by Christopher C. Evans

Hood County News – September 11, 2001LABOR DAY, GOSPEL STRAINS, ORA’S CAFE…

A song director would give a hand signal, his students would cease their chatter and focus on music in small, thick songbooks. A peppy intro would spill forth from an upright schoolhouse piano. An old-time gospel “singing convention” would commence at the Cresson School.

It was Labor Day in Cresson in the late 1940s through the middle 1950s. Tables in a nearby classroom, or outdoors if the weather was right, were strewn with edible delicacies that made for an enticing pot-luck smorgasbord. The music, which began about 10 a.m. filled the air until late afternoon.

“There was always a crowd of people there,” said Dot York McGhee, a singer-participant whose husband Cecil and father Dick York brought the Labor Day “singings,” which had been held elsewhere, to the Cresson School for a multi-year period.

“Most of the people who came were people who went to singings somewhere every week, usually on Saturday nights. I can’t say for sure how many people came but the auditorium would be full.

“And, to be honest, it wasn’t something the community people in Cresson got involved in,” Dot McGhee added. “Oh, Calvin Fidler and some people like that might come by for a while and listen but, by and large, most everybody who came were the same people who went to the singings which weren’t a paying thing, didn’t include any preaching and were totally non-denominational,” she said.

“I’ll tell you those people also did some sweatin’ in there, too,” said a person who didn’t attend any of the singings but obviously observed the participants leaving.

An itinerary for an all-day singing included a lot of work and concentration in that the songs in the songbooks had to be learned, done initially usually in a group after which the warblers were broken up into quartets, trios and what have you, men, women, mixed and sometimes showcasing an especially gifted child crooner.

The style of gospel music was old but the music of the movement was unique in that it was new and being produced continuously, even voluminously, by record and songbook houses such as Stamps-Baxter, which had a headquarters in Dallas and even employed gospel acts from places like Cresson, Acton, Granbury and Stephenville to help sell songbooks.

Yet if Stamps-Baxter and other nationally known houses such as the Knoxville, Tenn.-based Mull Singing Convention, had national followings, smaller publishing houses sprang up throughout the Bible Belt and beyond. Universal Publishers of Longview, which sold the Chorus Melodies series of songbooks, was one. Fort Worth and Dallas each had several small music publishing houses, some tied to churches or denominations but most highly independent. As with the larger houses such as Stamps-Baxter and Mull, a gospel music publishing house’s success almost always was tied to a regularly running program on one or more radio stations.

Some gospel music of the time was laced with bluegrass, that Appalachian string music typified today by Little Roy Lewis and the Lewis Family, Ricky Skaggs and others. The other strain, which was predominantly that of the singing conventions, was largely but not entirely piano-accompanied. If it was a cappella, the director or teacher commonly carried and used a tuning fork for pitch.

At a time when American radio in general was known for its oddball remedies and panaceas such as goat gland surgery to restore potency, the singing convention programs that made their big bucks on selling songbooks, also realized major revenues from laxatives and headache pills and potions, among other things.

No one seems quite sure exactly what years the regional singing convention came to Cresson. “Late ’40s until maybe about 1955, that’s what I’d say,” said Geraldine York Robertson, Dot York McGhee’s loquacious older sibling.

Both Geraldine and Dot remember well another key figure in the gospel singing convention movement, a person I once wrote about and, after that, considered a friend for the last years of his life.

His name was W.B. Nowlin. He was an old-time promoter who was reared near DeLeon and made his mark doing big gospel shows, particularly the “Battles of Songs” shows that featured many national acts as well as Texas groups in the late ’50s until the late ’90s at Fort Worth’s Will Rogers Auditorium and Tarrant County Convention Center.

“I think Mr. Nowlin was a good promoter and a fine man,” said Dot of a man in a profession not always noted for honest dealers. “We had personal seats with him for the Battle of Songs shows for years and one time he called back long distance and talked and talked and talked to Geraldine on the phone on his time. Mr. Nowlin loved gospel music and he knew everybody in the business.”

According to Geraldine, a minister at Cresson Baptist Church once told some of his parishioners that Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, which he attended, “frowned upon the new Southern gospel music, partly because the songs were new songs written in the old tradition and the Baptists here wanted to keep singing the same six or seven songs they always sing.” Interestingly, the Yorks were Baptists but had to do their new gospel singing largely elsewhere because of the above.

Dot McGhee said that while certain area groups were hired to represent the Stamps-Baxter Music Co. at events where the company’s songbooks would be on sale, no “major national” groups performed at the singings in Cresson, which most participants recall as being between about 1948 and 1955.

“One person who did attend some of our singings and might have been in Cresson was Joe Roper, the Stamps-Baxter Quartet accompanist who’d come over from Dallas,” Dot McGhee recalled. “He was a piano player, he was real good and he sang some, too. He was a thin, wiry guy and they called him `Smilin’ Joe’ but he did not smile, not at all. That was a joke.’

