In the process of discovering and preserving the musical folk traditions of West Georgia, we also had the opportunity to capture these traditions as they occurred in the field. This involved attending and recording events such as black gospel singings and Sacred Harp shape note singings as well as taking artists into the studio to make new recordings of songs they frequently perform at various events. These recordings showcase musicians carrying on the folk traditions of West Georgia.
Sandra Byrd has lived in Carrollton, Georgia, her whole life. She comes from a musical family and has been singing since she was a child. Her mother and aunts are The Long Sister, another group featured on this album. “I Wish” was the first song Sandra sang in public at her home church of Antioch Baptist. Her a cappella performance carries on the long tradition of unaccompanied black spirituals from the pre-Civil War era.
The Sewell Singers were all employees of the Sewell Manufacturing Company, whose clothing plants were located in the West Georgia area. There was no regular lineup of group members. Instead, the group at any given time consisted of whomever was available to perform. This particular recording, which was originally broadcast over WLBB in the 1960s, featured approximately fifteen singers. Among them was Onie Baxter, who can also be heard on this CD performing with her group the Bluegrass Five.
Sewell Manufacturing founder and owner Roy Sewell was a great fan of southern gospel music. His sponsorship of the Sewell Singers reflected the personal interest he took in his employees and the community image they projected. Such sponsorship is also a reminder of the corporate paternalism that was so common in mills and manufacturing plants in the Southeast during much of the twentieth century.
BABYLON IS FALLEN
By The Sacred Harp Singers of West Georgia
(The Sacred Harp, 1991 Denson Edition)
Recorded August 4, 2002, Wilson Chapel
This performance is representative of many Sacred Harp songs, including their focus on the afterlife and the power of Jesus to shape individual lives. It was recorded at the 150th Chattahoochee Singing Convention, held in Carroll County, Georgia, at Wilson’s Chapel, a building made specifically for Sacred Harp singings. This convention’s one hundred fifty year existence is a testimony to the popularity of this tradition in the West Georgia.
As young children, the United Shape Note Singers learned the shape-note tradition from their families. They are one of the few groups to carry on this tradition. Their performance differs from white shape-note singing in its use of heavier, syncopated rhythm, more clapping, and greater verbal direction from the leader, such as commands to “resound” and “sing.” While this song has origins in commercial gospel music, performances such as this one have made it a part of folk tradition. This recording was made at the group’s home institution of Mount Olivet Missionary Baptist Church, just west of the town of Villa Rica.
WE ARE GOING DOWN THE VALLEY
By the Allen Quartet
Recorded March 22, 1927
James Allen-vocals; Hubert Calvin Allen-Vocals; William Luther Allen-vocals; Basil Saxon-organ; Tal Saxon-vocals
The Allen Quartet, a family group from rural Haralson County, Georgia, may have been the first group from the West Georgia area to make commercial recordings for Okeh Records. This performance comes from the golden age of gospel in the 1920s, a time when the popularity of southern gospel was growing rapidly throughout the Southeast, thanks to touring quartets and records such as those by the Allen Quartet.
INSIDE THE PEARLY GATES
By The Holmes Family
(Rone Norton, Newt Holmes)
Recorded ca. 1960s
Newt Holmes-piano, vocals; Yuvonne Frashier-vocals; Louise Holmes-vocals; N.J. Deforr-mandolin
The Holmes Family of West Georgia consisted of husband and wife Newt and Louise, their daughter Yvonne, and later, their son-in-law, Randle. Local musician N.J. “Slim” Defoor, who had been a member of a hillbilly band from Villa Rica called the Georgia Playboys in the 1940s played mandolin. Very popular for decades in West Georgia, the Holmes Family had its own program on WLBB until the 1990s. “Inside the Pearly Gates” was their most requested song at funerals. The lyrics reflect how people in the West Georgia community viewed death and faith: “Dear children don’t weep/dear children don’t mourn,” about a loved one’s death sums up the positive and welcoming attitude many Christians take regarding death. As in “Babylon is Fallen,” the common theme of Christ’s victory and reward in death is clear.
