Alabama Folkways Articles

ALABAMA FOLKWAYS: SOUTHERN GOSPEL SONGWRITERS IN ALABAMA 
By Stephen Grauberger

Soon after the Civil War the Reubusch-Kieffer Company in Dayton, Virginia began printing newly-composed books of music based on a system of seven geometric shapes corresponding to do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti notes of the musical scale. This style of music is sometimes called "new book" gospel music.

According to music scholar Charles Wolfe, "The newer songbooks were designed not so much for formal church service, but for special singings and for 'singing conventions' in which many of the singers in a county-wide area might gather to try their hand at sight reading the songs in the new books. In some areas, competitions were held to see who could sight sing or direct songs they had never seen before." In addition to learning the skills of sight singing, devotees of this music have been, since the beginning, the primary authors of most songs written for these publications.

A number of Alabamians have participated in this pursuit. Most songwriters of southern gospel songs are not well known outside their own communities of gospel singers and rarely receive any remuneration from the publishers. However, the tradition is strong and venerated.

Probably the best-known Alabama songwriter is G. T. "Dad" Speer who grew up near the town of Double Springs. "Dad" Speer taught hundreds of singing schools and composed nearly 600 songs over the years. He is known for a number of popular gospel songs including "Heaven’s Jubilee," "The Dearest Friend I Ever Had," "I Want to Be Ready," and "He Is Mine and I Am His." G. T. Speer, and his wife Lena, created the Speer Family, a well-loved professional gospel quartet that traveled throughout the South and performed on radio and television.

Among active Alabama seven-shape songwriters today, T. L. Gilley Jr., at 85 years old, is an inspiration to younger songwriters and singers. Born in 1913, in Randolph County, Gilley has lived in Fyffe, Alabama since 1918. From an early age he sang second tenor and alto parts with the Gilley Quartet, a family group consisting of Gilley, two sisters and a brother. He remembers the Gilley Quartet performing on Friday nights to packed high school auditorium audiences in Randolph County. He sang with this quartet for about eight years until his sisters married and moved to North Carolina.

Mr. Gilley and his siblings attended the James T. Vaughan Normal School of Music in Tennessee for eight weeks in 1927 and six weeks in 1928. In 1936 Gilley wrote the music to his first song, "I Will Sing of His Love," with lyrics by William Morgan. The James D. Vaughan Company published that song in the book Hallelujah Voices. Gilley has written the words and music to more than 500 gospel songs with over 400 published by various music houses. In the late 1970s he had 21 songs published by nine separate publishers. In the late 1980s he published his own anthology of 102 songs previously published in other books.

Gilley has received certificates of appreciation from Governors of Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee in recognition of his song writing expertise. He is proud of the fact that, in 1979, his song "What a Morning That Will Be" was broadcast for six months in England. He also received royalties for its use. Currently, he has songs published in "new books" used by the Alabama State Gospel Singing Convention. Among those songs are "Grace Sufficient For Me," "I Shall Go to Heaven," (Sounds of Home 1997 James D. Vaughan publisher), "They’re Singing Up There" (God Is Good, 1998 Leoma Music Company), and "God’s Wonderful Love" (Shoutin’ Time, 1998 Jeffress/Phillips Music).

Mr. Gilley mentioned other songwriters, now deceased, for whom he had great admiration. They include, John Shrader from Ider, Alabama, Eugene Whitt and J. L. Freeman both from Boaz, Alabama.

John Shrader, who was born in DeKalb County in 1893 and died in 1972, is mentioned in the Gospel Songwriter Biography (1971, Stamps Baxter). He worked in his spare time as an editor, arranger and writer for the Stamps Baxter Company for many years. He taught more than 30 singing schools, his first in 1921, and published his first song in 1931. Shrader published more than 500 songs and helped many people to learn to sing as well as write their own songs.

There is still an annual singing in Ider, started by Shrader, which is now a memorial for him on the fourth Sunday in August at the Five Points Missionary Baptist Church. Among his compositions are, "The Lord is My Shepherd," There is a Home For Me," and "On the Solid Rock."

William Heaps of Clanton, Belton Cobb of Lamar County, and Stanley Smith of Ozark are among contemporary Alabama songwriters who support the Alabama State Gospel Singing Convention. William Heaps has published more than 100 songs in various books. Heaps, with the help of others, founded the Alabama State School of Gospel Music as well as a Gospel Music Museum at Snead State Community College near Boaz. A fund was created with the surplus proceeds from the Alabama State Convention to help support students of southern gospel music in the hope of carrying on this important tradition.