“The food was pot-luck and it was always good,” Geraldine York Robertson said. “We broke for lunch about an hour, hour and a half. It was a family deal. When Mama and Daddy were young they’d have singings at certain churches. Wood Owens, who lived at Mambrino and was a teacher of singing, was real popular around here. He and Daddy and John Cruce and Mrs. Ethel Bunch sang regularly on the radio station in Cleburne.”

For quite a while, Geraldine said, her father was president of the Hood County Singing Convention. “They’d always had a big singing convention in Waples in June, an all-day singing like we had in Cresson. They had a big one at the American Legion Hall in Granbury for several years.’

“Dick York sang tenor and he had a beautiful tenor voice that I can still hear right now,” said Nina Gibson, whose own parents were accomplished vocalists who lived in Cresson. “I remember going to Temple Hall to the singings.”

Geraldine said her father, at first, couldn’t read music, “which is interesting because my daddy and Wood Owens held a lot of little church music schools.” “When Daddy first started singing he could only read shaped-note music,” she said, referring to a written music form that pre-dates the Civil War and was, according to some, devised by slaves.

“I remember once I got Glenn Ward, pastor of Acton Baptist Church, to get Daddy a hymnal with nothing but shaped-note music. He ordered it, I got Daddy’s name engraved in gold on it and gave it to him.”

“I remember going to singings at the Washington Street Baptist Church in Stephenville,” Geraldine said. “But when we were going to singings around here, Stephenville was about as far as we’d ever go.”

Members of the York family at various times sang in exchange for gas and board money as representatives of Stamps-Baxter at events designed to sell the company’s songbooks.

“Dot and I even attended the Stamps-Baxter Music School in Dallas in 1944 and 1945,” Geraldine said. “It went on every day and every night for two weeks, then it ended with an all-night singing that was really an all-night singing. One year it was at Bethel Temple on Jefferson Street in Oak Cliff in Dallas. Then the next year it was at Sunset Baptist — I think it was a Baptist church — or something like that.

“People came from all over to the Music School, from out of state as well as in-state,” she said. “I remember meeting members of the Speer Family, who got pretty well-known and whose relative, Ben Speer, is with Bill Gaither now. I also remember going to music school with Glenn Payne of the Cathedral Quarter, who just died a few months ago.”

Dot McGhee said she and Cecil, who are rearing two grandkids, don’t have the time to go to singing conventions that they once did. “After our girls (Susie Solomon and Carolyn Melugin) got married and don’t sing as much, we don’t go as much,” she said, adding that the girls still do sing at church.

“We don’t get to go much anymore but Cecil and I did just get back from one in Seminole, Okla., a three-day outdoor singing convention in a park. And we always still go to the two-night Gaither program every February at the Tarrant County Convention Center.

“Some of our favorites now are Karen Peck and New River, The Greens and The Hoppers.”

Old habits die grudgingly.

SIDETRACKS: A handful of people attended an Aug. 28 meeting of the Cresson Committee to Incorporate. John “Whizzer” Miles chaired the meeting, at which were discussed plans for keeping interest high in the incorporation issue until the Nov. 6 election…The aforementioned gospel promoter W.B. Nowlin related to me one of the most interesting stories I’ve ever heard: Nowlin was a high school lad growing up near DeLeon when his father agreed, for the first time, to let him borrow the family car. W.B. used the opportunity for what he told me was his first date, with a girl who lived out in the country. Yet when W.B. arrived to pick up his date, she hadn’t returned from a shopping trip with her mother. So her father, whom W.B. described as friendly and engaging, asked W.B. if he’d like to listen to a new song the father had just penned. So W.B. walked in to the room where a piano was and the man, J.B.F. Wright, played the song, Precious Memories, now a classic. The year, I think I recall, was 1921…Geraldine and Dot York, of course, were reared at their father Dick’s colorful filling station, which was east of Highway 171 on U.S. 377, then Highway 10. Aside from the fact that a large family live in what initially was a one-room building but later grew to two rooms and included Dick’s wife Ora York’s cafe. One Cresson resident from the period recalled that York’s Station was unique in that in the summer when grasshoppers abounded. A loyal cadre of chickens would appear right after a vehicle pulled in — and proceed to peck the grasshoppers off the vehicle’s radiator. “What I remember about summertime was those big ol` cars, especially Buicks, and how they’d all overheat,” said Dot McGhee. “Whoever it was, Daddy would tell them don’t take that (radiator) cap off until it’s cooled down, but they never listened. Some of `em would get the water hose that you put water in the car with and wrap it around the radiator cap and pull on one side. When they did that, scalding water would go sky high. Daddy wouldn’t touch it until it cooled down.”