Corrections or additions?
This article written by Tricia Fagan was published in U.S. 1
Newspaper on April 21, 1999. All rights reserved.
The Gospel of American Folk
For those of us who didn’t "come up" in an
African-American church, gospel music — if we’re familiar with
it at all — may have only a few familiar voices like the great
Mahalia Jackson’s jubilant contralto, or the rich rhythm and
stylings of the Staples Singers. But gospel is much more — and
remains today as one of the purest forms of America’s traditional
The New Jersey Folk Festival is pulling out all stops this year for
its free Silver Jubilee edition set for Saturday, April 24, from 10
a.m. to 6 p.m., on the grassy lawns of the Eagleton Institute at
College in New Brunswick. Many of the favorite performers from past
festivals have been invited back to help celebrate a quarter century
of traditional music, folkcrafts, and all-around good time partying,
hosted by Rutgers’ Department of American Studies. (See following
pages for more on the festival.)
The gospel tradition will be represented in glorious style by New
Jersey’s own Reverend Marion Hannah, who will be performing with the
Sensational Nightingales of North Carolina. On the telephone, Hannah’s
rich voice immediately sums up his years of experience both as a
singer and a preacher — with the soft inflections reflecting his
childhood spent in West Virginia.
He was born in 1934 just outside of Beckley, in the southern portion
of West Virginia. He grew up a middle child in a family of nine
When Hannah was nine years old, his father was killed in the mines.
During that first difficult year after his father’s death, Hannah
was able to lean on his grandfather, but when his grandfather died
suddenly the next year, it was the loving support of his oldest
William, and his stepfather, Felix Hembrick, that gave him structure
and direction. "My oldest brother really raised me right after
my father died. He was 16, but he went into the coal mines then. He’d
work at night and then he’d go to school in the daytime. My brother
was one of the most impressive persons in my life. He worked all his
life, trying to make sure his children had better opportunities than
he had, but after his children finished high school and college, they
didn’t take the education money he had set aside for them. So he went
back to school and got his doctorate in theology and became Dean of
Religion at Martin University in Indiana. He became one of the top
black persons in our denomination, the Disciples of Christ. He was
Happily Hannah’s stepfather was an equally loving and impressive
man. "My stepfather really came into my life at the right time.
He was a man who had a philosophy — one that could really make
you laugh sometimes. As a stepfather, he was one of the greatest men
that I’ve ever known. I guess I was one of the young men who really
needed a father figure, and he was it — he and my oldest
Hannah grew up singing, with vivid early memories of his family’s
support. "I come from a singing family. At an early age —
I guess I was about six — my grandfather, who was a Baptist
looked at me with his big, loving eyes and said, `One day you’re going
to be one of granddaddy’s greatest singers.’ And I always remembered
his words, I always tried to do that."
When Hannah was 19, Arthur Blake, a West Virginian living in New
sent him $20 and a ticket to Trenton. "He wanted me to sing with
some fellows who lived in South Bound Brook, called The
Hannah knew that gospel singing was his destiny. After a year with
the group, he realized this was not the group for him. "They were
guys who all worked full time and the music wasn’t going to go much
farther than they were going right then," he says.
He heard about a gospel group in New Brunswick, the
Soul Seekers, who had originally come out of Louisiana. Their manager,
Ernest Irving, agreed to add Hannah to the group’s line up. Hannah
was to be the lead singer for the Soul Seekers for most of the next
During the early years with the Soul Seekers, Hannah also sang with
other well-known gospel groups of the 1950s, including a stint as
a back-up singer with the famous Blind Boys of Alabama. He also sang
for some time with the Blind Boys of Mississippi. "They were good,
they were so dynamic. And to talk with them — they were very
They could beat you counting, they could beat you thinking. They were
just amazing. It was one of the great experiences that I’ve had."
