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.
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.