Thursday, January 03, 2019

Charles McCallon Alexander (1867-1920) - Tennessee Scotch-Irish pioneer of Gospel music, and his 1905 Columbia recordings.

Charles Alexander banner copy

A Presbyterian Tennessee farm boy of Ulster-Scots descent. A big personality - ‘jovial, gregarious and outgoing’. World-famous singer of his generation who toured the globe. Frequent visitor to Ulster. Publisher of a series of much-loved hymnbooks. Pioneer recording star. Preferred ‘percussive piano’ instead of stately organ music.

Those of us who grew up in the ‘wee halls’ rather than the ‘big churches’ will be familiar with the (usually red) series of Alexander’s Hymns books which first appeared in 1902 and remained as firm favourites well into the 1980s - they’re still used today in some places. These were published by Charles McCallon Alexander, a world-famous singing evangelist, a towering figure in a truly transatlantic gospel world. This book summarises his life very succinctly; I’ve dug a bit deeper for what follows below –

[NB the biography that is quoted from extensively below was written by Charlie’s widow, the wealthy English chocolate millionaire Helen Cadbury, who he had met following one of his major events in Birmingham in England. They married in 1904, he died on 12 October 1920 and the biography appeared in autumn 1921. So the quotes below are ‘filtered’ through Helen’s understanding and words, edited from Charlie’s diaries and his extensive library. It’s a well-crafted and content-rich tribute to him, but I hope that interviews with Charlie might exist somewhere, to hear his story as the Tennessee mountain boy would have told it himself, in particular his understanding of his ancestry and varied musical influences]

1.'In My Tennessee Mountain Home’
Charlie, as he liked to be known, was born at a place called Meadow, near Cloyd’s Creek, near the town of Maryville in Blount County on the edge of the Smoky Mountains in east Tennessee (I spent a week in a log cabin in nearby Townsend back in 2002) - the family attended Cloyd’s Creek Presbyterian Church, which is shown below. Charles' posthumous 1920 biography traces the ancestry of both his father and his mother; his father John Darius Alexander was descended from 

'… John McKnitt Alexander, one of the famous family of seven brothers who had fled from the North of Ireland to escape religious persecution. Everywhere they carried their staunch Presbyterian faith, providing many a minister to teach the evangelical truth so dear to their fathers. Young John Darius had been educated in a Quaker school at Friendsville, not far from Cloyd's Creek. He had set his heart upon being a minister, but finding the difficulties in his way too great, he had devoted himself to farming. Comfort came to him in his disappointment through the love of the gentle girl who eventually became his wife. Martha McCallon came of a Scottish-Irish farming family, and lived with her mother and grandfather, her father having died early …'

I’ll not recap Charles’ life - you can read the biography here - as what is of most interest to me is his role in gospel music history. 

2880px Cloyds creek presbyterian tn12. Fireside ‘Modern’ Gospel Music to Moody Bible Institute, Chicago
Charles recounted that his first exposure to popular hymns was at the family fireside:

‘… in our log home amid the hills of Tennessee. My mother sang sweetly and my father was famous throughout all the region round about as a musical leader. He purchased the first book of modern Gospel songs that came out when Moody and Sankey were doing their work ...”

That would have been in the early 1870s; the family had been to hear Moody and Sankey in Knoxville in 1870. He studied for a while at Maryville College, and then taught music in the area for a time. In the early 1890s Charles relocated to Chicago to the Moody Bible Institute - which as far as I know was a mixed-race/integrated college. Charles Alexander, who had been to hear the legendary duo in Knoxville as a 13 year old, was now one of their staff. Dr James M Gray, whose parents had emigrated from Gray’s Hill in Bangor, was one of the senior figures at the Institute.

