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Bliss, Philip Paul (09 July 1838–29 December 1876), hymnodist and musical evangelist, was born in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania, the son of Isaac Bliss and Lydia Doolittle, farmers. As an adolescent, he worked on farms and in lumber camps. Bliss proclaimed his personal conversion to Christ in 1850 and joined a Baptist church. After attending a select school in East Troy, Pennsylvania, in 1855 and working on a farm during the summer, he taught school in Hartsville, New York, during the winter of 1856. The following year he received his first formal instruction in music at J. G. Towner’s music school in Towanda, Pennsylvania. During 1858 Bliss taught school in Rome, Pennsylvania, where he boarded with the Young family. In 1859 he married Lucy Young, the oldest daughter of his hosts; the couple had two children. In the early 1860s Bliss taught music at Pennsylvania schools during the winter months, worked on his father-in-law’s farm during the summer, and attended occasional normal academies of music in Geneseo, New York....

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Burleigh, Henry Thacker (02 December 1866–12 September 1949), composer and spiritual singer, was born in Erie, Pennsylvania. Nothing is known about his parentage. When he was a little boy his excellent singing voice made him a sought-after performer in churches and synagogues in and around his hometown. In 1892, having decided on a career in music, Burleigh won a scholarship to the National Conservatory of Music in New York. His matriculation coincided with the arrival of the Czech composer ...

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Campbell, Lucie E. (1885–03 January 1963), gospel composer and teacher, was born in Duck Hill, Mississippi, the daughter of Burrell Campbell, a railroad worker, and Isabella Wilkerson. Her mother was widowed several months after Lucie’s birth, and the family soon moved from Carroll County to Memphis, the nearest major city. Lucie and her many siblings struggled to survive on their mother’s meager wages, which she earned by washing and ironing clothing. Given the family’s insubstantial income, it could afford a musical education for only one child: Lucie’s older sister Lora. Lucie eventually learned to play piano, however, through her own persistence, a gifted ear for music, and a little help from Lora....

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Carter, Dad (25 September 1889–28 April 1963), southern gospel singer, was born David Parker Carter in a small mill town near Columbia, Kentucky, and moved westward to Texas as a small child. His mother died when he was sixteen, but other details of his early life are lacking. He came of age in Clay County, Texas, and met his wife, Carrie Brooks, at a singing school there. They married in 1909....

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Cleveland, James (05 December 1932–09 February 1991), gospel singer, songwriter, and musician was born in Chicago, Illinois, to Ben Cleveland and Rosie Lee during the Great Depression. His father worked on a WPA project while his mother was a day worker. James worked as a paper boy to supplement the family income; he first met ...

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Sam Cooke. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-107994).

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Cooke, Sam (22 January 1931–11 December 1964), singer-songwriter, was born Samuel Cook in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the son of Charles Cook, a minister in the Church of Christ (Holiness), and Annie May Carl. After Sam’s father lost his position as houseboy for a wealthy cotton farmer as a result of the Great Depression, the family migrated to Chicago, where Reverend Cook became assistant pastor of Christ Temple (Holiness) and a laborer in the stockyards. The family lived in Bronzeville, Chicago’s severely overcrowded and impoverished black section. Young Sam was educated at nearby schools and gained musical experience by sneaking into taverns to hear pop tunes but mostly by hearing and singing gospel music at church. There he started a gospel group, the Singing Children; later he joined the Teenage Highway QC’s and became more widely known throughout the nation. He graduated from Wendell Phillips High School in 1948. About that time he spent ninety days in jail on a morals charge that stemmed from a paternity suit....

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Bill McCulloch and Barry Lee Pearson

Davis, Gary D. (30 April 1896–05 May 1972), guitarist and religious singer, was born in Laurens County, South Carolina, south of Spartanburg, the son of John Davis and Evelina (maiden name unknown), farmers. One of eight children, he grew up on a farm he later described as being so far out in the country “you couldn’t hear a train whistle blow unless it was on a cloudy day.” Partially blinded as a baby, Davis was placed in the care of his grandmother. He showed an aptitude for music as a boy, first playing harmonica and later, with his grandmother’s help, constructing a guitar. When he was between the ages of seven and ten his mother gave him a guitar, and over the next several years he became proficient, possibly learning from a local musician, Craig Fowler, and an uncle. By age ten he was singing in a Baptist church and playing for local dances. In his teens Davis began adding blues to a repertoire that already included country dance tunes and religious songs....

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Dorsey, Thomas Andrew (01 July 1899–23 January 1993), blues performer, gospel singer, and composer, was born in Villa Rica, Georgia, the son of Thomas Madison Dorsey, a preacher, and Etta Plant Spencer. Dorsey’s mother, whose first husband had died, owned approximately fifty acres of farm land. Dorsey lived in somewhat trying circumstances as his parents moved first to Atlanta and Forsyth, Georgia, and then back to Villa Rica during the first four years of his life. In Villa Rica the Dorsey family settled into a rural lifestyle supported by marginal farming that was slightly mitigated by his father’s pastoral duties....

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Fowler, Wally (15 February 1917–03 June 1994), gospel music promoter, singer, and songwriter, was born John Wallace Fowler near Cartersville, Georgia, the son of Joseph Fletcher Fowler, a well-established cotton farmer; his mother’s name is not known. By the time Wally Fowler was ready for school, the Great Depression had wrecked his father’s fortunes, and he and his sisters grew up working as sharecroppers. The Fowler family, however, loved music; his mother played an old pump organ, and his father helped organize Saturday night gospel singings in the front rooms of neighborhood houses. “That’s when I really learned gospel music,” he recalled. What formal training the singers got came from J. M. Henson, an Atlanta publisher and singing school teacher, who came to the area to conduct singing schools, using the seven-shape note system that was popular throughout the South at that time....

