The gospel song On the Sun-Bright Road of Calvary was written by Austin Taylor (1881-1973), a Kentucky-born and Texas-bred song writer, associated with churches of Christ. There is little published biographical information about Taylor’s life, but anecdotally several stories and moments remain. Taylor was said to have possessed a very clear, loud singing voice, even into his later years. He led the singing at many meetings for famous preachers in his day. His legacy lives on in The Texas Normal Singing School (also known as The Singing School at Abilene Christian University). In 1946 preacher Edgar Furr and Brother Taylor began to discuss the need for trained songleaders in the church. As often happens when men go off to war, the quality of singing in church houses diminished during World War II. They established an annual two-week singing school at Sabinal, Texas. Many, many boys and young men were trained in music theory, harmony, shape note sight reading, and songleading at that campus. Eventually the buildings at Sabinal fell into disrepair and it was beyond the capabilities of a summer singing school to build anew. Since 1988, The Singing School has met each summer on the campus of ACU. The program now caters to adults and presents a full curriculum of church music-related subjects. Brothers Taylor and Furr would be happy to know that the staff is currently preparing for the 66th year of training men to lead singing (in fact, this blog was born out of a class that I teach at The Singing School on the history of our hymnals in churches of Christ).
What are roads for? Travel. Especially in biblical imagery, it’s travel by foot, it’s a walk. The great word pictures of “walk” that Paul, Peter, and John (oh, especially John!) use in the New Testament gives great hope to the Christian reader who claims the text as his own. As Gerald Paden taught in his lectures on I John, “It’s where you walk, not how you walk.” Meaning in no way to ease the emphasis on holy living that the Scriptures teach, Gerald taught us that Christ forgives! That “walking in the light” is not sinless perfection (for even Christians sin, cf. I John 2:1), but it is the blood-bought Christian’s march, marathon, sprint, crawl, and walk ever TOWARDS God that is an evidence of saving faith which God sees and through which He forgives.
In this song, the “sun-bright road” seems to be the walk of a Christian’s life. In verse one, it’s the road upon which sings the “ransomed throng” “praises to the King.” Why are they so confident to march this road, singing aloud? Because they were ransomed by the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or spot (cf. I Peter 1:18f).
In verse two it’s not only a road TOWARDS God, but a road away from “sin’s dark night.” Isn’t that the essence of repentance? Away from sin, towards God. No longer led by the desires of weak flesh, we together are led by truth.
Verse three invokes the picture of Hebrews 12:2, “fix your eyes on Jesus.” Who knows how long this “sun-bright road” is? What obstacles stand before us? Keep your eyes on the prize, what lies beyond the finish line.
Characteristically, like many gospel songs, the last verse is evangelistic in thrust. In it we see an invitation to the “sinner,” “lift your feet from the downward way.” As children somehow we learn that heaven is “up” and hell is “down.” And you don’t want to go “down there, do you?,” asks the first line of the verse? Yet the burden you carry continues to drag you down. Instead, take Jesus up on his offer of rest for a weary soul (Matthew 11:25ff).
Musically, there’s nothing remarkable about this song. I do notice that the bass part is written more like an “old hand” bass singer would sing it, rather than the way most are written. For example, the last three bass notes in measure 4 (mi-re-do), the mi in the 4th measure of the chorus, the first two notes of the last measure, etc., could have been written as do-do-do, do, and so-so. Obviously there are hundreds of moments in the hymnal where we notice that we don’t sing the notes exactly as written – because our own personal arrangement sounds more “fitting” to our ears or our surrounding culture. Taylor seems to have incorporated that “bass culture” into his song to begin with.
This is probably a good example of comfortably singable ranges in church music. No single part is strained in what they are asked to sing. Only the sopranos’ F’s in the second measure of the chorus might give certain unexercised voices a moment’s pause.
So, why is this a “gospel song” and not a “southern gospel song” (also known as “quartet songs” or “convention songs”) or a “hymn”? It’s true, the definitions are a bit arbitrary, but maybe these observations will help. Also, keep in mind that it’s not just one or two of these rules that causes a song to go into one category or another. They’ve got to hit a critical mass of attributes before they’re classified one way or another. Especially in the “in-between years,” songs can easily be hybrids of any given genres.
- Gospel songs: written between 1830-1930, simple rhythm, a lyrical hook that’s repeated in each verse, Elizabethan English, all parts sing together (with notable exceptions), war themes, at least one evangelistic verse, simple harmonies (I-V-I-IV-V-I), more open harmonies with sometimes an octave between neighboring parts. Gospel songs are probably the easiest songs in any church’s repertory, due to their folksy nature. Their major strength is that they can be sung by anyone.
- Signs of a “classic” southern gospel songs: Accidentals (especially lots of Fi’s), syncopated rhythm, and upbeat tempo, tighter harmony (made possible by the many accidentals), melody switching from part to part, call-and-response or echo lyrics, usually written between 1935-1965.
- “Modern” southern gospel songs are more flashy (?), and definitely more syrupy in harmony (think Bill and Gloria Gaithers).
What style of song makes your heart sing? Why?