Doris Mae Akers revisited

Though I featured Doris Akers in my book, Sisters in Song, it was brief and it couldn’t capture the entirety of her talent.   I have come across yet another song she wrote, both lyrics and music, that is worth mentioning.

First, a refresher:  She learned to play the piano by ear when very young and wrote her first song at about age 10.  Kirksville Missouri was probably too confining for an African-American woman in the 1940s, so she left for Los Angeles when she was 22.  She joined the Sallie Martin Singers as pianist and singer. She teamed with Dorothy Simmons to begin a publishing firm called Akers Music House.    In addition to publishing and accompaniment, she wrote songs, sang, arranged music, and recorded her own work.  She received the Gospel Music Composer of the Year in 1960 and in 1961.  In 2001, she was posthumously inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.  Bill Gaither accepted the award on her behalf and in his speech, he admitted to her influence on his own music.

I had earlier featured “Sweet, Sweet Spirit” and “Lord Don’t Move That Mountain” (co-written with Mahalia Jackson) in my book.   Another hymn I had not featured was “Lead Me, Guide Me”, written in 1953 at age 31.  It is published in 20 hymnals, and versions vary.  In viewing and listening to various versions of the song, it is apparent that this hymn begs for improvisation. The notes are meant as guides for the creativity of the performers.  And so many recording artists have done just that. It is representative of the first generation of African-American gospel music which included Roberta Martin and Lucie Campbell, whom I have covered in this blog.   The hymn is a plea for an intimate walk with God, who is asked to lead and guide the singer.  Divine guidance is necessary because we lack strength, we are blind and tempted.  Only God can lead us to a full life.     Of the versions I have heard, I like the one by Elvis Presley the best. It is found on his 1972 Grammy winning album, He Touched Me, and  Presley performed it, along with “Sweet, Sweet Spirit” in his last movie, a Golden Globe winning 1972 documentary Elvis on Tour.  It seems so appropriate that Elvis performed it.  If only he had found the strength celebrated in that hymn.

Iola Brubeck, a Christmas Woman

Iola Brubeck, wife of famed jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, was featured in Sisters in Song.  Since its publication, she died of cancer in March, 2014.  My book didn’t give justice to the great contributions she made to Christian music using the jazz genre.  Let’s give her another try.

Iola Whitlock was born in 1923 in Corning, California where her father was a forest ranger.  After graduating as valedictorian of her high school, she enrolled at what is now the University of the Pacific in Stockton studying drama and radio production.  It was there that she met Dave Brubeck and they married in 1942.  While he was shipped out to the European Theater in WWII, she honed her management skills and knowledge of jazz by working in radio. Their 70 year marriage was fruitful both personally and musically.  Though they started out dirt poor, literally living for a while in a tin shack with a dirt floor and washing in a nearby stream, she propelled Dave’s career.  In 1950, she developed one of the country’s first courses in jazz appreciation at the University of California at Berkeley.   Iola lectured while Dave, who was shy, played the piano.  This brought them $15 a week and started Iola’s role as lyricist.  She suggested that his newly formed quartet do concerts at college campuses.  She wrote to every college on the West Coast.  Her work as manager, booker and publicist launched Dave’s career.  She also was Dave’s chief librettist and lyricist.   By the mid 1950s, they were doing well. As champions of racial justice they refused to play at colleges where black musicians were treated differently.   In 1958, the State Department sent them on a people to people cultural exchange tour of Eastern Europe, the first time jazz musicians were used as emissaries of the U.S. behind the Iron Curtain.  Four years later, Dave and Iola co-wrote a musical, The Real Ambassadors starring Louis Armstrong, a reaction to racial segregation in the U.S.  It premiered in 1962 at the Monterrey Jazz Festival to critical acclaim, but it never reached Broadway.

