April 26, 2018

Editorial: In Honor of Gospel Music Pioneers

Stay with me, folks, as we honor the founding families, quartets, and solo gospel singers! This is not an exhaustive list, but they’re enough to fill our plate. Without them furthering God’s message through their songs, where would we be today?

The Carter Family

Editorial: In Honor of Gospel Music Pioneers 1

A.P & Sara

A.P (Alvin Pleasant Delaney Carter, December 15, 1891- November 7, 1960) was a child wonder. Born to both musical parents, he did not have difficulty learning how to play the fiddle. His father was a violinist. Growing up, he sang pure, traditional songs which his mother taught. Soon, he joined his two uncles and older sister in a gospel quartet.

In one of his travels as a salesman of trees, he met Sarah Dougherty (July 21, 1898-January 8, 1979). A.P heard her singing “Engine 143” while playing the autoharp on their porch. Similar to A.P, Sarah was also a product of a musically-inclined family. From childhood, she has learned to play a variety of instruments like the guitar, banjo, and the autoharp.

On June 18, 1915, these two musical prodigies married. They lived in Maces Springs where they perform on various occasions and several gatherings. All those, on top of A.P’s jobs. Their setup to play locally lasted for eleven years.

Eventually, the duo planned to sign up for Brunswick Records. However, A.P had to reject the offer when the label required him to record fiddle dance songs and to adopt the name “Fiddlin’ Doc.” Raised in a religious family, he didn’t want to offend his parents’ sensibilities.

Maybelle Carter

Born Maybelle Addington (May 10, 1909-October 23, 1978), married Ezra Carter, A.P’s brother. Her addition to the duo in 1926 reinforced their eagerness to be signed up to a label. Hence their audition to Victor Records through Ralph Peer, a scout talent from New York.

The trio was an exceptional combination. A.P was prolific in songwriting with a flair for traditionalism. Sara’s soprano was a strong lead for the group while Maybelle was skilled on instruments even developing a unique finger-picking technique on guitar.

From their discovery in 1927 in Bristol, Tennessee, the Carters recorded six tracks. Their label then released those songs as singles. It sold well that they decided to offer The Carters a contract for the long term. It then led to a musical dynasty for the succeeding members of The Carter Family.

Editorial: In Honor of Gospel Music Pioneers 2
Source: International Bluegrass Music Museum

Their Legacy

The group’s fame rose to the national level and their acts were the staple until the end of the 20’s. For more than seven years, they recorded what became as their signature songs including Wabash Cannonball,” “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” “John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man,” “Wildwood Flower,” and “Keep on the Sunny Side.”

The partnership between Maybelle and the Carter family temporarily came to a halt during the time of the Great Depression. Lack of finance forced the members of the group to relocate and find jobs. So, in 1935, they left Victors Records.

Four years later, the founding couple, A.P and Sarah ended their marriage. They did see, however, that their divorce wouldn’t affect their career. The group continued performing until the early 40’s. Due to Sara’s retirement, the group disbanded. A.P returned to his state-home, Virginia, while Maybelle Carter decided to record with her daughters, Helen, June, and Anita. This was also the time of collaboration with Johnny Cash. His gritty style, however, did not hurt the family’s musical reputation. Instead, his was a balanced edge.

In 1952, A.P and Sara performed a concert in Maces Spring with their children. The concert’s success opened another door for the family to record their songs. So, for the next four years, they’ve recorded almost 100 songs. Those didn’t gain much recognition though, which again led to the cessation of the family act.

The Carter legacy didn’t end in A.P’s death in 1960. After his death, The Carter family’s original recordings were reissued. That prompted Maybelle to urge Sara to revive their musical act. Soon, they were on the road again playing in folk festivals. They also recorded an album, thus, making The Carter family the first group to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Overall, the original Carter Family recorded over three hundred songs under different labels including Victors, ARC, Decca, and Columbia.

Signature Song: Can the Circle Be Unbroken (1935)

Songwriter: Words by Ada Habershon and music by Charles Gabriel (1908)
Inspiration: The reworked version by The Carters was more intimate than the hymn it was based on. Though a description of a funeral where a child is grieved over the death of his mother, they found comfort in knowing that she’s now with the Lord.
Alternate title: “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.

