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Honor Thy Music: The Life Of Lucie Eddie Campbell-Williams

February 19, 2010

by Michael Steven Moore

When introducing “The Mother of Gospel Music”, most began with this story:

A street performer, Connie Rosemond, was singing a religious song outside a Beale Street store when several men passing by asked him to sing a blues song. Rosemond refused even after the men offered him money.

Lucie E. Campbell witnessed the incident and asked Rosemond why he refused. He told her there was “something within” that would not allow him to sing the blues.

From that incident, Campbell was inspired to write the beloved gospel tune “Something Within,” the first of the more than 100 songs she would eventually write.

Campbell selected Rosemond to introduce the song in 1919 at the National Baptist Convention and it became a staple of many Black churches:

Something within me that holdeth the reins,

Something within me that banishes pain,

Something within me I cannot explain,

All that I know there is something within.

“Something Within,” and Campbell’s other songs, helped shape the worship style of many black churches. Later her songs were adopted for use in some majority white churches as well. Campbell became one of the most highly acclaimed of all gospel songwriters.

Lucie E. Campbell-Williams, composer, educator, and activist, was born on April 3, 1885, in Duck Hill (Carroll County), Mississippi, the youngest of Burrell and Isabella (Wilkerson) Campbell’s nine children. Her father worked for the Mississippi Central Railroad and her mother worked as a cook. Shortly after Campbell’s birth, Burrell Campbell was killed in a train accident. Being the sole provider for and caretaker of her nine children, in 1889 Isabella Campbell moved her family to Memphis. She not only wanted her children to receive an education, but she also wanted them exposed to the performing arts. However, because she could not afford a musical education for all of her children, Campbell sent Lora, Lucie’s sister, for piano lessons. When Lora wanted to cease the lessons, Lucie readily embraced the opportunity. Lucie Campbell was educated in the public schools of Memphis. In 1899, she was graduated from Kortrecht High School (later Booker T. Washington) as valedictorian of her class and was awarded the highest prize for her Latin proficiency. Later, she earned the baccalaureate degree from Rust College in Holy Springs, Mississippi, and the master’s degree from Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College.

At age nineteen, Campbell organized a group of Beale Street musicians into the Music Club. Other members later were added to form a thousand-voice choir that performed at the National Baptist Convention. At the organizational meeting of the National Sunday and Baptist Training Union Congress held in Memphis in 1915, “Miss Lucie” was elected as Music Director. HYPERLINK “http://www.flickr.com/photos/53911892@N00/408393164/” Campbell was music director of the National Baptist Convention for over 40 years.

She penned songs for the Baptist Congress and wrote musical pageants exhorting the young to give their lives to Christian service. In addition to writing religious music for the Congress, she also wrote the Congress’ study lessons, as well as other instructional materials.

In 1919, Lucie E. Campbell published her first song, Something Within, which was followed by more than one hundred others; including The Lord is My Shepherd, Heavenly Sunshine, The King’s Highway, He Understands, He’ll Say Well Done, and my favorite Touch Me Lord Jesus. Campbell also introduced promising young musicians such as Marian Anderson and J. Robert Bradley to the world. “Miss Lucie” introduced Marian Anderson to the National Baptist Convention and served as her accompanist.

The first woman among pioneering African-American gospel music composers, she is “The Mother of Gospel Music”. A trailblazing composer during the “Golden Age of Gospel,” she published more than one hundred compositions in America’s newly created musical genre, including “The Lord Is My Shepherd” (1921), “In the Upper Room” and “My Lord and I” (1947), and “Footprints of Jesus” (1949). Major gospel singers including Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, and Ruth Davis and the Davis Sisters recorded her songs. Among her other compositions were “He Understands, He’ll Say Well Done” and “Jesus Gave Me Water,” which became a huge hit for Sam Cooke and was the first time he demonstrated the yodeling that became his trademark.

On January 14, 1960, Lucie E. Campbell married her lifelong friend and business partner, the Reverend C. R. Williams. In June 1962, while preparing to attend a banquet held in her honor given by the National Sunday School and the Baptist Training Union Congress of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc., Campbell-Williams became gravely ill. She died six months later on January 3, 1963, in Nashville. Her remains were interred in the Mount Carmel Cemetery in Memphis. There is an elementary school named in her honor here in the city that she called home, Memphis.

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