Illustration by Jack Unruh

Sung late into the night, the words stayed with the boy who didn't think he was listening.

I have reached a place in life where I do not think clearly about the present, or the future. What I do, mostly, is remember, my thoughts triggered by some flyer flapping on a telephone pole, or a scrap of a song.

I was on a Tennessee interstate in the spitting rain, with two states behind me and a thousand miles to go, scanning a radio thick with yammering bullies whose mamas did not love them enough. Between bullies I landed on a preacher, a gentle man who sounded like my childhood, who said to love my brother. Then came a song I cannot precisely recall, but in a mile or so it erased the wet, gray asphalt and the miles ahead. The signal soon died, but not before—in my mind—I was home.

I was a little boy in Boutwell Auditorium, on a night without wrestling, munching on a hot dog that was the best I ever had, because we were in Birmingham. In my other fist was a can of Coke so cold it burned my hand. On stage, men in suits sang of clouds of victory. Next to me, my mother, her face alight, tapped her shoes, flapped a fan donated by a funeral home, and sang along. I recall this one song, about a wall around heaven, so high you can't get over it, so low you can't get under it ...

... so wide, you can't get around it You got to come in at the door

It was an all-night gospel singing, common in the Deep South of the 1960s and 1970s, though for Congregational Holiness "all-night" wrapped up about 11:45. I still remember the headliners: The Florida Boys, the Dixie Echoes, Happy Goodman Family, J.D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet, Blackwood Brothers Quartet, The Inspirations, Hovie Lister and the Statesmen, The Chuck Wagon Gang...

Faith was less political then. It had a beat you could dance to, if dancing had been allowed. We went every few months, to places like Sylacauga, where they sang in the football stadium and I ate a Wet-Nap—but that is another story—and Gadsden, where the Dixie Echoes had them praising and weeping in Convention Hall. I went, mostly for the concessions, and because any time a car turned out of our driveway I flung myself inside. I do not recall listening closely to the music. But when I hear the songs on the radio, I find myself singing along.

My mother, after a 40-year absence, went to a singing not long ago at Young's Chapel on Alabama Highway 278, in the hills between Piedmont and Gadsden. "It was The Chuck Wagon Gang," she said, "but, you know, the younger ones. They still had their name on the bus. I know one thing. They sure did some awful pretty singing." They did "The Church in the Wildwood," one of her favorites.

Oh, come, come, come, come, Come to the church in the wildwood Oh, come to the church in the vale

It made her happy. I hope they read this, and know. She has never liked recorded music, she said, but I got her a CD player anyway. My sister-in-law, Teresa, got her some gospel music, and when my mother heard the songs she stood there and sang along.

I would have liked to have seen that.

But I guess I already have.

 

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