WON’T IT BE GRAND
By the Simpson Sisters
Februrary 12 and 13, 2005, Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church
Christine Brewer-vocals; Sybil Pearson-lead vocals; Vera Willams-vocals; Carolyn Jones-vocals
Christine, Sybil, Vera, and Carolyn, known as the Simpson Sisters, sing old spirituals, new gospel, and everything in between. Their tight harmony and enthusiasm can make the most stoic people in their audience get up and dance. This a cappella performance of “Won’t It Be Grand” exhibits the improvisation and almost chant-like repetition that are common to black gospel performances. It was recorded at the Simpson Sisters Anniversary Singing in February in Roopville, Georgia.
I SHALL NOT BE MOVED
By Gospel Expressions
(Homer F. Morris)
Stamps-Baxter Music (BMI)
Recorded April 23, 2005, Butler Sound Studios
Faye Marshall-guitar, vocals; Lamar Blanton-mandolin, vocals; Amos Wilder-guitar, vocals; Talmadge Richardson-bass; James Knight-lead vocals
The bluegrass band Gospel Expression features Faye Marshall, who also sang and played guitar on the title track, “He Will Set Your Fields on Fire.” Marshall has been performing country and bluegrass gospel music most of her life, much of it with her siblings Rayford and Eugene Akers in the Radio Homefolks and the Akers Trio. Here, Gospel Expressions perform a song common in both black and white communities. Their traditional bluegrass rendition features the genre’s characteristic fast, driving sound.
WHAT A MEETING
By Joe and Gina Ables
(G. Walker, B. Walker)
GHR Music (BMI)
Joe Ables-lead vocals; Steve Easter-steel guitar; Gina Ables-accompanying vocals; Mike Pillow-bass; William Brown-vocals; Jonathan Presnell-drums; Danny Crawford-keyboard; Randy Miller-harmonica; Joel Key-guitar
Joe and Gina Ables incorporate a faster sound, more musical accompaniment, and a wider vocal range than do more traditional southern gospel groups. This style evolved in the 1950s and 1960s, but one can still hear traces of the Allen Quartet in lyrical subject, vocal patterns, and the tight harmony that rarely strays from the written music.
Joe and Gina are from Newnan, Georgia, and recorded this song in nearby Whitesburg. Although Joe has been singing most of his life, he only began recording in 1997. He and his wife Gina perform in churches, community centers, and festivals throughout the Southeast, and as far away as Ontario, Canada.
THE DRESSING UP ROOM
By Jackie Dobbs
Recorded February 12 and 13, 2005
Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church
Jackie Dobbs-lead vocals; Norvis Dunson-vocals; Mary Dedrick-vocals; Vera Williams-vocals
Jackie Dobbs had not planned to attend the singing at which “The Dressing Up Room” was recorded, but we are glad her sisters Mary Dedrick and Norvis Dunson, who sing with her on this recording, convinced her to come. They learned the song from their mother, which makes it special as an orally-transmitted family folk tradition.
Norvis Dunson remarked that this song is performed frequently in the African American Community. Recorded at the 2005 Simpson Sisters Anniversary Singing, it is another fine example of the tight harmony, improvisation, and repetition that is prevalent in black gospel music.
I NEVER SHALL FORGET THE DAY
By The United Shape Note Singers
Recorded April 30, 2005, Mt. Olivet Baptist Church
This song is popular among white and black congregations. The “Red Book” from which this song was performed contains a great deal of popular music from the early twentieth century. The idea of varied groups performing the same songs from the same book in different regions gets to the core of folk traditions. These separate communities adapt the songs in ways that fit their community best.
I’LL NEVER TURN BACK
By The Thomas A. Dorsey Birthplace Choir
Hill and Range Songs (ASCAP)
Recorded April 9, 2005, Mt. Prospect Baptist Church
Various Vocalists; Eric Ayers-Organ; Phyllis Ayers-lead vocals
The Thomas A. Dorsey Birthplace Choir honors the memory of one of the fathers of Gospel music. While Dorsey spent most of his life in Chicago, Illinois, he was born in the West Georgia community of Villa Rica, a fact of which the choir is proud. The choir is based in Dorsey’s first home church, Mt. Prospect Baptist Church, and performs throughout the area. While they sing songs other than Dorsey’s, this selection is one of his compositions.
