Alabama Folkways Articles

August, 1997


by Steve Grauberger

Alabama's wellspring of traditional gospel music is displayed throughout the state in a variety of styles. One form was developed, in part, by early traveling evangelists. Some evangelists were well known for singing and accompanying themselves and their congregations with instrumental music during outdoor brush arbor meetings and revivals held in the rural countryside. A product of this tradition is the expressive music heard in many charismatic churches of various Pentecostal denominations.

Margie Thomas Howard of Washington County fondly remembers evangelist John Henry Thomas, her grandfather, known to many in southwestern Alabama as "Fiddling Thomas."

In the early stages of his life, John Henry Thomas was a dirt-poor logger who, according to Mrs. Howard, was drunk much of the time. One day, near the town of Orchard in Mobile County, he was drawn to a brush arbor meeting, primarily by the music. As the story is told, he stayed and listened to the music and a sermon of hell, fire and damnation. He found himself praying and crying, and was immediately saved through Christianity that day. Being illiterate, he made a pact with God at that time asking the Lord to allow him to learn to read the Bible. If this request were granted he would begin a path to save others like himself. He went home after that experience and told his wife of his conversion. He told her of his pact, and that he was going to quit drinking and dedicate himself to spreading the word of the Lord. His wife decried this idea as blasphemy, saying, "Henry, you have done everything in your life but mock God. Please, don't do that."

Before his conversion he was a fine fiddler, playing for many square dances. After making the agreement with God he was a changed man and strongly pursued his evangelical goal while he provided for his wife and children. His wife died soon after he began his itinerant preaching.

People in various communities asked Thomas to come and preach. They helped him build brush arbors by cutting trees and covering this structure with leafy branches. He often stayed one to two weeks in an area preaching and holding services that always featured a good helping of down-home gospel music. Margie said he liked brush arbor meetings the best, probably because that was where he was enlightened. He would, however, preach anywhere, in small chapels or even on street corners. He never officially joined one church.

Margie once heard her grandfather testify that the Lord told him to go to Robertsdale in Baldwin County to preach. At the time, he did not have the dollar it cost to take the ferry, which was the only transportation across the water. He started walking from Crichton, where they lived, to the city of Mobile. When he came to Mobile he ran into the biggest bootlegger in the county who said, "Brother Thomas, I think that I should give you a dollar."

Margie remembers times traveling to a church or brush arbor meeting with the family. They stopped in Mount Vernon or Macintosh on their way. Her grandfather would hold an impromptu street meeting, preaching and praying with his children playing musical instruments and singing.

Many people attended rural revivals and brush arbors since they were often the main social events in the area. Margie Howard remembers cars parked surrounding the open brush arbor. Many people came mainly to listen to the music.

At a typical old-style holiness service, before the sermon, there was congregational singing and often a special singing by featured musicians. Some churches had an organ or piano, but, if they did not, there were always fiddles, guitars, mandolins, and banjos to accompany the congregation. Margie believes that, somehow, poor people are blessed with musical talent. She remembers that most of the rural Pentecostal Churches she visited always had good music.

Fiddling Thomas, for years, brought his family with him to help in the "special singing" portions of the service. The Thomas Family was a well known fixture of the region's gospel scene in the 1920s-1940s. Four of the Thomas children, John, Paul Edith, Priscilla, and Houston, usually accompanied their father. Margie's father, John, played guitar or the mandolin. Her uncle Houston played guitar and her aunts Paul Edith and Priscilla always sang duets. At these meetings one would hear familiar songs such as, "I Shall Not Be Moved," "What a Friend We Have In Jesus," "When the Roll is Called Up Yonder," or "Onward Christian Soldiers." Margie began a more active role after Priscilla got married. She began singing duets with Paul Edith in Priscilla's place. The most requested duet they sang was "Inside the Gate."

The Thomases were among dozens of families throughout Alabama's history who enlightened others through gospel music ministries. Mrs. Howard remembered another musical evangelical family in the Mobile County area, headed by the Reverend Emanuel Fillingim who played guitar, with his brother, Otis, on the fiddle. The Maharrey and the Sullivan families of St. Stephens in Washington County are well known bluegrass gospel musicians who travel throughout the country with their respective ministries.

Steve Grauberger is a Programs Specialist for the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture. Alabama Folkways welcomes readers' comments and contributions.