What’s In a Name?

Three of the songs featured in my book, Sisters in Song, addressed the importance of names, in particular, the name of Jesus. Lydia Baxter wrote “Precious Name” emphasizing the need to “take the name of Jesus with you.” Naida Hearn of New Zealand made a list of all the names of Christ that she know from the Bible and eventually wrote “Jesus, Name Above All Names.” And Audrey Meier became intrigued by the many names for Christ one Christmas and was inspired to write “His Name Is Wonderful” listing the names to a lilting beat.

Names take on a new light when they come to the authors themselves. Many of the hymn writers in my book, Sisters in Song, and those featured in my blog, used pen names. Why? Often it was used to mask gender, for in the past, women weren’t as highly regarded as men. Married women in many cases couldn’t own property. A male name helped to thwart that and could be used establish credibility. Once established, some could begin to adopt their own names. A pen name could also be used to mask identity when the writer had a different career. Katherine Kennicott Davis, a professor, wrote “The Little Drummer Boy” under the pseudonym of C.R.W. Robertson and “Let All Things Now Living” as John Crowley. I don’t know if her motivation was to be taken more seriously or to avoid problems with her employer.

Some women were established in the entertainment world and adopted pseudonyms to be more marketable. Lucille Wood Smith became Dale Evans. Jeanine Deckers became Soeur Sourire, the singing nun. Joyce Luttrell became Dottie Rambo. Irene Amburgey became Martha Carson. Zoe Parenteau became Joan Whitney. Evelyn Merchant became Jill Jackson Miller. And Joyce Steinhardt became Darlene Zschech.

Some just wanted anonymity either for modesty’s sake, or to put the emphasis on the subject of their songs, generally Jesus. Anonymous writers include Anna Coghill, Jeanette Threfall, Dorothy Thrupp, and Elizabeth Clephane. Julia Ward Howe began writing anonymously in order to avoid her husband’s disapproval.

But many women also used female pen names. In my search of women writers, I was sometimes taken off track by this. Eliza Hewitt, a well-regarded writer in the nineteenth century, occasionally wrote under Lidie Edmunds. It took a while to realize the two were the same person. A few women used various names because publishers didn’t want to publish too many hymns by the same person in compilations or hymn books. Some hymn book publishers would only pay for a set number, such as two, from any one writer. Such was the case with Hewitt, a friend of the most prolific pseudonymous writer of all, Fanny Crosby. Fanny was forced to use over 200 pen names covering her 8000+ hymns lest hymnals be filled with her name much more than others. The publishers certainly knew who wrote her hymns, but asked her to use other names. I indeed found some of her songs under other names in the older hymn books in my library. These include male and female names, her married name, Van Alstyne, and punctuation marks. As the first hash tagger, her name was sometimes ##. Others were ###, ‘*’, and ***. When Crosby died, Hewitt memorialized Crosby with a poem at her funeral. How appropriate.

Marijohn Wilkin, lived fully One Day at a Time

I didn’t know of this “Den Mother of Music Row” until a musician in a local Bluegrass group at our church gave me the lead. But Marijohn Wilkin has had a significant influence in modern country and Gospel music as a performer, writer, publisher and mentor. Her eventful life can’t be captured in just this blog, but I’ll give it a surface treatment, the only thing I can do. The fact she had some association with Missouri is a plus for me.

Marijohn was born in Texas in 1920, the only child of a baker and fiddle player for the local Baptist church. As an honors student at Hardin-Simmons University, she was the only female member ever of the University Cowboy Band and she excelled in college as a musician although her degree was in English. The band traveled all over the country and they performed at FDR’s third inauguration. She married just after graduation, but her husband was killed in World War II by friendly fire. She continued a career as a teacher and later remarried and stayed married long enough to have a son, “Bucky”. When that marriage tanked, she married Art Wilkin. Bucky turned out to be a talented guitar player. Red Foley of the Ozark Mountain Jubilee wanted him to join, so the Wilkins moved to Springfield, Missouri where Bucky was introduced each night by twelve year old Brenda Lee. Meanwhile, Marijohn worked playing piano and singing backup vocals. Her first song was recorded by Red Foley and gradually, her songwriting career took off. She wrote over 400 country songs, many going to the top of the country charts. Hits came her way, but they competed with alcohol in her life. She twice attempted suicide. Important people in her life passed away and she was divorcing Wilkin. By age 37, she was in Nashville as one of the leading songwriters in country music and founder of Buckhorn Music Publishers. One of her most important writers at Buckhorn was Kris Kristofferson.