Alton Stitcher became a local celebrity with the 2003 release of his solo album I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling, produced by the Center for Public History. Born in 1916 in Villa Rica, Stitcher has been singing sacred music and folk tunes most of his life. A former textile mill worker, he was a familiar voice on WLBB, the local radio station, from the late 1940s until the early 1960s.
With its simple melody, “Great Speckled Bird” is representative of the sound of early southern gospel. While other recordings of the song feature different speeds and rhythms, Sticher puts a slow lilt to it that gives it a feel reminiscent of the Allen Quartet.
IT’S ME AGAIN LORD
By The Bluegrass Five
Recorded 1970, Cobb County Bluegrass Festival
J.N. Baxter-guitar, lead vocals; Ron Norman-banjo; Onie Baxter-guitar, vocals; Howard McGuire-bass; Hughie Wylie-mandolin
The Bluegrass Five, led by husband and wife J.N. and Onie Baxter, have been performing bluegrass gospel for more than forty years in churches and at bluegrass festivals throughout the Southeast and are still very active. “It’s Me Again Lord” was recorded live at a Georgia bluegrass festival in 1970. Local and regional bluegrass festivals remain very popular. While members of the band have come and gone over the years, J.N. and Onie remain committed, a testimony to their passion for this music.
PRECIOUS LORD, TAKE MY HAND
By the Long Sisters
(Thomas A. Dorsey)
Warner-Tamerlane Pub. Corp. (BMI)
Recorded March 12, 2005, Butler Sound Studio
Ophelia Whatley-vocals; Louise Daniel-vocals; Vernice Parham-vocals; Joyceleen Long-vocals; Cora Lee Boykin-vocals; Veronica Groce-vocals
One of Thomas Dorsey’s best-known songs, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” is performed here as a beautiful example of a cappella singing and features a strong lead followed by a tight harmony. Although it is a superb performance, the sisters cannot articulate how they do it. They have, however, revealed that they learned to sing from their grandfather and mother and have passed the tradition on to their children, who also sing with them on occasion.
GOD IS WATCHIN’
By the Byrd Family
Recorded 1999, The Rhythm Factory
Bennie Byrd-vocals; Felix Moten-vocals; Adrian Byrd-lead vocals, all instruments
Although the Byrd Family has performed together since the 1970s, Bennie Byrd, the patriarch of the family, has been singing since he was a young boy in the 1930s. This recording is an excellent example of modern black gospel. It features the improvisational and repetitive elements mentioned earlier, but adds new technology and instruments such as drums and electric guitars. It also represents the next evolutionary step in black gospel, as it incorporates the contemporary influence of rap music.
GET IN THE SPIRIT
By The Simpson Sisters
Recorded February 12 and 13, 2005,
Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church
Christine Brewer-lead vocals; Carolyn Jones-vocals; Sybil Person-vocals; Vera Williams-vocals; Bobby Harris-lead guitar; Stanley Kendrix-bass; Joe Brown-drums
“Get in the Spirit” is not a new song, but the backing music definitely adds that feeling. Despite the change in style, the usual elements of improvisation and strong and passionate repetition are faithfully present. In a common vocal practice of black gospel, the sisters repeat the phrase “get in the spirit” over and over again, while Christine interjects encouraging phrases.
WHEN I JOIN THE HAPPY CIRCLE
By The Steadman Junior Quartet
Recorded 1939, Steadman, Georgia
Marjorie Newman-vocals; Elizabeth Allen-vocals; Anita Newman-vocals; Beatrice Allen-vocals; LeeRoy Abernathy-piano
The Steadman Junior Quartet was a group of teenage girls from the Steadman community of Haralson County in West Georgia, who recorded in the late 1930s. The quartet was made up of two pairs of sisters, the Allen sisters and the Newman sisters. This song provides another example of southern gospel that borders on the jazzy sound of 1930s popular music. It was rare to hear an all female quartet in southern gospel at this time, particularly in rural areas like West Georgia.
