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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

folk music.

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

something impressive."

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

35 years.

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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