3. From Chicago to the World - the early repertoire
He was by now a mighty soloist, in the days before electrical amplification, with a loud rich voice. He teamed up with a few different evangelists until, in 1902, he joined Dr Reuben Torrey - their first overseas mission was in Australia, with the famous little red hymn book a key tool in their arsenal. Their repertoire on the Australian tour included ‘God Be With You Till We Meet Again’, ‘Oh That Will Be Glory For Me’, ‘Give Me That Old Time Religion’, ‘Oh Wonderful Story’, ‘Count Your Blessings’ and ‘A Little Talk With Jesus Makes It Right All Right’, of which Alexander said

“...Now this is a song with a hook in it, it will get hold of you and do you good! It will stick to you like a burr!…"

Here is a version of that song, as recorded a generation later by Ernest Phipps during the famous 1927 'Bristol Sessions’, close to where Alexander had grown up.

They then sailed for India, and then to England. Alexander understood the supernatural power of music - its ability to touch the heart and soul. And he had a method of sorts:

“… There is a wonderful influence in song, and that influence spreads with great rapidity when once it gets started. To become quickly popular, songs must be easy to learn; there must be a simple, easy, flowing melody, and a small range, not much over an octave, and a picture in every line of every verse. The words must be simple, but full of faith, hope and promise. I never make up any final list of songs before I go to a meeting. As soon as I come on the platform I begin to study my audience, and then select my first song in accordance with my impression of what the people desire, or of what may reach them. If the first verse does not go well, I go no further with it, and sing something else. It is not my method to sing new songs exclusively ; I frequently have a new one first, in order to get the people interested, and then follow with an old one which has appropriate relation to the other. For instance, what can be more effective than to begin with ' He will hold me fast,' and follow with ' Safe in the arms of  Jesus ' ; or, after the solo, ' Is He yours ? ' ' Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine ' ? "

The cynical will say that Alexander and others used music to manipulate their audiences. I think that’s unfair when you read his biography and appreciate the roundedness of what he was aiming to achieve.

“… It was a great discovery for Charles Alexander, when he realized that busy men who thought they could not sing, or take time for singing, were like a crowd of boys, when they came together in a meeting, and sang just as heartily. He  found that down in every man's heart there is a love of song, and that even the men who had no sympathy with Christianity as they knew it, liked the Gospel  hymns, and would come to hear them …"

4. A fusion of Scottish Psalms and songs – and ‘negro melodies’
Then there’s this brilliant summary of the development of popular hymns:

“… This brings to mind the way in which Charles Alexander always traced the music of Gospel songs, which was wafted over the British Empire from America, to the influence of the negro melodies. In contrast to the regular rhythm of the older standard hymns, a Gospel song has a lilting swing and flow that is essentially American, and owes its origin to the pathetic strains of the days of slavery. Yet there must have been some other influence behind those negro melodies, for they are nowhere found amongst the Africans in their own continent. Charles Alexander's theory was that they were built up by the Southern negroes, in the pathos of their helpless condition, upon the foundation of those minor strains of the old Scottish psalms and songs, brought over by the pioneer settlers from the land of their birth to the Southern mountains of their adopted country. Whenever he wanted to train a writer of Gospel hymns, Alexander would always try to get him saturated with the rhythm and bubbling freshness of the music of the coloured people. Another thing he learned from this source was the constant reiteration, in the words of a hymn or chorus, of some one main thought that he wished to lay hold of the mind. This may be seen in his choice of the hymns he made use of, and in those which he helped to inspire.

... he always insisted that, to a very large extent, children get their theology from the hymns which they sing. As this again is true of grown-up people as well, Alexander felt that no pains should be spared to ensure that the teaching of the hymns in his collections was strictly in accordance with that of the Word of God ; and he preferred, wherever possible, the actual words of Scripture. This was the reason why he loved so dearly the hymns written by his old friend Major D. W. Whittle, so often set to music by his co-worker James McGranahan ..."

