Skip to main content

This is an excerpt from my short-read e-book: “I Will Overcome: The Soul Stirring Life of Charles A. Tindley” ($2.99 at this link).

Born into dire poverty during late slavery times on Maryland’s Lower Eastern Shore, Tindley rose to incredible heights in life. As a minister, he built one of America’s first “megachurches” with more than 10,000 members. As an activist, he fought the good fight against poverty, injustice, and prejudice.

He is most famous for his musical artistry, helping to invent the American art form of gospel music. This short chapter from “I Will Overcome” summarizes why Tindley’s musical contributions were so important.

Nothing I came across in my research hints at when Charles Tindley set out to become a singer, composer, and music entrepreneur. Nor do we know why. Was singing a natural gift, a talent that ran in his family? Did he embrace the art in the farm fields, camp meetings, and churches of his young years on the Eastern Shore? Or was it something he took up later, as a ministerial tool?

We do know that he didn’t have any formal training. He never learned to write music, for instance. He had other musicians transcribe his songs into musical notation fit for publishing. Despite that lack of training, the style he developed proved a game-changer in American music. In discussing this, expert musicologists tend to drop lots of words beyond my tone-deaf understanding—the “pentatonic scale,” the “flattened 3rd and 7th notes,” the “16-bar blues.” In gleaning what I could from those experts, it seems that Tindley’s creative genius came in four parts.

Real-World Poetry

Before Tindley, church music lyrics tended toward topics that were ethereal, allegorical, or scriptural. Tindley shunned otherworldly piousness, writing hymns that spoke directly to the daily experiences of the poor blacks (and whites) in his congregations—and, especially, to the role faith could play in helping them meet the daunting challenges they faced.

We are often destitute
of the things that life demands,
want of food and want of shelter, thirsty hills and barren lands;
we are trusting in the Lord,
and according to the Word,
we will understand it better by and by.

Charles Tindley EBook CoverBy and by, when the morning comes,
when the saints of God are gathered home,
we’ll tell the story how we’ve overcome, for we’ll understand it better by and by.

Temptations, hidden snares,
often take us unawares,
and our hearts are made to bleed for any thoughtless word or deed;
and we wonder why the test
when we try to do our best,
but we’ll understand it better by and by

Here is Historian Charles Hardy of West Chester University:

Composing hymns for his small congregation[s] of poor blacks and southern newcomers, Tindley merged black folk tunes, folk images, Biblical proverbs, and the music of white hymnody, creating a new music that gave voice to the spiritual hopes and concerns of black urban dwellers.

Stirring in the Blues

Thomas Dorsey Gospel

Thomas Dorsey

Tindley brought touches of the blues into the sanctuary. He didn’t do this as aggressively as Thomas Dorsey and other gospel pioneers would in the 1930s, but music experts all agree that the sounds are there in Tindley’s music long before Dorsey came along.

One expert, Anthony Heilbut, notes that it can be hard for our modern ears to understand just how revolutionary Tindley’s compositions were. He points out that everyone listening to Tindley hymns nowadays grew up in times when the sixteen-bar blues were the ever-present stuff of laundry detergent commercials. But Tindley’s songs came decades before that rhythm entered the soundtrack of daily living in America. That rhythmic touch, Heilbut concludes, is a key reason why Tindley’s arrival on the church-music scene ranks as “one of the great chapters in American popular music” history.

Room to Improvise

Before Tindley came along, church music tended to be formal and regimented, a paint-by-numbers affair in which performers generally stayed within the sheet-music lines. A hymn heard one Sunday in Baltimore might sound basically the same the next Sunday in Philadelphia and the Sunday after that in Atlanta.

Tindley junked that rule. Here, too, musicologists drop fancy academic words, but their bottom line is that Tindley left “blank spaces” in his hymns. Not blank in the sense of silent. More like a series of musical ellipses, waiting to be filled in through improvisation. In this way he invited singers and instrumentalists to become co-creators, empowering them to make each new performance of a hymn their own.

Ben E King Stand by Me

Ben E. King

In her 1992 book “We’ll Understand It Better By And By: Pioneering African American Gospel Composers,” singer and social activist Bernice Johnson Reagon described how this worked:

The singer of a Tindley composition … sometimes seemed to think it was of her or his own creation. In a way, “Stand By Me” performed by harmonica virtuoso Elder Roma Wilson, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, the Caravans, and the Violinaires are all original compositions based on Tindley’s composition. They are singing Tindley’s song transformed by their own creative interpretation.

While it shares a title, the song Reagon referred to here is not the same as the pop hit by Ben E. King. King used Tindley’s hymn as a jumping-off point in creating an entirely new song with romantic overtones in the lyrics. Here are some of Tindley’s original, religious lyrics:

When the storms of life are raging, stand by me (stand by me);
When the storms of life are raging, stand by me (stand by me);
When the world is tossing me like a ship upon the sea,

Thou who rulest wind and water, stand by me (stand by me).

… In the midst of faults and failures, stand by me (stand by me);

In the midst of faults and failures, stand by me (stand by me);
When I’ve done the best I can, and my friends misunderstand,
Thou who knowest all about me, stand by me (stand by me).

The Entrepreneur

Sam Cooke Music Entrepreneur

Sam Cooke

In histories of rock and soul music, much is made (and quite rightly) of how smart and innovative Sam Cooke was as a businessman. At a time when record companies played copyright tricks that robbed countless performers of profits, Cooke demanded and got complete ownership of his songs— publishing rights, master tapes, record-label ownership, and more.

Tindley beat Cooke to that punch by five decades. Tindley’s first eight published hymns appeared in a 1901 collection titled “New Songs of the Gospel,” which also included works by other composers. Four years later he founded the Paradise Publishing Company, becoming quite possibly the first black composer to go the entrepreneurial route in publishing his own songs.

Tindley played the role of impresario, too. He assembled the best voices in his congregation into a “Tindley Gospel Singers” choir and then steered their career to a level that had them performing on radio and going on tour to other cities.

Tindley published more than 50 songs in his lifetime. Quite a few remain popular in church hymnals today. Among the countless artists who’ve covered Tindley tunes are Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, Thelonious Monk, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and the Staple Singers.

One of his songs, “I’ll Overcome Someday,” morphed over the years into the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” For the full story of how that happened, stick with me at the end—there will be an afternote on that topic.

The Playlist

Charles Tindley at Desk

Charles Tindley

If you want to spend time listening to how this works, I have prepared a playlist with links to various artists covering some of the Charles Tindley songs mentioned in this book—and others as well. The playlist is here:

If I had to pick one song that you might want to spend a few minutes with, it would be the raucous, bluesy version of Tindley’s “The Storm Is Passing Over” by Blind Joe Taggart. It was recorded in 1927, five years before Thomas Dorsey released the song that most experts mark as the beginning of gospel, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” As you’ll hear, “The Storm” is gospel through and through.

NOTE: My short-read e-book about Tindley would be about 75 pages in printed form. You can read it on your Kindle, Nook, tablet, or computer. Get “I Will Overcome: The Soul-Stirring Life of Charles A. Tindley” here for $2.99.

–posted by Jim Duffy for Whimbrel Creations LLC/Secrets of the Eastern Shore in May 2024. All rights reserved. Thank you for spending time with this story and on this site!


Leave a Reply