to Miami for a gospel sing. We came back home on the bus with the Florida Boys. We arrived home and my Mom had to cook breakfast for about 10 people that she wasn’t expecting. Having the grace of a preacher’s wife, she managed to put a spread on the big mahogany dining room table we had at the time.
I don’t know how many times we attended the Bonifay All-Night Gospel Sing, but it was a lot, nearly every year from the 50s to the early 70s. I can close my eyes and see us sitting on a blanket on the ground and looking up and listening to one or more groups sing. I can also feel the heat and humidity of late summer and see those paper fans flapping away at the air. My Dad was usually moving around the sing and socializing. Mama and I would stretch out and listen to the singing and sometimes sing along. A number of years ago I was going through the available archives for the newspaper from Bonifay at the University of West Florida and stumbled across several mentions of my 2nd great grandmother, who lived in Holmes County, attending the Bonifay All-Night Gospel Sing with one of her daughters in the early 1930s. It gave me a momentary lump in my throat. A real connection to an ancestor that I didn’t get to know; something we had both done at different times in history.
Around this same time we attended a small church where it was tradition to just sing on Wednesday nights. I remember one older woman who was always in attendance. She loved singing and had a favorite song that she requested just about every Wednesday service: Brethren, We Have Met to Worship. Not a well-known song, but we sang it so much during those years I can still sing the first verse without the song book. It is a melodic song, in flats, with a somewhat 19th century sound. It isn’t in the new Baptist Hymnal, unfortunately, but I have plenty of copies since we have more sheet music and songbooks than most sheet music companies these days. The Baptist Hymnal is my go-to for the church songs I remember well, so we have about 5 or 6 versions that span 50 years.
When I was a teenager, all three of us were in the choir at the church we attended and it was here that I begun to play the organ in public. One of my best friends played the piano for the church. She was about two years older than me and had been playing the piano since she could reach the keyboard. She was an extraordinary pianist. Her father had not let her play anything but classical and church music for years and she could play most pieces for piano. She always wanted the music in front of her and then never turned the page, regardless of the length. This was around the time that the movie, The Exodus, came out and both of us really liked the theme song so we practiced and came up with a good rendition and played it one Sunday night. Some folks liked it and some folks were scandalized that it wasn’t a religious song. We still played specials on Sunday nights after that but were cautioned to keep to religious songs.
By my late teens my Mom and I were attending an independent church. I played the organ for Mama to sing her solos, which was pretty much every Sunday, and we both sang in the choir. Each Christmas it was our job to put music to the Christmas play. In one of the early ones, I played the guitar and Mama and I sang What Child Is This and that became a yearly tradition. We always ended the program with Mama singing Oh Holy Night. I can still see and hear her and just imagining it gives me goose pimples. She had a strong voice for many years that she likes to say she developed working and singing in the field with her sisters, so I usually had the mike if we were doing a duet. I wish I had a tape recording of at least one of these, but unfortunately I don’t. That is one upside to today versus 45 years ago. Recording oral memories and singing is so much easier. If you are blessed to have the opportunity to do this, just do it… NOW. There will come a time you will be thankful for your effort. Trust me on this.
Finding Your Ancestor’s Music
I got away from playing musical instruments once I moved away from home. Busy being busy and not finding time to connect to something that made me happy. As I’ve dug deeper into my genealogy, I’ve found that music has been a part of my families, on both sides, for many years. Grandpa King led music at Yellow River Baptist Church in Okaloosa County, Florida, as well as taught Sacred Harp singing each summer to the young people in and around the church. And I suspect he organized the sing pictured below. At the church homecoming two years ago, I listened to several older members of the church from the 30s and 40s reminiscing about those singing classes. And as mentioned above, a 2nd great grandmother on Dad’s side enjoyed gospel music enough to attend the all night sing regularly. At a family funeral a number of years ago at Yellow River Baptist Church, our Barrow clan all sat together and afterwards one of the women behind us said, “I do love to hear y’all sing. You always know when you are hearing the Barrows sing.”
For my ancestors, attending church and singing was a community affair that brought families together for an activity that warmed the heart and nourished the soul. The aggregate voices were better than any instrument in sending joy and praise out into the world. I know that musical instruments figured into their entertainment: guitars, fiddles, banjos, pianos, and harmonicas. I understand one of my great-uncles could pound on a set of drums loud enough to be heard through the woods and across the road to my grandparents’ house. And I have one of his fiddles. He also played the harmonica and according to my mother would sometimes play all of them at the same time. Now that’s a visual! I can’t listen to music without moving and singing with it. I remember watching my grandmother listening to the family singing acapella after celebrating Thanksgiving and my grandparent’s anniversary (see audios below). Her foot was tapping the ground and her hands were lightly patting her legs in time to the music. So, I guess I got that from both sides as well.
Do you know how your ancestors interacted with, and enjoyed, the art of music making? Did they play an instrument (was there an inventory at their death that cataloged one or more instruments or are there stories of their skill in playing); did they have a good voice; did they write music or participate in bringing singing to their community? Document that and try to get to know the music they may have enjoyed. My guess is you will find your southern and panhandle ancestors sang and enjoyed both southern gospel and sacred harp music and certainly songs from the old hymnals. If you are feeling like doing is better than listening, sacred harp is still sung in the south. Find a local sing and attend. You will be encouraged to sing along.
Conclusion and Challenge
This blog has flowed from a very stressful December for me, one that reminded me that time can be short here. Don’t put off gathering stories and memories into a format that can be cherished after those who made them have passed. Stories and recordings make your genealogy more than a list of names. They add character, humor, and color. Those of us who cherish our family history, and the colorful history of the Florida panhandle, need to do everything we can to pull it together and put it out for others to learn from and enjoy. So my challenge to you this year is pick some aspect of your family history to better document. If you have parents and grandparents still alive that remember life in the panhandle (or anywhere else) in bygone years, get it down somehow. Our descendants will hopefully appreciate the effort.
Until Next Time.
- Southern Gospel History website
- J. D. Sumner and the Stamps – Just A Closer Walk With Thee
- The Florida Boys – Just a Little Talk With Jesus
- The Blackwood Brothers – Peace in the Valley
- The Happy Goodmans – I’m Too Near Home Album
- The Carter Family – Can The Circle Be Unbroken
- The Carter Family – Wildwood Flower
- Mount Pisgah, Stroud, AL, sacred harp rendition of Nearer My God to Thee
- First Christian Church of Birmingham, AL, 36th Annual National Sacred Harp Singing Convention – I’m Going Home
- Fasola website – a good place to start for information on sacred harp singing and locations of local sings.
- In the Sweet By and By – sung by the Barrow Family at home in 1974
- Amazing Grace – sung by the Barrow Family at home in 1974
- Ready – sung by the Barrow Family at home in 1974
- Daddy Sang Lead by Stanley Heard Brobston
- Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel by James R. Goff, Jr.
- The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music by Buell E. Cobb, Jr.