Kate Peters Sturgill, “Deep Settled Peace”

After, or even before, I published Sisters in Song, I realized I only saw and covered the tip of the iceberg.  Since then, other fantastic women have come to my attention.  One of them is Kate Peters Sturgill.  I found out about her existence at a Bluegrass church service several months ago.  As always, I keep looking for new hymn-writers and I’m not disappointed.  Friends keep me supplied.

Kate was born and raised in the mountain country near Norton, Wise County, Virginia.  Her father was a foreman on the railroad and her mother came from a long line of singers from Wise County.  She learned to play the organ at age seven and the guitar while a teenager.  She played in a string band with her brothers in 1914 and 1915, then played with other local groups.  During the depression, she worked on a WPA project organizing music programs and teaching guitar.  After our country got out of the depression and the war, she broadcast twice weekly on a local radio station performing religious and sentimental songs.    In the fifties, she helped her cousin, A.P. Carter, collect traditional songs from the local mountains.  She died in 1975, but her talent lives on in an annual festival, the Dock Boggs and Kate Peters Sturgill Festival in Norton Virginia sponsored in part by the University of Virginia at Wise.  “Deep Settled Peace” was written in 1926.  The music is classically Bluegrass, and I find the lyrics more mature than would ordinarily be expected from a woman who was probably in her mid-twenties. Perhaps it was the hard-scrabble life of Appalachia that forced her outlook.  The song can be found in the album “Barefoot Boy With Boots On” and you can also search online to hear it performed.  My sister found a performance by Jody Nelson, a self professed bluegrassman on YouTube.

Debbie Friedman, a Jewish Sister in Song

My book Sisters in Song, features Christian women or women from a Christian background.  There is a wonderful trove of songs by Jewish women, mostly modern, and I thank my friend, Kerry Hollander, for introducing me to them.  Here is one:

Debbie Friedman was born in Utica, New York in 1951, but moved to St. Paul, Minnesota when she was six.  After high school, she lived in Israel for six months.  In addition to her Jewish heritage, she was influenced by Peter, Paul and Mary, Judy Collins, and Joan Baez.  Indeed, anyone hearing her music can easily detect this connection.  In 1970, she wrote “V’ahavta”, a paragraph of the Sh’ma which emotionally touched youth at a convention.  She recalled, “I was stunned when they suddenly put their arms around each other and there were tears rolling down their faces.  They were reclaiming this prayer, and it was ours in a musical language they were able to understand. . . .“   This was at the beginning of her writing career and no doubt inspired to to go further.  Many early songs were done as songleader for the Northern Federation of Temple Youth and Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute.    Her songs still reach many people of all types of Judaism and some Christians.   As an example, in 1997, she performed for the choir of a 4000 member Baptist Church in Houston with an adapted L’chi Lach.    This was after her first concert at Carnegie Hall in 1996 and the same year as her second concert.  A documentary of her life, A Journey of Spirit was produced in 2004.  From 2007 to 2011 she was on the faculty of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religions School of Sacred Music.  After her death in 2011 from pneumonia, exacerbated by a long-standing neurological illness, the school was renamed the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music.  Perhaps her illness was the inspiration for many of her songs, for many of them are prayers for healing.  “Mi Shebeirach”, one of those prayers, has been used by hundreds of congregations and perhaps is her most famous song.

My favorite song, however, is “Lullaby”, generally followed by “The Angels’ Blessing”.  Like so many other women hymn writers, her songs are sometimes written for children.    “Lullaby” is unusually beautiful to me, an obvious  adult.  To those of us not acquainted with Jewish writers, a performance can be found on Youtube.   Of this song, she said, “Nothing could give me greater pleasure than knowing some of these songs could put a child to sleep and be calm.”