One day, at the end of her rope, she impulsively stopped by a small church and asked a fledgling minister for help. She was the first person he ever counseled. When she admitted to him that she had no money problems and was in good health, but couldn’t articulate why she was so unhappy, he told her to thank God for her problems. Impelled by his advice, she returned home, sat down at the piano and composed the entire chorus to “One Day at a Time”. When she finished, she realized the song was actually a prayer. She continued to write the verses but felt the first verse was not quite right. Kris Kristofferson was in town, so she asked for his help. Though she shared the credit for the song with Kris, he admitted he only helped with a line or two. He was embarrassed that she put his name on it. It became a hit in 1973, ironically sung by Marilyn Sellars, who was the other woman in her divorce case. “One Day at a Time” is generally considered the biggest gospel song of the 1970s and has been recorded over 600 times since then. The song began her new career as a gospel recording artist and she wrote over 300 gospel songs thereafter. In 2005, she was honored by the SOURCE organization as a pioneering Music Row businesswoman. She died a year later of heart disease.

Kittie Suffield, an accidental tourist

Kittie Jennett, born in 1884, while a teenager, aspired to be a concert artist as a coloratura soprano or a pianist, for she was a talented musician and singer. Meanwhile, one winter day, this New York City native was traveling by train in Canada when the train was stalled by a blizzard. All the passengers were freezing. The conductor trudged through the storm when he came upon a house. He pounded on the door and Fred Suffield answered. Fred allowed the passengers to stay with him. Kittie later wrote him a thank you note. Fred responded, she responded, and so the correspondence continued. This led to romance, marriage, and the end of a hoped for career and fame as a singer and pianist. . . but only for a brief time.

Some time later, they attended a church in Ottawa pastored by A.J. Shea, and they were compelled by the spirit to become traveling evangelists. One summer, they hosted A.J.’s son, George Beverly, for a month in Westport, Ontario while holding evangelistic meetings. During his stay one night, George tried to sing, but his voice cracked. Kittie, the pianist, lowered the key and he sang beautifully from then on. She is known as the encourager and initiator of George Beverly Shea’s famous career as a singer, most notably for Billy Graham’s organization.

Kittie’s best known hymn is “Little Is Much When God Is in It” written in 1924. The refrain, which says “Little is much when God is in it. Labor not for wealth or fame. There’s a crown and you can win it, if you go in Jesus’ name” reflects her own experience forsaking possible fame as a singer and pianist for her work as an evangelist and hymn writer.

Dianne Wilkinson, Southern Gospel star

Once again I learned of a new writer at the bluegrass service at our small local church. Dianne Wilkinson is a prolific (over 700 songs) modern Southern Gospel music writer. She won’t reveal her age, but her autobiography says she graduated from high school in 1972 at age 17, so I figure she was born around 1945. From her hometown of Blytheville, Arkansas Dianne Branscum saw the world of northeast Arkansas, the Missouri bootheel and in the 1950s; she attended “all night singings” in Memphis. From the age of 12, she toured with her mother and aunt around Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee. Indeed, she was a church pianist at age 12 and noodled around writing songs.

Beginning in the 1970s, she began in earnest to write Southern Gospel music, about the same time she met and married Tim Wilkinson. Her big break, if you can call it that, came in 1976 when her song. “Behold the Lamb” was recorded by The Song Masters from Tennessee at the Kennett Sound Studios in Kennett, Missouri. That was the start of the recording of hundreds of her songs by others. Now she is Southern Gospel’s most famous non-performing songwriter. I note that most modern songwriters outside of Gospel perform their own work and they sometimes have the unfortunate attitude that covering other writers is beneath them. Diane was lucky to come into the orbit of performers with more humility and less arrogance. One of her Gospel song heroines is Dottie Rambo, whom I wrote about in an earlier blog. Dianne’s songs have garnered many Dove Award nominations, Singing News Fan Awards nominations and News Fan Awards for Song of the year. By the 1980s, her career blossomed and the hymns kept coming.

The Cathedral Quartet, with whom she had a two decade relationship, recorded 16 of her songs, including “Boundless Love”, the song that brought her to my attention. Her group had sung this for years in their circuit, but in 1981, she made a demo of it. Though she felt the demo was recorded at too fast a tempo, the Cathedrals recorded it later with the proper tempo. No other song of hers has been covered more. It was nominated two years in a row for the Singing News Fan Award.

Today, she still plays the piano and writes songs, but she also teaches Sunday school at Springhill Southern Baptist Church in Dyersburg, Tennessee while working in a career in healthcare. As was her long held desire, she teaches from a King James Bible.