If I had a blog, today, Independence Day, I would write about the gift the Founding Fathers gave me when they made Freedom of Religion my inalienable right. I am a religious anomaly: I draw strength from Buddhism, Native American Spirituality, pantheism, my own mystical experiences, and, yes, Southern Gospel Music. People who know my pagan tendencies simply can’t believe my Gospel Favorites have a playlist of their own, next to Celtic Women, Carlos Nakai, and Jimmy Buffet, but they are there – in great abundance. I have the The Blackwood Brothers, the Statler Brothers, The Statesmen, The Cathedrals, The Happy Goodmans, and more than a hundred other singers who have inspired me over the years. I know group personnel the way some people know players on sports teams and I if you give me a subject, I can think of a gospel song to match.
This morning, July 4th, I woke up with “I’m Free Again,” by Reverend Vesphew (Vep) Ellis, and it occurred to me that , more often than not, I have a Southern Gospel song on my mind. Why would a liberal, tree-hugging, neo-pagan know the songs in the Broadman Hymnal front-to-back and listen to Pandora’s Bill & Gloria Gaither gospel station? Well, first of all, how can you feel anything but love for a craft whose artists have names like: Vesphew Ellis, Denver Crumpler, Hovie Lister, and Vestal Goodman? Those are names that demand attention and pique one’s curiosity and they don’t disappoint. The artists who were called to sing this music are good, and true, and full of a kind of faith rarely found in our cynical world. A kind of faith I desperately need. These songs were originally sung in the little country churches that formed the nucleus of most communities in the early 20th century. The tradition of Southern Gospel music developed as performance music, tailored to quartet singing, and as “convention songs” that were popular at revivals and singing schools across the South. Often these songs would be the entertainment for an entire day of music and homemade pot-luck, called an, “All Day Singin’ With Dinner on the Ground.” The music was an eclectic blend of traditional hymns, negro spirituals, country, bluegrass, and a cappella traditions. From the 1920s through the 1950s Southern Gospel music grew to new heights of popularity. Artists toured with full bands, drawing crowds of all denominations and faiths. In the 1990’s, Southern Gospel had a resurgence of popularity thanks to Gospel magnate Bill Gaither, who gave many of the original stars of Southern Gospel a second round of popularity as they reached their golden years.
But why do I love these songs? They speak to my need for comfort and safety in an increasingly unsafe world. Even though I find courage in the drum-beats of a Native American pow-wow, solace in the celebration of Longest Night, and The Divine in the music of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, there is something familiar about these songs. They are the songs my family has sung since they first settled in the Ozarks. They are the lullabies my mother and grandmother sang to me at bedtime, and the first thing that comes to mind when I’ve lost my way. Hold me fast, let me stand, In the hollow of Thy hand; Keep me safe ’til the storm passes by. 1 Precious Lord, take my hand, Lead me on, let me stand, I am tired, I am weak, I am worn; Through the storm, through the night, Lead me on to the light: Take my hand, precious Lord, Lead me home. 2 Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; Shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies; Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me. 3
I am proud to know these songs. In a way, they are the “songs of my people,” a part of my heritage and a part of my spiritual DNA. They live within me and keep alive the pillars of faith who gave them to me as a birthright. I will never be a church-goer or a Bible-pounding fundamentalist, but how lucky am I to live in a country that lets me have it all. I can love my Southern Gospel music, be uplifted by the faith of women like Vestal Goodman, and also revere the words of Lakota Sioux shaman, Black-Elk, search for enlightenment on the Buddhist path, and touch the hand of The Divine beneath the aurora on a lake in the North Woods. Thank you Founding Fathers for giving me Freedom to worship as I choose. You have given me the greatest gift a country can give. Happy Independence Day!