Sister Terrell: A Crooner on the Amen Corner

Commentator and musicologist Bruce Nemerov introduces us to Sister Ola Mae Terrell. She died earlier this year at the age of 95. For 75 years, she sang her own gospel compositions on street corners in the South, using her music to spread her Holiness faith. Bruce Nemerov, the editor of the book Lost Delta Found, lives in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Commentator and musicologist Bruce Nemerov would like to introduce us to the music of Sister Ola Mae Terrell. She died earlier this year at the age of 95. For 75 years, she sang her own gospel compositions using her music to spread her faith.

BRUCE NEMEROV: In less hurried times, guitar preachers stood on street corners and played the songs of inspiration, warning and comfort to passers-by in the poorest sections of many Southern towns. The Holiness Movement took root in the South late in the 19th century. Among poor blacks and whites, Holiness was a reaction to the increased formality and worldliness of the Baptist and Methodist churches.

Holiness people didn't smoke, drink or attend secular entertainments. Holiness told them to live apart and Holiness told them to sing fervently and make a joyful noise onto the Lord, which they did - on guitars, banjos, mandolins, horns or pianos, whatever was at hand. Sister Terrell was born in 1911 in Atlanta. At age 11 she had a conversion experience at the annual summer tent revival of the Fire-Baptized Holiness Church.

She taught herself to play the guitar and began writing gospel songs and singing them on vice-ridden Decatur Street. From the Depression years of the 1930s to the Eisenhower '50s, Sister Terrell lived the life of an itinerate evangelist and supported herself with her music. She was known only to those who heard her sing and play on the street corner, in a park or at church. Many of her compositions - God's Little Birds is one - send a message of hope to the poor and disheartened.

(Soundbite of song "God's Little Birds")

Sister OLA MAE TERRELL (Commentator and Musicologist): (Singing) In the darks, in the dark, if you're down and all outcast in the dark, just remember anyway I (unintelligible) if you're down and all outcast in the dark. In the dark, in the dark, in the dark, are you living in the dark? If you're down and all outcast in the dark. Just remember any word that he says, little birds. If you're down and all outcast in the dark.

NEMEROV: In 1953, blind chance led Sister Terrell in the door of American consumer culture. She recorded that song and five others for Columbia, the country's biggest record company. Unfortunately, Columbia released them in its country music series. African-American customers who'd happily bought other gospel records had no way to know she was one of their own. By 1955, Columbia lost interest and cancelled her contract. Sister Terrell walked out of the House of Mammon and the door quietly closed behind her.

(Soundbite of music)

NEMEROV: In the '60s, folk festivals across the country were attracting large crowds of young whites eager to see artists who until then were only names on the labels of dusty old records. And though many blues, hillbilly and gospel legends were brought before these new audiences, Sister Terrell was not. Holiness people were still as culturally isolated as they were spiritually insulated. Sister Terrell remained apart, sliding silently past the world of popular culture.

So it went until the end of the millennium. Though she seemed to have disappeared from the world at large, her music stayed around. Her recordings were reissued on compact discs and God's Little Birds was used in an off-Broadway play. Sister Terrell had checks waiting and the music publisher couldn't find her. They asked me to track her down and when the hand of mammon came knocking, it was on the door of a nursing home in Conyers, Georgia. The money provided some material comfort those last years. So rest in peace, Sister Terrell. As God blessed you with faith, we are blessed by your music.

NORRIS: Bruce Nemerov is the editor of the book, Lost Delta Found. He lives in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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