Clara Ward was a composer, but she was also an arranger. It was her role as the latter that caught my attention. In fact, in going through an African American hymnbook, Songs of Zion, there were two women arrangers of note. But I will address Clara Ward this time. She was born in Philadelphia in 1924. While her parents eked out a living, Clara began singing and playing piano at age six in church. Her talent as a singer, pianist and arranger was put to good use by her savvy business manager, her mother Gertrude, to make The Ward Singers, one of the most popular gospel acts of the time. They fused church and popular elements to create substantial artistic and commercial success. This included the use of sequined gowns, towering wigs, theatrical gestures and a style not previously done in church music. Somehow, I envision them as a gospel version of the Supremes. By the 1940s, they became one of the top draws on the church circuit. They toured often with Rev. C.L. Franklin, the father of Aretha Franklin and continued touring through the 1960s until Clara’s health forced their retirement. Clara shone as an original arranger, and introduced new rhythms and other stylistic inventions that today are standard. The particular hymn that I liked, though it appears to be fairly conventional by today’s standards, is “Lord, Touch Me” by Martha Eason Banks. That same hymnal also included two hymns that she wrote rather than arranged, “How I Got Over” and “Until I Found the Lord”. Aretha Franklin, whom Clara influenced, sang at her funeral in 1973. In 1977, she was honored at the Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York. In July 1998, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 32 cent stamp with her image. Aretha Franklin saluted her in her gospel album, Amazing Grace. Is it because of the racial separations still prevalent in our society that I never heard of her before? There’s so much musical and theological richness that we all miss as a result. What a pity.
In this Easter season, it is appropriate to write about an Easter hymn. But I found very few Easter hymns written by women. Jessie Brown Pounds was the exception. Jessie was featured in my book, Sisters in Song, but the song I wrote about was “Beautiful Isle of Somewhere”. As I said in the book, she wrote over 400 gospel songs. In going through my recent hymnal purchases, she is indeed included quite a bit in the older hymnals, less so in the more recent ones. But the current hymnbook for the Disciples of Christ, The Chalice Hymnal, includes “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth”. I characterized her as a Disciple on steroids in a presentation last fall. She apparently lived, breathed, married into and died in this denomination. I observed that the various denominational hymnals do feature their own and this is no exception. This is a great Easter song which first appeared in the Easter cantata, “Hope’s Messenger” in 1893, then later as a congregational hymn in The Praise Hymnal in 1896. Several other hymns by others have this same title, based on Job 19:25. This text was also included by Handel in his oratorio, Messiah. Jessie’s Easter message is undeniable. The tune, by her collaborator of over three decades, James Fillmore, makes the message even more memorable.
I know that my Redeemer liveth and on the earth again shall stand.
I know eternal life he giveth, that grace and power are in his hand.
I know, I know that Jesus liveth and on the earth again shall stand.
I know, I know that life he giveth, that grace and power are in his hand.
Manie Payne was born in Carlow County , Ireland. Though I don’t know how or why she made it to the United States, she did. She married Theodore Pollock Ferguson in Mansfield Ohio in 1883. Theodore was a former Presbyterian minister who later converted to the holiness movement and became an itinerant preacher. He moved with Manie to Los Angeles during the boom of 1885-1886. He and Manie, or Mother Ferguson, as she was known, founded a nondenominational mission called the Los Angeles Mission. This was later renamed the Peniel Mission. The name was chosen from Genesis 32:30 when Jacob established Peniel, the face of God, for he saw God face to face and did not perish. They held street-corner meetings in the afternoons and evangelistic services at night. They did not claim to be a church, but expected converts to join an established denomination. It used many of the same methods as the Salvation Army. Manie was the guiding force in expanding Peniel along the west coast, and on into Africa, Asia and South America with the main focus of helping single women. In 1894, Manie and Theodore built a 900 seat hall, a sort of nondenominational mega-church of the 1890’s. Eventually, most missionaries left for other ministries and the remaining Peniel Mission is in Stockton California.
Manie wrote many poems and hymns. Her most famous is “Blessed Quietness”. In this time of Lent, it’s worthwhile to spend some time in quiet, and I don’t get enough. With Manie’s many activities, she probably got very little quiet time needed for spiritual growth. I most appreciate her fourth verse, which includes the lines “See, a fruitful field is growing . . . and the streams of life are flowing in the lonely wilderness.”