  The Chuck Wagon Gang

Editorial: In Honor of Gospel Music Pioneers 3
Source: sgnscoops.com

Like the Carter Family, the Chuck Wagon Gang was comprised of family members. Founded by D.P. ‘Dad” Carter in 1935, the group has been performing for eight decades

Their Humble Beginning

Couple David and Carrie Carter were itinerant farmers during the early 1930s. They had nine children whom they all taught the basics in music. Each night, the family could be heard singing spiritual songs and ballads on their porch. Their fellow farmers would be present for each act.

One of their daughters, Effie, became seriously ill with pneumonia. With a meager income, the Carters could not afford her medicine. Hence, they resorted to singing for a Lubbock radio station. They did well that soon after Effie recovered, she joined her dad and two eldest siblings, Ernest and Rose.

Now officially a family band, they were first called the Carter Quartet then renamed to the Chuck Wagon Gang.

Their Legacy

From Lubbock, the group moved to Fort Worth and were signed to WBAP (“The News and Talk of Texas”) in 1936. They then worked with record producers, first with the American Recording Corporation then Columbia (1948).

Initially, they recorded country singles under ARC. By the early ’40’s, they switched to the gospel genre. World War II caused them disband but reunited after. In 1948, the group began recording again, this time, for Columbia. With the label, they made over four-hundred recordings in thirty-nine years. They sold about forty million worth of records.

From a radio station band promoted as a full-time touring band, the Chuck Wagon Gang’s music was widely heard in the 60’s. Many Southerners were enamored by their harmonies in all the spiritual songs they sang. Dad Carter sang tenor, Jim sang bass and played guitar, while Rose and Effie sang soprano and alto. The simplicity of pure voices with a lone guitar as the musical accompaniment was much loved. Thus, they were hailed “America’s foremost country-gospel singers” by Eddie Stubbs who was Grand Ole Opry’s announcer at that time.

When support from Columbia decreased in the 70’s, the last of the Carters, Roy, and Ruth Ellen Carter reconsidered the band’s future. Remembering Dad Carter, they reformed the band in the late 70’s and worked with Copperfield Records. They also reclaimed Dad Carter’s reason on why they sing. That is to continually “spread the good word” through their musical talents.

In the late ’80s, the Chuck Wagon Gang was consecutively awarded the Gospel Group of the Year by Music City News for five years.

Personnel Changes

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In 1953, Jim (Ernest) left the band and was replaced by his brother Roy Carter and Howard Gordon. Two years later, Dad Carter also retired from singing and touring. He died in 1963 and two decades later, he was inducted into the “Gospel Music Hall of Fame.” Eddie Carter stepped in his stead.

Throughout the 50’s, other musicians played alongside the family. Among them were Alynn Bilodeau, Patrick McKeehan, Ronnie Page, and Ronnie Crittenden. By the late 80’s, new members were admitted.

Currently, Chuck Wagon Gang has Shaye Smith (granddaughter of original alto Anna Carter Gordon Davis), Melissa Kemper (soprano), Stan Hill (tenor), Wyatt Austin (bass) and Karl Smakula (guitar).

Picking up the baton from their predecessors, the group’s committed to preserving what became as their historical mark: “hope and harmony, faith and family.”


Not a few of prominent country singers grew up listening to the Chucks on the radio. Among them were Connie Smith, Ray Price, Merle Haggard, Jean Shepard, Marty Stuart Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and Charlie Daniels.

Due to their unique story, Bob Terrell published “The Chuck Wagon Gang: A Legend Lives On”  in 1990.

Signature Song: I’ll Fly Away (1948)

Songwriter: Albert E. Brumley

Though the CWG weren’t the first to record this beloved hymn, their 1948 version sold a million copies, a feat hard to replicate in the history of music.

 Mahalia Jackson (1911-1967)

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Source: Black Heritage Commemorative Society

With God’s anointing and blessed with a powerful voice, the title “Queen of Gospel” befitted her. Though an exceptional caliber of a singer, she kept her vow of steering clear from the appeal of secular entertainment. In her youth, she resolved that her voice would be purely dedicated to sacred songs.

Her humble beginning

Birth name was “Mahala” and named after her aunt. From a tender age of 4, this New Orleans angel had sung in churches. Growing up, she combined her unique style of singing with that of the famous blues artists she admired.

