Early 20th Century Hymnals

Sisters in Song got me involved in women’s hymnody in ways I never expected.  Now, when I go browse an antique shop or bookstore, I zero in on the old hymnbooks.  Just this weekend, I found an old hymnal from 1913.  Some of the pages are missing and all are tattered.   But for one dollar, it couldn’t be too much of a gamble.  Sunday School Voices Number Two was the property of the New Truxton Sunday School, and from the numerous scribblings in the flyleaf, it obviously passed from owner to owner.  Now it’s mine.  I already had a freebie from an auction last year, Jubilant Voices published in 1905.  The content of the two was similar. 


Several things stood out for me.  First, there were an incredible number of women lyricists.   The earlier book had 243 hymns.  Women wrote the lyrics for 135 of them.  They wrote the music for ten.  The more recent book had 128 women written hymns versus 122 written by men, but some of the pages were missing.  Also notable is that the women held none of the copyrights.  Back then, married women could not hold title to property in most states, and most of the women were married.  I suspect it was more convenient for the woman to write the song and immediately sell it to the man who wrote the music or to a publisher for a nominal amount.  Fanny Crosby was often the writer of hymns in these books.  She sold the lyrics of her 8000+ hymns for less than five dollars each to help support her personal mission work.


Also notable was the number of women, most of whom I never heard of, who were in the hymnals.  I will have to look up Ida Scott Taylor, Mrs. C.H. Morris, Charlotte Homer, Ida Reed, Lizzie DeArmond, Jennie Ree, Flora Kirkland, Nellie Place Chandler, Edith Tillotson, and Eleanor Long among many others.  That will be another day, though.


Another thing that struck me was the frequent use of two images:  sunshine and war.  War won out thirty-one to ten.  I have read that there was a backlash to women written hymns beginning around World War I.  They were too feminine, not adequately “muscular”.  I don’t see this criticism borne out in these hymns.  Eliza Hewitt, who is featured in my book, had numerous hymns in these two hymnals. “Jericho Must Fall” says we must fight our foes.  Sweet, blind little lady Fanny Crosby wrote “The sword of the Spirit will vanquish our foes” in “March Onward, March Onward” which Phoebe Knapp set to music.  “This our warfare on the Christian way” comes from Crosby’s “They That Overcome” and “Gird on, gird on your armor . . . to battle for the Lord” in “We’ll Battle to the End”.  Other warlike songs include “Put on the Whole Armor” by Jennie Ree, “With Our Banner Waving”, “Up Ye Soldiers” and “Onward Till the Dawning”  by Charlotte Homer, “Little Sentinels” (for militant children, I guess) by Jennie Ree, “The Glorious Conqueror” by Ella Bangs, “Rally ‘Round the Standard” by Civilla Martin, “The Fight is On” and “On the Firing Line” by Mrs. C. H. Morris, “Our Fight, His Victory” by Edith Spaulding,  “The Conquering Hero Comes” by Civilla Martin,  “With Flaming Banners” by Lizzie DeArmond, and of course, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” by Julia Ward Howe.  This is only a partial listing.


I’m anxious to get my hands on yet another old time hymnal.  Who knows what I’ll find!



Martha Carson was Satisfied

Irene Amburgey was born in Neon Kentucky to a gospel singing family, “The Family Singers”.  When she was ten, she traded her calf for her first guitar and taught herself to play.  In her teens, she and her two sisters performed regionally as “The Sunshine Sisters” playing folk and gospel songs.   Irene adopted the stage name of Marthie.  When she met and married mandolin player James Carson, she became known as Martha Carson.  They toured as “The Dixie Sweethearts” and recorded for Capitol records.   They were successful regionally as a mandolin/guitar duo in the 1940s, but they separated in 1950.  She said “He started going’ out with women, hangin’ out in bars, got stinkin’ drunk and these types of things.”  He expected her to let his pregnant girlfriend move in.  They finally divorced in 1951.  In the fundamentalist south at that time, divorce was a great evil.  A woman tore into her at a radio station saying that no one would want “people like her” as an entertainer and she shouldn’t be singing spiritual songs.  Martha recalled “It was the awfullest hurt I ever had. . . buckets wouldn’t have held the tears I cried . . . All of a sudden it just seemed like I heard a voice that said ‘What are you crying for? I’m satisfied, and you’re satisfied.’  And the words to that song just almost split me open.  I’m in the backseat of Bill Carlisle’s car, looking for a paper to write this down . . . I saw an old blank check laying on the floorboard . . . I dusted the dirt off and turned it lengthwise, and that’s where I wrote ‘Satisfied.’”  Capitol finally allowed her to record solo, and in 1951, she made her solo debut with “Satisfied.”  Its strong handclap backbeat was one of the foundations of early rock and roll.  The backup was performed by Carlisle, newcomer Chet Atkins and Martha’s sister.   She had written many other songs and toured with country stars and with Elvis Presley.  After performances, she and Elvis sang gospel duets and he later said she had more influence on his stage style than anyone else.  Though “Satisfied” was a big hit crossing country charts into the pop charts, her later songs included country gospel standards “I Can’t Stand Up Alone,” “Let the Light Shine on Me,” and Rock-a My Soul.”  Her fiery and spirited presence was such that Tonight Show host Steve Allen places a music trade ad proclaiming “Martha Carson is not a girl – She’s an explosion!”

