My initial motive for making this series of Gospel Favorites is to get my mother, Mary Bess Harkins, singing songs she loves and often sings in church, on tape both for my own satisfaction and pleasure, but also to share her gift with others in the family who have never heard her sing. As a secondary goal, I wanted to capture others of her generation while their voices are collectively still strong and beautiful.
The criteria for inclusion boil down to one: they’re songs I grew up singing as a child in the small country churches of West Texas, or songs that I learned as an adult once I started going to church again, but they’re all songs that I love.
You may notice that they tend to be older selections; that is because the latter 1800’s were a time of great hope and faith, something of a culmination of the so-called Restoration , an American Protestant movement in the early 1800’s which sought to get “back to basics,” in doctrinal matters. This movement spawned a number of new denominations, among them the Church of Christ, the Assembly of God, the Disciples of Christ, etc.
Many thought the end of the century would bring the Second Coming, so the Temperance movement was a partial effort to get ready. Arguably, the moral and religious fervor of the early 1800’s had a real impact on the abolition movement (or were even the reason for it), perhaps ultimately forcing the final confrontation, the Civil War.
Whatever the reason, that era produced a goodly number of songs that have passed the test of time, still being sung in many church of Christ congregations (although probably more so out in the country), many of which have struck a special chord in me. As a songwriter, I am in awe at the prodigious production of some of that day’s best: Fanny Crosby, P.P. Bliss, etc., and can only hope to one day write some of my own that may approach theirs in musical quality. Every one of the songs selected has a Bible verse cited as the seed thought or phrase for the songwriter or lyricist, which doubtless had a certain inspiring effect.
My mother’s family, the Hardgraves, the Allens and the Lees (her dad, Earl Wylie Hardgrave (for whom I am partly named) married twice, once to Marie Lee who died in the great flu epidemic in 1917, then to Nellie Allen), were (and are) faithful Church of Christ, so it was only natural that I wound up going to church with them quite a bit. (After I’d already recorded it, I found that “Wonderful Words of Life,” had been my maternal grandfather’s favorite song. As a young man, Marie Lee had taught it to him, and it apparently was instrumental in his conversion. My uncle Lee told me that he used to hear him out in the pens at the ranch, singing that song as he worked. He’d lost most of his hearing after an accident, and was effectively tone deaf in his later years when I knew him, so this may have been the only song he really knew well.
As an adult, I have come to appreciate my roots, and have discovered that our church had a couple of unique characteristics: 1. no instrumental music, no choir and 2. no religious rulemaking body exists past the Bible itself. There are no bishops, no national or international boards, synods or conventions; each church is under the guidance of a local group of elders chosen from their own midst.
This latter situation means that anywhere you go, the rituals and practices may vary, and the emphasis may vary, but they all subscribe to the basic rule that if there isn’t a ”thus saith the Lord” from the Bible, there’s no real basis for a given practice.
The former practice means that the entire congregation is the choir, usually led by a (semi)professional songleader. People sing the usual four parts, soprano, alto, tenor and bass, but the lack of instrumental accompaniment tends to produce singers who are good to excellent sight readers, singers who are able to “free lance,” (i.e., improvise a part), singers who frequently have to cope with a key change on the fly (the song leader may well change keys to suit his own range), and singers and song leaders who don’t feel very compelled to keep strict time (to the music as written).
My mother’s folks have a yearly reunion, a wonderful potluck of barbequed goat from Uncle Bob’s ranch, various vegetables and the usual naughty pies and cakes. Sometime during the visiting afterward, the church songbooks would come out and the group would spend an hour or two singing these great old hymns that we all know and love. The lead would pass from singer to singer, uncle to cousin to cousin, with everybody else singing their chosen part.
I had been a little intimidated by this group, and so hadn’t made any attempt to lead a song myself the first year I went as an adult, but went away thinking that I would learn one well enough. I happened to hear a friend and fellow Dallas songwriter, Beverly Carothers, perform Blessed Assurance during her act at a restaurant, which solidified my resolve to learn that particular song.
As I picked it out on the piano, (I usually sing bass or baritone, so I really didn’t know most of these lead parts until I worked on this album), I discovered a most interesting thing: I happen to have the exact vocal range needed to sing the soprano part an octave low, for almost all of the hymns as written.
In a nod toward my heritage and toward common practice in the Country Music field, I recorded Blessed Assurance as the closing song of my first album, Snapshot, Adama Music, 1992. Reaction to the song, plus my own desire to capture my mother on tape, galvanized me to go ahead and do an album of pure Gospel songs. A first pass through the church songbook produced a list of about a hundred; a second pass through that list shrank it to about 50 or so real favorites.
At that point, I decided to make the Gospel Favorites album a series of four volumes. As the planning for Volume 1 progressed, I realized that as a separate goal from my family audience, I wanted to share these wonderful songs with a wider audience than just those who like their hymns a capella. So we decided to produce final product in two ways, both with and without instruments.
The goal was to reproduce as much as possible, the tempo and phrasing of the songs as I’ve heard them all my life, although I have taken some degree of artistic liberty in some arrangements. As another happy accident, I’ve discovered that our church music tradition, as an aural tradition, rather than a written or instrumental tradition, varies a bit in many instances from how songs are actually written down in our own songbooks. We’ve passed our own arrangements down over the years basically by rote, which probably in the early days of fairly widespread illiteracy, was a functional requirement.