Chapman Alexander Meeting Belfast 1903

5. 1903 - the first tour of Britain and Ireland
McGranahan’s ancestors were from Belfast, where he later sang. The city was on the Torrey–Alexander schedule - they had already packed the Royal Albert Hall to the rafters (free of charge to all who attended - story here); they had 7000 people in St Georges Market in Belfast in 1903. They also held campaigns in Bangor, Dundalk and Londonderry. Thomas Sinclair, who would later write the text of the 1912 Ulster Solemn League & Covenant, had this to say:

“… I have been much struck with the great sanity with which this mission has been conducted. We sometimes associate such movements with extravagances. There was absolutely an absence of anything of the sort in these meetings," Rev. W. H. Brownrigg, of the Church of Ireland, said : " The time through which we have passed has been one of marked spiritual revival such as I have never before been connected with."

The five weeks in Belfast were followed by ten days in the adjoining coast town of Bangor, where the rising tide of blessing overflowed again into the larger city. Here an instance of Alexander's tact occurred, during a visit to the home of a Christian family whose members were church-workers. While looking in a drawer for some photographs, a pack of playing-cards was discovered. Said the lady of the house : "I hope you do not think we play for money. We have a friendly game now and then amongst ourselves, or when the young folks have friends to visit them." Alexander replied, smiling, " I didn't say anything about the cards. Why do you apologize for them ? " " But surely you do not think there is any harm in playing, do you ? " was the question asked after a short interval. " Do you think it would help you to get your friends to surrender to Christ ? Would it be easy, after a game of cards, to start a conversation which would lead them to Jesus ?..."  

Glory Song

6. The 1905 Recordings
In early 1905, apparently after much reluctance, he was persuaded to enter a recording studio. ‘Talking Machines’ had become popular and record companies sprang up to feed the demand, constantly on the look for popular singers to record, market and profit from:

“… London was already ringing with the new melodies which had captivated the great throngs at the Royal Albert Hall day after day. The (Columbia) Gramophone Company approached Alexander with a handsome business proposition for the making of a number of records, which, with the additional royalties, would have brought him in a large sum of money. To their surprise he definitely refused at first. On further persuasion he said : "I will not accept one penny for myself, either now or later. But I'll give you some records, both in song, and in spoken incidents, if you will take a big space in one of the leading London dailies, and print the " Glory Song " above your advertisement, also adding that I am giving you the records free, without remuneration or royalty. Astonished by the unselfish generosity of the proposal, and finding it useless to persuade him to receive any payment, the conditions were readily acceded to, with the result that the "Glory Song" entered hundreds of thousands of homes in Great Britain; while, by means of the gramophone records, the very voice of the singer carried its message in song, and told incidents of the meetings to people even in far-off lands. It was reported at the time that the sales during the first few days amounted to ten thousand records…"

He recorded ‘The Glory Song’ on a Monday afternoon, the manufacturing began straight away, and records were being delivered to shops on the Friday. I’ve found adverts in newspapers in Omagh and Newry, as well as Belfast and Bangor, announcing the availability of the famous Alexander debut recordings. It was a phenomenon, and hundreds of thousands of copies were sold.

Alexaner Omagh 1905

Alexaner Newry 1905

Here are two of Alexander's 1905 recordings, from You can imagine the huge anthemic chorus of 'The Glory Song' being belted out by thousands of voices:

• ‘The Glory Song'

• ‘Tell Mother I’ll Be There'

This webpage by Norman Field catalogues all of Alexander's known recordings, also listed on this page.

Demand was huge, there are various newspaper reports saying that the company was inundated with orders and that the song was re-recorded by other artists almost immediately. And back in Nashville in October 1906, Torrey and Alexander would take the stage which their evangelist friend Sam Jones had helped to establish - the Ryman Auditorium, which later became the home of the world-famous Grand Ole Opry. More to follow...

The Tennessean Mon Oct 8 1906

Alexander Gramophone 2

Alexnder Library

Alexander KoreaAlexander Gramophone