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Mahalia Jackson Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1962. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-102162).

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Jackson, Mahalia (26 October 1911–27 January 1972), gospel singer, was born in New Orleans, the daughter of John Jackson, a dockworker, barber, and preacher, and Charity Clark, a maid. Her mother died when Jackson was five, and she moved in with her mother’s sister, Mahalia Paul, also known as Aunt Duke. She worked both for her aunt and for a local white family from an early age, and during the eighth grade (the last grade she attended before quitting school), she also worked as a laundress for five hours after school. She began to sing as a young child, particularly at the Mount Moriah Baptist Church, but she was also profoundly influenced by the ...

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Jenkins, Andrew (26 November 1885–1956), folk composer and gospel singer, was born in Jenkinsburg, near Atlanta, Georgia. His parents’ names are unknown. Jenkins was partially blinded as an infant when the wrong medication was put into his eyes. By the time he was nine he had joined the Methodist church and was climbing up on tree stumps to preach sermons to his family and friends. He preached his first formal sermon in a church in 1909, when he was twenty-four. Among his influences were two Atlanta residents who had gained nationwide reputations in the field of religion, composer Charlie Tillman (who had written the song “Life’s Railway to Heaven”) and evangelist Sam P. Jones (who published many gospel songbooks and traveled around the South doing tent revivals). To supplement his income, Jenkins sold newspapers on the streets of Atlanta and soon acquired a reputation as a folk preacher....

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Johnson, Blind Willie (1900?–1949?), gospel singer and guitarist, was born near Marlin, Texas, the son of George Johnson, a farmer, and a mother (name unknown) who died when Willie was quite young. Information about Johnson’s life is very sketchy and based largely on brief interviews with his two wives and a few friends and fellow musicians, who sometimes gave vague and contradictory information. The only tangible documents of his life are the thirty recordings that he made between 1927 and 1930....

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Martin, Roberta (12 February 1907–18 January 1969), gospel pianist, composer/arranger, and singer, was born Roberta Evelyn Winston in Helena, Arkansas, the daughter of William Winston and Anna (maiden name unknown). One of six children in the Winston household, Roberta showed an early proclivity for music. When only a toddler, she climbed onto the piano bench and picked out melodies that she had heard. This interest and talent was nurtured by her oldest brother’s wife, who became her first piano teacher....

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Oatman, Johnson, Jr. (21 April 1856–25 September 1922), gospel hymn writer, was born near Medford, New Jersey, the son of Johnson Oatman, a merchant, and Rachel Ann Cline. Educated at Herbert’s Academy, Vincetown, and the New Jersey Collegiate Institute, Bordentown, he was licensed and ordained as a local preacher in the Methodist Episcopal church but never held a pastorate. He married Wilhelmina Ried in 1878; they had three children. After working for many years with his father in Lumberton, New Jersey, he became associated with a life-insurance company in Mount Holly, New Jersey. In failing health in 1893, he retired to the seaside resort community of Ocean Grove, New Jersey. A “stronghold of Methodist Victorianism,” Ocean Grove was a permanent site of carefully-regulated summer camp meetings patronized by urban middle-class evangelical Protestants in search of rest, wholesome recreation, and spiritual renewal (Jones, p. 33)....

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Rodeheaver, Homer Alvin (04 October 1880–18 December 1955), evangelist, musician, and music publisher, was born in Cinco Hollow, Ohio, the son of Thurman Hall Rodeheaver, who was in the lumber mill business, and Francis “Fannie” Armstrong. As a young man growing up in the mountain logging village of Jellico, in East Tennessee, he was exposed to rural singing school music and fiddle dance music from the Scots-Irish settlers in the area. As a boy he also learned to play the cornet. He attended Ohio Wesleyan College in 1896; there he switched to trombone, played in the college band, took music courses, and served as a cheerleader. He interrupted college to serve in the Fourth Tennessee Band in the Spanish-American War, and after the war, though initially drawn to the law, in about 1904 he joined evangelist ...

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Rowe, James (1865–1933), gospel music song lyricist, was born in Devonshire, England, the son of John Rowe and Jane Gallard. His father died at age forty-eight, and Rowe left school at an early age to support his family. He held positions in the English government for several years but seems not to have had any special training or experience in music. He immigrated to the United States in 1890, settling first in New York City, where he worked for the New York Central Railroad Company. Later relocating to Albany, New York, he served as superintendent for the animal control department of the Mohawk and Hudson River Humane Society from 1900 to 1910. During this time he married Blanche Clapper....

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Sankey, Ira David (28 August 1840–14 August 1908), singing evangelist and gospel songwriter, was born in Edinburg, Lawrence County, Pennsylvania, the son of David Sankey and Mary Leeper. Sankey’s father was a Pennsylvania state representative, collector of internal revenue, member of the State Board of Equalization, and newspaper editor. During Sankey’s childhood his father also farmed in West Central Pennsylvania, near the Ohio border. The family attended King’s Chapel near Western Reserve Harbor, where Sankey was converted during revival meetings in 1856. In 1857, when Sankey’s father accepted the presidency of a local bank, the family moved to New Castle, Pennsylvania, where Sankey joined the New Castle Methodist Church. By 1860 he was Sunday school superintendent and choir director....

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Ira D. Sankey. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-108534).