TALKING TO JESUS
By Southern Dogwood
Recorded 2003, Frank Fox Studios
David Driver-lead guitar, vocals; Pat Jones-fiddle and vocals; Frank Fox-bass; Phil Jones-mandolin, vocals; Adam Teal-banjo, vocals
Southern Dogwood, a bluegrass gospel band, performs at local churches and bluegrass barns throughout the West Georgia region. The current members range from a young adult banjo player to a retirement-aged bass player. Here they perform an original composition by one of the band members. This song, as an original piece by a local musician, shows the elements common to bluegrass regardless of the region.
RUN IN VAIN
By The Heavenly Gospels
Recorded ca 1960s, Sound Recording Studios, Anniston, Alabama
Charles Chivers-lead vocals; Douglas Alexander-vocal; Larry Hutchinson-lead guitar; Winfred Walker-vocals; Ricky Wakler-drums; Bobby Reynolds-vocals; Phillip Allen-bass
The Heavenly Gospels formed in 1953 and toured throughout the Southeast, performing in churches and on WLBB. The recording by the group, which was composed of two sets of brothers and other family members, offers a more modern black gospel selection. Reminiscent of the gospel-inspired Motown sound of such artists as Smoky Robinson and The Temptations, it features a melodic structure and chords that might sound familiar to fans of Motown.
ALL OF MY BURDENS
By The Willing Workers
(Clyde Thomas, Stanley Kendrix)
Recorded 1995, Perfection Sounds Studio, Smyrna, Georgia
Stanley Kendrix-bass, vocals; Clyde Thomas-vocals; Willie Kendrix-vocals; Bobby Harris-lead guitar; Claude McClendon-vocals; Grant Long-drums
One of the best-known gospel groups in West Georgia, The Willing Workers recently celebrated their fiftieth anniversary. They continue to perform throughout the Southeast, while also providing musical backing for many of the singings in the West Georgia area.
The band has become something of a family tradition. Their bass player and manager, Stanley Kendrix, is the son of founding member Willie Kendrix. These talented musicians produce a polished, professional sound, once again demonstrating that local musicians and local musical traditions can cross over into the commercial realm. “All of My Burdens,” an original composition, exhibits the elements of improvisation and repetition that are common in black gospel.
TALK IT ALL OVER WITH HIM
By The Bluegrass Five
Recorded March 12, 2005, Butler Sound Studio
J.N. Baxter-guitar, lead vocals; Jeremy Moses-banjo; Onie Baxter-guitar, vocals; Wesley Clackam-mandolin, vocals; Jane Baxter-bass, vocals
The Bluegrass Five become even more of a family band when J.N. and Onie’s daughter sings with the group. This is a traditional tune made popular by bluegrass legend J.D. Crowe, from whom J.N. and Onie probably learned the tune, and is a good example of how the lines between popular and traditional folk music can become so blurred as to be almost meaningless.
HE WILL SET YOUR FIELDS ON FIRE
By The Akers Trio
(C.M. Ballew, L.L. Brackett) Bridge Building Music
Recorded ca. 1949, WLBB Studio
Faye Akers-guitar, vocals; Rayford Akers-guitar, vocals; Eugene Akers-vocals
The Akers Trio were siblings from Carrollton who sang together on the WLBB radio station and in other venues around West Georgia from the late 1940s until fairly recently. “He Will Set Your Fields on Fire” has become a bluegrass-gospel standard recognized wherever southern gospel is popular, but when it is taken by a community like Carrollton, Georgia, and performed for them, it becomes a folk tradition.
Here, the Akers Trio perform the song much the same way Bill Monroe and other commercial musicians performed it, but there are regionalized vocal styles here that make this otherwise commercial-sounding recording a folk tradition. This recording is a wonderful example of what this album is trying to accomplish.