It seems we are living in a day when everyone wants to lead. Few want to follow.
An old adage once said, “There’s too many Chiefs and not enough Indians,” and there was something in days gone by called, “The art of following,” in music.
It was a special kind of talent and required a good ear; it did not come from the written page.
You either had it or you didn’t. In the early days of our Church Music here it was absolutely necessary.
Not many of us in the beginning were privileged to afford formal music instruction and we depended heavily on those with a good ear.
We often only had an old guitar or an upright piano which was without fail, badly out of tune. Many times we had no musical instrument at all.
Once I remember at this one small Church where all they had was an old bass drum and a tambourine with no jingles on it to beat it with.
I am still amazed today at how we could sing and dance before The LORD with just that old drum, and how much God liked it.
I’m dating myself, but that’s okay and maybe you can tell I came from the country. What wonderful days those were.
Some of the most harmonic and glorious voices rang forth to Heaven and people came running from every direction to hear that beautiful singing. I’m getting off track here…..
Altos are followers. They are a special breed of singer, often called the middle part, and no trio or choir is complete without them. They are called to follow and no other voice or part can replace them.
We in the Pentecostal movement have had and still have, some of the most beautiful, rich, deep altos you will find anywhere. They have special personalities, a kind of soul not found in the other voices.
Ours had a natural ability in that they could follow just about anyone who led a song. They even knew how to read lips and could follow the person leading, even when they did not know the words or had never even heard the song before.
Musicians with the Gift of Following, could accompany someone singing a totally unknown song to them, and do a great job with no prior rehearsal.
Some of you have already guessed where I am going with this….
Our music was known in every town and village where we lived and people were drawn to our Churches. They came to enjoy and listen to the singing, even if they weren’t even interested in the preaching and many were moved to stay.
In the past years of being introduced to the internet, I have observed gospel singing and Church music in every kind of denominational setting.
The electronic age makes it possible to actually almost sit in on any service or concert without ever leaving your chair.
Most websites have a place for comments and one thing rings true — people of all walks and faiths are clamoring for the old-fashioned way of singing and playing instruments. It’s often called “old Church” and “music from back in the day.”
May I speak clearly that I believe greatly in music education and have often wished that I had more. We were so blessed in our fellowships by those who had both classical training and marvelous ear.
When you combined all of this with the ability to follow the leading of the Spirit, the result was explosive.
Altos seldom led the song and it seems that few numbers were written with them leading. But when they did get a chance to shine, it was all over.
One of the classic numbers most will remember is the old song, “Looking for a City.” When the altos took the lead, the whole place went up.
Altos who sang special solos were so deep and moving, that more often we were moved to tears and heaven was hushed.
I can name some of the great altos of our time…. but I’ll let you do that. One of the greatest gospel song writers that passed recently was an alto of world renown.
Another of our own who is an awesome song writer with depth that many of us could only dream of is also one of the most gifted pianists ever gracing our fellowship.
She taught many of us from the time we were children and was and is one of the most powerful alto voices we have, yet she is very quiet and remains in the background… she always did.
With the highest regard and esteem I can express, there is an alto who is still singing and preaching who is eighty plus years young and her voice has rung out over these years to move us and God.
She recently stated that she never was a great singer, but she is one of the greatest voices I have ever known and she calls to us to sing even now.
I recently told someone that there is an entire generation which grew up singing this way — we heard it and emulated those like her who sung in all our camp-meetings, conferences and on the radio.
They taught us some priceless things. Things like, know the one you’re singing about. Sing in the Holy Ghost. Follow the leading of the Spirit. And that God used the least talented as well as the best talented to glorify Him.
There is something missing in our music today. Stone me if you want, but it’s true. We were once very diverse in the music department and everyone had a place.
The Altos need to step up again and start leading when God tells them to. But they won’t, you see. Because they’re followers.
They don’t step forward unless they’re asked. We will have to ask them if they will sing for us.
My mother was an alto and her mother before her. She stood by my father many years and sang duets with him, no matter what happened in her life.
My grandmother always sat at the back of the Church and her deep alto floated over and across the congregation all the way to the front.
No matter what trials came in her life, or how often she failed him, she would still go to the house of The LORD and she would sing the songs of Zion and weep before The LORD.
Sing unto The LORD a new song, but don’t forget to sing an old song too.
Sing children, like we once did before. Momma was an alto and maybe momma really is teaching angels how to sing.
First published: January 7, 2010.
~ Robert Blackburn