As time went on, she collaborated with Dave on several oratorios and cantatas, including La Fiesta de la Posada (Festival of the Inn) in 1975.  Included within this Christmas Choral Pageant is “God’s Love Made Visible.”  In a PBS interview, Dave said, “My wife was driving, and I said, ‘I’ve finished this (La Posada).’ And she said, ‘No, you haven’t finished it.’ And I said, ‘Well, what did I leave out?’ And she said, ‘God’s love made visible. He is invincible.’”   Her lyrics resonate well with me, from the very title of the piece to the emphasized phrase, “His love shall reign.”  Though it could be sung any day of the year, it is still a Christmas song for a Christmas pageant, as it declares, “Open all doors this day of his birth.”

Edith Reed had Christmas on her mind

In this blog I have begun to explore translators, for their words have formed much of our hymnody.  One such translator was Edith Margaret Gelibrand Reed, born in Islington, London on March 31, 1885.  She attended St. Leonard’s School in St. Andrew’s and the Guildhall School of Music in London.  While working for the Royal College of Organists, she edited Music and Youth and The Musical Student.  She edited Panpipes, a music magazine for children.  Her interests went beyond the here and now for she wrote a book, Story-lives of Great Composers in 1925. With such a musical background, it’s not surprising that she arranged musical compositions.  In the infancy of cinema, before talkies, the action was accompanied by music, often on the organ.  Edith wrote about film music in Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly.  Her first article was “Picture Theatre Music Articles and Notes for Musical Directors and Players” in 1916.  But her greatest claim to fame today is as the translator of the Polish carol, “W Zlobie Lezy”.  Today, we know it as “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly”.  Her translation and musical arrangement of this lovely Christmas hymn  is found in most denominational hymnals today.    It reminds us that Christ the Babe was born for you, something to contemplate this season and throughout the year.   Christmas was very meaningful to her for she wrote two Christmas plays.  Edith packed a lot of accomplishment in an all too short life, passing away at age 48 in Herfordshire in 1933.  How I wish I could be so productive!

Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, a true compassionate American

A helpful woman at one of my presentations acquainted me with this Carolyn Winfrey Gillette’s 2009 book, “Songs of Grace: New Hymns for God and Neighbor”. I’m so glad she did. Carolyn Winfrey was born in Virginia in 1961 to a Methodist family where she received a love of English and word-smithing from her English professor father and writing mother. As a small child, she loved to stand on the pew next to her parents and “read” the hymns and sing with the congregation. She graduated from Lebanon Valley College and went on to Princeton Seminary, where she met her husband, Bruce Gillette. They were ordained as ministers in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She and Bruce have served in several churches in the Eastern United States, first in separate congregations and then as co-pastors. Carolyn has led workshops around the country on hymns and church music. Since 2004, Carolyn and Bruce have co-pastored at Limestone Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Delaware.

Her first hymn was written in 1998 at a summer church conference when she was asked to write hymn lyrics to teach the 10 commandments to children. It was written to the familiar tune, “Lord, I Want to be a Christian”. Since then, she has written lyrics to over 260 hymns, all using familiar tunes that people know and can easily remember. When asked which hymn is her favorite, she replied that it is generally the most recent one. She is fortunate to have a very supportive husband who helps to share her hymns with others. Her hymns have been on national PBS stations and on the BBC television.

Paul Stookey of Peter Paul and Mary fame made a music video of her hymn, “O God, Our Words Cannot Express.” Like everyone else in this country on September 11, 2001, she was shocked and hurting from the horrors she saw on television that day. She and Bruce immediately organized a remembrance service for that very day and she wrote the hymn that was sung that night. It is sung to the tune, “St. Anne”, generally associated with “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” Although the hymn, written in the rawness of that tragic day, says our words cannot express our pain, it does a good job expressing the multiple emotions we felt. It would be appropriate any time calamity takes many lives and leaves us stunned.

A more current hymn reflecting America’s news is “The Children Come” sung to “Finlandia”, a tune often associated with “Be Still My Soul.” It was written in response to the unaccompanied children flooding into the U.S. from Central America in 2014. It is available free for use in local churches. She expresses the tribulations of children, our country’s response and what God’s Church ought to do. I thought it makes an interesting comparison and contrast to Emma Lazarus’ poem, “The Great Colossus”. Have times changed? Are we less welcoming to the huddled masses?