About six months after the youthful Hannah joined with the Blind Boys,
he realized that this was not for him. "I think we were in
when it suddenly hit me that I couldn’t, by myself, lead three blind
men around. It was like having children — you had to make sure
they ate, and make sure they had their clothes on right. It was a
lot of responsibility. Plus they were very independent. They gave
orders like they were generals in the army. And then I got paid less
because they were the ones who had developed the reputation."
The experience, though humbling, helped Hannah to clarify his own
approach to gospel singing. "That was when I realized I had to
be friends and sing, rather than just having a job to sing. I still
do it occasionally. I still do their songs the way they sang them
once in a while, but now I sing more or less from my feelings rather
than their feelings or anyone else’s. I realized that with the Soul
Seekers, I sang from my soul. I was my best singer with the Soul
For years Hannah traveled the gospel circuit up and down the east
coast. The group performed in hundreds of venues that ranged from
small rural churches to schools and large city auditoriums, but for
Hannah the most memorable remains his first show at Harlem’s Apollo
Theater in the early 1960s. "They had booked the Soul Seekers
and other gospel groups for seven days, but the show was making such
an impact that they held it over for another four days. For 11 days
straight our group was the opening act — and I sang as strong
each day as the first day. Everyone was impressed. My voice stayed
the same until the very last day when it got a little hoarse. That’s
where I first made an impact."
"The Apollo was one of the most impressive places that a person
could ever sing in — I sang in front of more people there than
almost anywhere else in my career," he says. "They say that
if you ever sing gospel at the Apollo and make it, then you can make
it anywhere in the world — ’cause in the Apollo, they used to
throw tomatoes at you if they didn’t like you. It sounds funny now,
but it was pretty awful. There was one group in that set — I don’t
remember their names — the audience threw tomatoes at. It wasn’t
that they couldn’t sing, they just got nervous in front of all those
Many of their singing engagements, however, took professional gospel
singers into the Deep South — a region that during the post World
War II years of the 1950s and early ’60s was particularly unsafe for
traveling groups of black men. Hannah recounts one confrontation the
Soul Seekers faced — one that gave rise to Hannah’s reputation
of being the only black country-western gospel singer who can yodel.
"You have to take your mind back to the days when we were
on these roads between the North and the South," he says.
it was so bad that we really couldn’t stop for anything other than
"Well, one particular evening, we stopped for gas and this white
gentleman was up sitting in his rocking chair. He looked out at us
and in that old, Southern voice — using a word I don’t want to
use — asked us if we were supposed to be real singing boys. Our
manager answered, `Yes, sir,’ so he said, `I want y’all to sing me
a song.’ So we said, `Yes, sir. What song do you want us to sing?’
and he said, `I want you to sing me a song like Hank Williams.’ And
I said, `This man’s trying to kill us.’"
Hannah and the group were panicked. "I’m saying, `There ain’t
nobody here sings like Hank Williams,’ — I knew this, since
came out of Parkersburg, West Virginia." The rest of the group
begged Hannah to draw on his West Virginian roots and sing a song.
At first he refused. "I told them, `Hell no. I’m not going to
sing for some white man. He’s going to have to kill all of us, cause
I ain’t going to sing.’ But I finally decided to go ahead because
I used to mark Hank Williams when I was younger."
Hannah, over the phone, softly croons the song he performed that
"Candy kisses, wrapped up in paper, mean more to me than any of
yours…" and concludes with a small, melodic yodel. "I was
just being nasty," he admits. "It was uncharacteristic. I
was a young man, way down there in the South, and any man that was
white was the law. People today don’t remember this, but back then
they didn’t have to be an officer or anything — anything a white
person said back then, it was the law. So that was when I started
to yodel, it started out of my arrogance."
He adds there was a happy conclusion to the episode. The one-man
genuinely impressed with the singing, insisted on buying the group
all they could eat, gassed up the car for no charge, and insisted
that they look him up any time they were traveling through the area.
"The end of the story was that this was a decent white person
that wanted to hear a gospel song, not because of who he was, but
because he really wanted to hear it. We sang him one of the old hymns,
and he was moved."
