by Bob Bowman
things have left as much impact on East
Texas history as gospel music.
When the first settlers came into East
Texas from the Old South in the 1830s, they brought with them
the old songs they learned from their parents and grandparents. In
East Texas they passed
them along to their children and grandchildren in churches that often
became the first community institutions of small, now-forgotten towns.
Sacred songs and hymns, as well as mountain tunes and early blues,
were freely shared by black and white field hands who brought their
fiddles, harmonicas and guitars to make music in the evening shade
after a hard day’s work.
Now, much of that is changing.
The old gospel songs are quietly fading, the result of new music shaped
by some church directors trying to win converts among young people
who want their music played with modern themes, brass instruments
and strains borrowed from television.
There are some places, however, where traditional gospel music is
still revered and played.
The other night at the First Baptist Church of Moscow, Doris and I
spent a delightful evening listening to Bill and Vicki Sky of Nashville,
Tennessee. Bedrock gospel shined through in each of their songs.
Bill’s roots are in the Arkansas Ozarks, where his father had been
a Stamps-Baxter shape-note singing school teacher and mountain fiddler.
His earliest memories, as a child of three, are of climbing onto a
rustic platform at Pine Grove Church to help his daddy lead a congregation
in gospel music dating back two and three centuries.
“Amazing Grace,” that beautiful old gospel standard, was written in
1890 and is still performed with the same vigor and enthusiasm as
it was then. For small churches in East
Texas, it is an undying anthem.
Bill Sky, who travels with Vicki some 90,000 miles a year singing
and playing in churches and concerts, knows his gospel music history
The old standard, “It Is Well With My Soul,” was reportedly written
by a man whose three daughters perished when a ship sank while crossing
the Atlantic to England.
And another old standard, “There’ll Be No Dying,” was written by a
mother who lost her son and grieved for months and months until God
led her to write a song that miraculously stilled her grief.
One of the songs that the Skys played was, ironically, not a gospel
song, but illustrates how songs, including gospel standards, often
take on new lives.
An old Finnish folk song, “A Walk in the Finnish Woods,” was written
in the 1500s. In the 1950s, it was recorded by Patti Page with new
words and became an American standard, “On Mockingbird Hill.”
Moscow’s First Baptist Church is doing its best to make sure we never
forget the gospel classics by sponsoring free concerts such as the
one by Bill and Vicki Sky.
But, in other places, gospel music doesn’t have a champion as aggressive
All over East Texas, small
churches, many of them located in forgotten towns and communities,
are losing congregations. And gospel music is changing.