Sunday, November 30, 2008
When All of God's Singers Get Home - Luther G. Presley
If I said someone named ‘Presley’ was a notable 20th Century songwriter born in the South, you most probably would guess that I was referring to Elvis Presley. Well, Elvis might be nicknamed ‘the King’, but if you interviewed residents of Faulkner and White Counties in Arkansas, they might guess that Luther G. Presley was in fact a more prolific composer than his namesake from Memphis, Tennessee. By some accounts, Luther (1887-1974) wrote 1,500 or more gospel songs, beginning officially in 1907 when his first song was published. He had in fact written his first song “Gladly Sing” some years earlier when he was just 17 years old, a few years after he had started attending music school and directing the choir at the Free Will Baptist Church near Rose Bud, Arkansas. Perhaps Presley (the lyricist) and Virgil O. Stamps (the music writer, of the Stamps-Baxter music publishing company) are most well known for the 1937 song “When the Saints Go Marching In”, but it would be unfair to limit their accomplishments to that song alone. I for one have sung many Stamps-Baxter productions that I appreciate as much or more than “When the Saints…”, and in a similar way, I also appreciate another of Presley’s songs – “When All of God’s Singers Get Home”.
Written in 1937, in the heart of nationwide deprivation, Presley’s words for “When All of God’s Singers Get Home” are nevertheless ebullient…does happiness, delight, mirth, joy, light, and bright -- all words in this song -- sound like someone singing the blues, like somebody who’s desperate? His life must have been impacted during the Great Depression, but you sense something besides his physical environment was guiding him. One could say that Luther Presley must have been Spirit-led. His music life was abundant, despite whatever his circumstances might have dictated. Frequently, after a difficult time, he’d compose when alone, a mode reminiscent of Jesus who would also escape his surroundings and go to a mountain seeking prayer time with His Father. Presley also wrote by drawing upon real-life experiences, including “I Know the Lord Is With Me” after being in a car accident in which no one was injured, and “Give Them Red Roses (The Boys Will Be Coming Home)” near the end of World War II as he thought about his sons Clarence and Leister who were in uniform in Europe. Leister says his father also drew upon his personal loss - his wife and second child died during childbirth (although what tune or tunes he wrote at this time we do not know). It is said that he always carried paper scraps on which to record his thoughts, perhaps indicating that Luther was prepared for, and counted on, the Lord making random thoughts into something special. (I confess I now feel better about all those Post-It notes I scatter everywhere!)
Yes, Luther Presley had a gift, one so amazingly employed over such a long time…it reminds me of the title of a book, “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” (Eugene Peterson). I have tried to sum up Luther Presley’s life, but I think his own words say it more powerfully through the music he wrote. Do you have a favorite Luther G. Presley song, perhaps one that he wrote in collaboration with the Stamps-Baxter company (like “When All of God’s Singers Get Home”, or “When the Saints Go Marching In”)? Share it here, tell us what it means to you, and enrich the rest of us a little more.
* Much of the information gleaned from an April 21, 1998 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article written by Bob Sallee. http://www.ucalldatmusic.com/L_G_Presley.htm