Lucie Campbell, The Mother of Gospel Music

Before there was Rosa Parks, there was Lucie Eddie Campbell. You may not have heard of her, but “The Mother of Gospel Music” had an incredibly full life.  Lucie was the youngest of nine children born in a caboose in Duck Hill Mississippi.  Her father died in a train accident when she was only three.  Her mother, Isabella, moved the family to Memphis for better opportunities to support them as a maid and cook.  Though the family was poor with little opportunity, Isabella made sure the kids got an education and exposure to the arts.  Lucie graduated from a segregated high school as valedictorian.  She passed the teachers’ exam and taught grammar school and later, high school in American history and English.  She eventually went to college and got both a bachelor’s and master’s degrees.   In 1946, she was on the National Policy Planning Commission of the National Education Association.  She was elected vice –president of the American Teachers Association and was president of the Tennessee Teachers Association for six years.       She was an ardent activist for justice.  She worked as president of the Negro Education Association for equal pay and benefits for African American teacher.  After a long day of teaching, she defied the Memphis Jim Crow laws by refusing to relinquish a seat in the whites-only section of a streetcar a decade before Rosa Parks’ act of civil disobedience. When threatened and people told her they would get the sheriff, she replied, “get him.”  When the sheriff came, she made a call to someone that outranked him.  They let her go.   She finally married in 1960 at the age of 75 to her longtime companion and business partner, the Reverend C.R. Williams. While doing all that, she organized a music club that later grew to form a thousand-voice choir that performed at the National Baptist Convention.  She wrote songs for the Baptist Training Union Congress and for musical pageants.  And she continued to write and lead the music at the National Baptist Convention for years.   She introduced promising musicians such as Marian Anderson and Robert Bradley to the public.   Along with musical peers such as Thomas Dorsey and Herbert Brewster, she helped create the black gospel sound of the first half of the twentieth century and set the standards for gospel music in the black Baptist church.  She wrote over 300 songs, but only two were secular.  Both were written in 1919 addressing inequalities heaped on African American soldiers.  Her classic song, “Something Within,” is generally recognized as the first gospel hymn published by an African American woman and was a favorite in black and white gospel circles.  Her best-known hymn, “He Understands, He’ll Say ‘Well Done’” is a standard at funerals and has been noted by scholars as the second most popular black hymn behind Dorsey’s “Precious Lord”.  Today, an elementary school is named in her honor in Memphis, a home town that in years past had restricted her to second class segregation as a student and teacher.

Dottie Rambo, Gospel Music Star with an Irish influence

The most passion in Bluegrass is found in Gospel.  And one of the most passionate was Dottie Rambo.  Dottie was born Joyce Reba Luttrell in Kentucky in 1934 to an impoverished family, in a country already beset with the depression.  Her musical career began when she was eight and playing at a creek bed.  Words and music for her first song came to her.  Her mother encouraged her gift of music.  At twelve, she made a commitment to write and sing only Christian music.  Her father told her to give it up or leave.  She left.  She performed at churches and offerings were taken up to support her.  She met Buck Rambo at a revival and they married in 1950 when she was 16.  They formed their own group, and later were joined by their daughter, Reba.   In the 1960s, she began to get more national attention as a songwriter and soloist.  By 1968, she won a Grammy for best soul gospel performance for her album, It’s the Soul of Me, beating out Mavis Staples.  Billboard magazine called her “trendsetter of the year” for singing with an all-black choir. In 1994, the Christian Country Music Association awarded her with the Songwriter of the Century Award. Her songs were recorded by Elvis Presley, Barbara Mandrell, Johnny Cash, Whitney Houston, Vince Gill, Pat Boon, Sandi Patty, The Oak Ridge Boys and many more.  In all, she wrote and published over 2500 songs.  In 1987, she suffered a ruptured disc which led to left leg paralysis.  Surgeries reinstated only limited mobility, but she kept on writing and performing.   Dottie died in a bus accident in 2008 along I-44 near Mount Vernon, Missouri while en route to a Mother’s Day show in Texas.

 Though Dottie wrote the music for most of her songs, “He Looked Beyond My Fault (And Saw My Need)” is written to the well-known Irish tune, “Londonderry Air”, best known as the tune to “Danny Boy”.  However, I will hear that tune with Dottie’s words from now on.  It was one of her most popular songs and was pivotal for her career.    


Mary Elizabeth Byrne and the Irish

St. Pat’s is a-comin’ and the Irish in our hymns is featured today.  Sure, other women wrote hymns to traditional Irish tunes, such as Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830 – 1894) in her beautiful noel, “Love Came Down at Christmas” and Margaret Clarkson (1915-2008) in “God of Creation, All-Powerful”.  But Rossetti was born in England and of Italian heritage.  Clarkson was a Canadian teacher in Ontario.

Our Irish star was Mary Elizabeth Byrne (1880-1931), Irish through and through.  Born Irish, she was educated at a Dominican convent in Dublin and the National University of Ireland where she graduated in 1905.  As an educated Irish linguist, she contributed to the Old and Mid-Irish Dictionary and the Dictionary of the Irish Language. She worked for the Board of Intermediate Education and helped compile the Catalog of the Royal Irish Academy.  Her translation of the poem “Rob Tu Mo Bhoile, A Comdi Cride” was later versified by Eleanor Hull in Poem Book of Gael in 1912.  The old Irish text had been part of the monastic tradition for centuries before it was ever a hymn.  Byrne’s translation first appeared in the journal Erin in 1905.  Hull was founder and secretary of the Irish Text Society and president of the Irish Literary Society in London.  The poem was set to the traditional Irish tune “Slane”.  “Slane” was originally used with a secular text, “With My Love on the Road”. It was inspired by Slane Hill in County Meath where St. Pat is said to have challenged King Loegaire and the Druid priests by lighting the Paschal fire on Easter eve.   Today, we know the tune mainly for Byrne’s translation and Hull’s versification, “Be Thou My Vision”.    Why not wear green and sing it on St. Pat’s?