The arrangements were aimed at facilitating the overall message of the songs, to make the words clearly understandable, so some are done a bit more slowly than might seem usual. Likewise, the mix was done and re-done until we had a balance on the various voices that complemented the lead part’s lyrics without overpowering or muddying them.
I’ve also realized the fact of the so-called “anthropologist dilemma,” i.e., that the act of observing changes the subjects’ behavior. So in this case, I wind up being the archivist or perhaps ethnologist, of the songs as sung in rural Texas, and also the (partial) subject of the study. Flipping back and forth from one role to the other has probably resulted in some confusion as one role takes precedence over the other in given circumstances; hopefully the listener will take the most generous attitude in ascribing intent.
There are two reasons for the name “Virtual Family Choir,” first, we recorded all voice and instrumental tracks a track at a time to allow the greatest flexibility in the final mix, so this set of singers really never sang together for this album. Second, not all of the singers are family proper; some are family by marriage, some will be, and some are friends who I count in my extended (or virtual) family. With the exception of Art and Jamie, none of them are professional singers. We used instruments to get the basic song arrangement down, along with my lead part, before adding any of the other parts, in an attempt to keep the singers in better synchronization than we might have otherwise have achieved.
We wind up with what we hope is perceived as a natural quality, very similar to what you might hear in church: singers not all together at times, singers varying from the written part a bit, moving up and down the chord to find a comfortable note.
Many find the instrumental version to have a “folk” quality; this is partly accidental and partly intended. My guitar accompanist, Tim Cooper, not being very familiar with most of these songs, has taken his cue from me singing each song to him a capella, so he has conformed the music to the way that I remember these songs rather than blindly playing them as written. This led to arrangements that are different than those many may be familiar with. My suspicion is that we’ve ultimately been fairly true to the older songs as originally sung, many of them over a hundred years ago, simply because we started from my own aural memories of songs learned by rote across many generations.
I tell friends who are not particularly religious that they should at least listen to these songs as folk music, as native art of West Texas. The songs themselves have a certain quality, both lyrical and musical, that appeals on several different levels, of inspired praise songs, in the tradition of King David, no matter their exact age. That in turn has led them to their status of being well loved by church singers and listeners.
A common characteristic of all of these songs is that they reflect a great faith, and a great joy in that faith, on the part of the songwriter. Perhaps they enable the listener or singer to hook into the great spirituality of the songwriters. Whatever the mechanism, I have personally discovered that listening to the tape cheers me up, so as an antidote to the blues, I recommend listening, and for best results, singing along with the songs.
We hope this effort is seen as respectful and reverent of the great gospel tradition it represents, and perhaps it will help some person find the Lord. These songs have helped me, and I thank God for the opportunity to share them with you.
Ernie Wylie Harkins Sept. 17, 1994
Copyright © 1997 Adama Music. All rights reserved.
”In The Cross” (Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross) after John 19:25, by Fanny Crosby (words) and William H. Doane (tune), 1869
“There’s a Fountain Free” after Rev. 22:1, by Mrs. Mary B. C. Slade, and A.B. Everett (tune), 1876
”Have Thine Own Way” after Isaiah 64:8, by Adelaide A. Pollard (words) 1902, and George C. Stebbins (tune: Adelaide) 1907
“Sweeter Than All” (Christ Will Me His Aid Afford) after Rev. 7:17, by Johnson Oatman, Jr. (words) and J. Howard Entwisle (tune), 1900
“On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand” (My Hope is Built on Nothing Less) after I Corinthians 3:11, by Edward Mote (words) 1834, and William B. Bradbury (tune) 1863
“Hallelujah Praise Jehovah” after Psalm 148, by William J. Kirkpatrick, 1893
“Fairest Lord Jesus” (Crusader’s Hymn) after Colossians 1:17, 17th Century German Hymn, Heinrich von Fallersleben, trans. Richard S. Willis, 1850 (words), Silesian folk song, arr. 1842 by Heinrich von Fallersleben: Slesische Volksleider
“Stand up, Stand Up for Jesus” after Ephesians 6:13, by George Duffield (words) 1858, and George J. Webb (tune) 1837
“Faith is the Victory” (Encamped Along the Hills of Light) after 1 John 5:4, by John Yates (words) 1891, and Ira D. Sankey (tune) 1891
“Yield Not to Temptation” after Romans 6:16 by H.R. Palmer, 1868
“O Worship the King” after I Chronicles 29:11, by Robert Grant (words) 1833, and Johann Michael Haydn (tune attributed to him by William Gardiner’s Sacred Melodies, 1815, possibly an adaptation from William Croft’s ”Hanover,” 1708)
I Am Thine O Lord” (Draw Me Nearer) after Hebrews 10:22, by Fanny J. Crosby (words), and William H. Doane (tune) 1875
”To Canaan’s Land I’m on My Way” (Where the Soul Never Dies) after Rev. 21:4, by William M. Golden 1914
“Love One Another”(Angry Words) after Matthew 22:39, John 15:17, by H.R.Palmer, 1867
“He Hideth My Soul” (A Wonderful Savior) after Hebrews 2:14, 15, by Fanny J. Crosby and William J. Kirkpatrick, 1890
“Song Data from: Great Songs of the Church” ACU Press, 1986, Songs of the Church, Howard Publishing, 1977, Family Songbook of Faith and Joy, Reader’s Digest Association, 1975, “The Hymnbook” (Presbyterian) 1955