The Red Back Hymnal: A life of its own
by Jack Clark
Mar 09, 2014 | 739 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
All over the South in the last few years, there are singing conventions taking place that are totally built around what is affectionately called the “Red Back Hymnal.”

This is a misnomer of sorts because it is the “Church Hymnal,” published in 1951 by Tennessee Music & Printing Company in Cleveland and they are not all red.

They were published in a variety of colors, but the one that has endured is actually a wine-colored volume.

The musical style of the Red Back Hymnal was born in the 20th century and nurtured diligently by the people who were hungry for the gospel message, as well as a music they could call their own.

It is a style that in some ways defies description while, at the same time being basic enough to be the music of the people. It is uniquely American, definitely Southern and a form of music distinctively different from any other ... it contains influences from country, bluegrass and jazz, yet remains its own entity because it has the one thing that neither of these other forms can offer. That one thing is the gospel message, the good news of Jesus Christ.

Somehow, Southern gospel music is more than just a musical style. It is an attitude, a feeling a presentation of something deep within its proponents that defies description or explanation. Something about the first-hand experience of the heat and humidity of a Southern summer day, linked to personal knowledge of cotton fields and magnolia trees, fosters the temperament needed to sing it. Simply stated, “If you didn’t grow up with it, odds are that you’ll never be able to sing it as it should be sung.”

In summary, Southern gospel music is fun and frolic, serious and spiritual, highly structured and freely expressed. It is strong sopranos, robust altos, screaming tenors, growling basses and piano players with strong left hands; it is endurance and dedication coupled with the desire to promote the music and spread the gospel.

Probably the single most significant musical publication to ever come from our home town, the Red Back Hymnal has recorded sales in the millions and still remains a large part of the printed output of the Tennessee Music & Printing Company.

In recent months, Red Back Hymnal singings have grown tremendously in size. A few weeks ago at Georgia’s Coal Mountain Baptist Church nearly a thousand people gathered; in April 2013, Gardendale First Baptist Church (just north of Birmingham) hosted in excess of 2,000 people and they are going to do it again on April 26.

There are many other small to intermediate sized churches having the same kind of success and their number is growing daily.

Tonight at 6 p.m. at North Cleveland Baptist church, His Hands Extended is presenting a Red Back Hymnal singing. Hymnals will be provided so the congregation can sing along, and all who love our music are invited to come and be blessed.