The touring gospel groups of the ’50s and early ’60s played a much
greater role in people’s lives than that of performer or even
singer. Hannah recalls that phones were still a rarity. "Gospel
singing was the only good news for those folks, cause they were out
there picking cotton or cutting tobacco — trying to survive. So
if we were in say, Mississippi, they would ask `If you see my child
in New York, tell them they need to get in touch with me.’ We carried
many messages of that nature."
For all the difficulties, and perhaps because of them,
Hannah considers that time to have been the peak of the gospel music
circuit. "When civil rights became a reality, it really destroyed
gospel singing because back then when we used to go places, we were
it. No other recreation, so when we’d go to a place it was packed.
But when people started to have the freedom to go to other places,
they didn’t come to gospel singing like they used to. Used to be we
could go into one town and survive a whole month because everybody
had been waiting for gospel singing. After the civil rights movement,
we’d go into a big auditorium and they’d be only part full."
During that time, the powerful singing abilities of Hannah and fellow
Soul Seeker Cornelius Underwood, came to the attention of some of
executives at MGM. Hannah says, "We were each offered $92,000
by MGM to make the break and sing rock ‘n’ roll. Connie Francis came
in while we were waiting to go in. This was in the early ’60s and
she was very well known. When they called us in instead of her, she
said, `Wait a minute. I’ve been sitting here, and I demand that I
get some service,’ but they said, `These gentlemen are next.’ They
took us in, and I said, `Wow, I must be somebody.’"
Hannah turned the offer down. "I didn’t want to sing it, ’cause
I promised my granddad that I’d never do that. I’m amazed now —
I don’t know how I did it." He admits that shortly afterwards
"after I thought about it and the poverty-stricken conditions
that I was in, I thought about going back and telling them that maybe
I’d made a harsh decision. But I had said `No’ right away. Back then
they knew that everyone was broke, so they didn’t give any second
Years later, he has no regrets. "I think that even if I didn’t
know it then, I did the right thing. Most of the people I know who
changed and sang in that era are not here now. It would have led me
in a life that I was not accustomed to and I was not ready for. I
just about made it through with the popularity I got from singing
gospel. Sometimes that’s what happens with young people now —
popularity kills them before they can achieve what they need to
Although Hannah and the Soul Seekers continued to perform, the
and money, dwindled. Settling permanently in New Jersey, he ran his
own trucking company for 25 years. Hannah and his wife, Naomi, have
known each other for almost 50 years, but have been married for only
half of that time. "She relocated to New Jersey to be by me, but
I got married to someone else in between. She never gave up on me.
I should never have married anybody but her." He has 10 children,
44 grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. "We all have
personalities, but we live around each other’s personalities. We’re
really one, big happy family."
Hannah has been the preacher at New Brunswick’s Antioch
Christian Church for almost 20 years. His church, with his youngest
son as minister of music, is widely recognized for its outstanding
musical education program and its distinguished Mass Choir. Hannah
adds that the city has just selected the church’s non-profit
corporation to develop affordable housing in the neighborhood
around the church. "That’s why I say that I never regret my
to stay with gospel," he says. "I feel better about this than
I ever would have with all that money."
This year marks Hannah’s third performance at the New Jersey Folk
Festival. He is excited about singing with the Sensational
once again. "They’re the only one of the original gospel groups
from our time that ever had a record go gold with their song, `The
New Burying Ground.’ That was back in the late ’50s, early ’60s."
The present group includes Joseph "Jo Jo" Wallace, Horace
Thompson, and Larry Moore. The Nightingales will also perform at the
Rose of Sharon Baptist Church, 7th Street, Plainfield, on April 24,
following the Folk Festival.
At a prior Folk Festival, Hannah demonstrated his gift for baking
corn bread. He says, "It’s only what I learned at home, but folks
seem to like it." He can’t guarantee corn bread this year, but
for some genuine American gospel — that he learned at home —
don’t miss the Reverend Marion Hannah.
— Tricia Fagan
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