Katherine Kennicott Davis, sleep dreamer

I have been reading (or more accurately, hearing) an audio book by Jonah Lehrer, Imagine: How Creativity Works, 2012 by Brilliance Audio.  He brought to my attention the creativity unleashed by minds while they sleep.  His example was of Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.  Keith woke up one morning to see a fresh cassette in his player had been completely recorded, first by “Satisfaction”, followed by 40 minutes of snoring.  Richards gave a first person account in his book, Life, Back Bay Books, 2010.   If he can compose a famous rock song while asleep, why can’t a woman write a hymn in her sleep?  So it was with Katherine Kennicott Davis.  She wrote “Little Drummer Boy”, often known as “Carol of the Drum” while taking a nap.  Like “Satisfaction”, it became a hit and has appeared in over 200 versions by many artists in seven languages.

I have never composed a song, asleep or awake, but in that twilight between the two, I have had many a creative thought.  In order to keep peace in the family, I stay put.  But sometimes I do remember a bit of the thought and translate it into words, acts, prayers, or any number of things.  Don’t let people tell you that your dreaming is rubbish.  It wasn’t for Keith Richards, it wasn’t for Katherine Kennicott Davis, and it isn’t for you.

Elvina Mable Hall, daydreamer

In 1974, Arthur Fry was sitting in church.  The sermon was such that his mind wandered, daydreamed.  His loosened up brain made a connection between a not-so-sticky glue a co-worker at 3M concocted and Fry’s need for a better bookmark for his choir book.  Post It notes were invented.  Likewise, in Baltimore in 1865, Elvina Mable Hall’s mind wandered from her pastor/husband’s sermon and her now daydreaming brain  wrote “Jesus Paid It All”.  How appropriate that she wrote it down in the flyleaf of her hymnal.    What other great things have come about from a sermon that didn’t resonate with the parishioner?  Studies of daydreamers on fMRI scans show their minds are actually very active.   So it was with Fry, and with Elvina.  Of course, I won’t always admit to daydreaming in church.  I am usually very intent on the content of the sermon, whether I appear so or not, but the mind does wander sometimes.  I hope my daydreaming mind can be productive, though I wouldn’t anticipate anything as consequential as Fry’s or Hall’s creations.

Doris Akers

I will be posting items about newly discovered writers along with my experiences in writing and presenting the information gleaned from both old and new.  But today is a good time to write about one of my favorite women hymnwriters featured, wouldn’t you guess, near the beginning of my book.   I like Doris Akers because she was gutsy, creative, and from Missouri.  Her music is good too.  An African American girl born in Brookfield in 1922 with nine siblings had to have a tough go of it.  She made it.  Opportunities were limited for her in Kirksville, where her family had moved, and that probably was the impetus for her move to Los Angeles when she was in her early twenties.  She became enmeshed in the local Gospel community and led a mixed race choir for the Sky Pilot Church. Her reach went beyond Los Angeles.  She composed a hymn jointly with Mahalia Jackson, which I may feature in a future post.  She wrote over 300 hymns and was posthumously inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2001.  The Smithsonian labeled her songs as “National Treasures” and she has sometimes been dubbed “Mrs. Gospel Music.”

Somehow, I have the current hymnals for the Methodist, Baptist and Disciples of Christ churches in my personal library.   All three have “Sweet Sweet Spirit”.  It’s widespread, even though of recent vintage compared to most familiar hymns.  This became a favorite of mine back sometime in the 1980’s and it’s still a favorite.  In 1962, she and her choir were to sing, as usual, for the church.  And, as usual, they prayed before they went into the sanctuary to sing.  On this particular day, the choir appeared to participate in a rather perfunctory prayer and started out.  I can hear her say, “Whoa, you haven’t prayed hard or sincerely enough.  Come back!”  She no doubt was a compelling personality, and they came back.  This time, they actually prayed, and with such fervor, that they wouldn’t stop.  My imagination hears the congregation getting restless, perhaps clapping or stomping.  Doris had to end the prayer.  She told them, “I hate to leave this room and I know you hate to leave, but you know we do have to go to the service.  But there is such a sweet, sweet spirit in this place.”  The next morning, she composed her hymn.  If you haven’t heard this hymn before, I suggest you google or search for it online and you may find several performances of it.   Maybe you can better understand where Doris was coming from and going to in this song.