After her mother died in 1917, she lived with her aunt Duke. When she reached fourth grade, she had to quit school due to poverty. That, however, did not dampen her spirit. She found solace in listening to blues music and in singing at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church. She sang on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays.

When Mahalia turned 16, she moved to Chicago for work. Again, the menial domestic job she had did not affect her spirit. Thanks to her church and love for music. Soon, she joined a professional gospel singing group, the Johnson Brothers. Still, at the early stage of her singing career, Mahalia only received donations. Later, tickets priced at ten cents each were made for her performances.

Her Legacy

Following her performances with the Johnson brothers, Mahalia started working with the legendary gospel composer, Thomas A. Dorsey. The duo toured around the U.S with Mahalia as the song demonstrator of Dorsey’s works. Her wider exposure led her to records.

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source: Pinterest

Come late 30’s, she became the first gospel singer for Decca. Her first album, “God’s Gonna Separate the Wheat from the Tares” sold modestly. Hence, the pressure for her to sing non-gospel material. Mahalia refused, thus, she was let go.

More pressure came from her first husband, Ike, who forced her to go secular with her music. Not forgetting her pledge, Mahalia sticks with gospel songs, a choice she never regretted.  Her decision proved fruitful because come 1940’s, the decade became the Golden Age of Gospel.

Her 1947 recording, “Move On Up a Little Higher” under Apollo Records sold millions. In 1950, she was invited to perform at the Carnegie Hall before a mixed-race audience. The event was considered monumental in the history of gospel music.

She toured extensively both locally and abroad that by 1960’s, she had become an international figure. With such huge success, she had gained a platform to start her own radio gospel series on CBS.

Other monumental events where she made appearances were the Newport Jazz Festival (1958), John F. Kennedy’s Presidential inauguration (1961), and Dr. Martin Luther King’s funeral where she sang his last request, “Precious Lord.”

Influence on the Civil Rights Movement

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August 28, 1963,  Mahalia Jackson / Source: Pinterest

Having been on the receiving end of racism even as a rising star, Mahalia Jackson became actively involved with the Civil Rights Movement. She gave financial support to rallies, marches, and demonstrations. She eventually became friends with Martin Luther King and was his confidant until his death in April 1968.

In addition, her songs empowered the masses along with other spirituals in that era. In 1963, she sang in Washington where the largest demonstration in the US history was held. King followed with his memorable speech, “I Have a Dream.”


In addition, her songs empowered the masses along with other spirituals in that era. In 1963, she sang in Washington where the largest demonstration in the US history was held. King followed with his memorable speech, “I Have a Dream.”

Beyond doubt, the two were closely-knitted in a friendship that following Kings’ s death, Mahalia recorded a whole album of King’s favorite songs. They called it, The Best Loved Hymns of Dr. M. L. King.

The conclusion of a Well-Spent Life

Despite losing friends and to physical ailments, Mahalia spent her final years on tours. She visited several countries including Africa, the Caribbean, Japan, and India. In 1971, she delivered her final performance in Germany. The following year of January, she died of heart failure. She was 60.

Multitudes mourned her death that in honor of the “Queen of Gospel,” they held two funerals. One was in Chicago where hundreds of musicians and politicians attended. Next was in New Orleans where thousands of fans gathered. To them, Mahalia Jackson was the greatest gospel singer in the history.

As for us, she is a living proof that no force on earth, be it poverty or racism could stop a child of God. If we unceasingly depend on Him, we are more than conquerors.

In December 2008, she was inducted into the Music Hall of Fame.

Signature Song: “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” (1938)

Songwriter: Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993)
Also known as the “Father of Black Gospel Music”

Inspiration: Following the death of his wife and song, Rev. Dorsey penned “Precious Lord..” in 1932. The Lord put in his remembrance a verse in Isaiah 41:13. It said, “I the Lord thy God will hold thy right hand.” That helped him got through his grief.

Reportedly, the song is Martin Luther King Jr.‘s favorite. To date, people could sing the hymn in over forty languages.


Stay tuned for the second part of this series. For similar readings, click one of the tags below.


Carter Family, Chuckwagon Gang, Editorial, gospel, Gospel Music Pioneers, Mahalia Jackson

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