Monday, June 22, 2009

June 23: “…I sing out of my soul to settle it down.”

Do you know who this is?
-She was considered the greatest of the “anointed singers”.
-She had no formal training as a musician.
-She changed from Baptist to Pentecostal in 1939.

She was the seventh of fourteen children, and was born on June 23, 1904, in Rolling Fork, Mississippi. Named Willie Mae Ford, she would become known to music fans by her married name – Willie Mae Ford Smith.

Her father was a railway brakeman, and the Smith family had to move from Rolling Fork to Memphis, Tennessee, because of his job. The house was crowded, the family was poor, and in the winter up to four children would sleep in a bed, wearing their coats to keep warm. In 1918 they would move to St. Louis, where her mother would open a restaurant – where Smith and some of her siblings worked. Smith would quit school in the eighth-grade in order to help work full-time in the restaurant.

"We were so poor our coats did double time as our blankets. We sometimes slept four in the bed, but we had so much happiness, so much love, so much fun. My father was a deacon, and now I can see he just kept us singing to keep from thinking."

Smith would only have informal musical training. She was not able to attend classes for her music lessons – she picked up music by ear. She commented once that she remembered her grandmother “singing, clapping, and doing the 'Rock Daniel'“ A strict Baptist family – with her father as a deacon – Ford parents sang in churches around their area. In 1922 her father formed The Ford Sisters – a quartet made up of Mary, Emma, Geneva, and Willie Mae – with Willie Mae as the lead singer. They debuted at the National Baptist Convention that same year where they created a sensation with their performances of "Ezekiel Saw the Wheel" and "I'm in His Care".

Soon her sisters had married and quit the group, allowing Smith to pursue a solo career. While briefly considering a classical musician career, she returned to gospel music for the rest of her career after being inspired by Madame Artelia Hutchins of Detroit when she saw and heard Hutchins’ performance at the 1926 Baptist Convention.

In 1927 she married John Peter Smith, a general hauling businessman, and began touring to supplement their household income. Smith was one of the first female gospel singers to tour extensively and continuously, singing at churches as well as conducting revivals in the cities that she visited.

Smith often crossed the path of Thomas Andrew Dorsey – known as the “Father of Gospel Music” – during her many travels. Dorsey was responsible for developing a form of gospel music combining Christian praise with the rhythms of jazz and the blues. Smith adopted many of Dorsey’s musical concepts in her concerts. In 1932 Dorsey invited her to Chicago where she helped organize the national convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses – and would be appointed and retained as its director and principal singing teacher. The organization was involved with evaluating and training gospel singers until the late 1980s. She would later form – and lead- a St. Louis chapter of the organization.

The National Baptist Convention in 1937 would be a hallmark for Smith. She set a new standard for solo singing with her rendition of her own composition, “If You Just Keep Still”. By using gospel blues to rearrange and reinterpret classic Christian songs such as “Jesus Loves Me” and “What A Friend We Have In Jesus”, Smith was able to train a new generation of singers to include the revised songs in their repertoire of gospel music. She taught and mentored Brother Joe May, Myrtle Scott, Edna Gallmon Cooke and Martha Bass. Brother Joe May would give her the nickname “Mother”, which became part of her legacy.

In 1939 Smith would make anther decision that would create a new hallmark for her music: she would join the Church of God Apostolic, and her music would soon reflect the rhythm and energy evidenced by the church services. She considered herself a preacher, and created the “song and sermonette”, which involved combining a sermon at some point (or even at several points) during the concert – either before, during, or after. She toured the Midwest extensively during the 1940s, performing evangelistic concerts with her adopted daughter, Bertha, accompanying her on the piano.

Despite her success on the live music circuit, Smith would not seek to record her music until the late 1940s, early 1950s, and even then she only recorded sparingly. By the early 1950s her focus became more and more on evangelical work.

Smith was almost seventy when she began to receive national recognition. She would perform at a variety of jazz festivals, including the Newport Jazz Festival, and in 1981 would appear in “Say Amen, Somebody”, a gospel documentary film. In 1988 she received a National Heritage Award, and would continue to perform regularly at her church – the Lively Stone Apostolic Church – in St. Louis.

“The gospel song is the Christian blues. I’m like the blues singer: When something’s rubbing me the wrong way, I sing out of my soul to settle it down.”

To hear Smith sing, go here.

Smith would pass away on February 2, 1994 - at the age of eighty-nine - while residing at the Tower Village Nursing Home in St. Louis.

Willie Mae Ford Smith – Mother Smith - was considered by her contemporaries as one of the greatest of those artists who were known as ‘anointed singers’. She rarely recorded, letting her reputation rest on her live performances where her voice, message, and dramatic physical style inspired those who followed her in this musical genre.


Our local library has no biographies of Willie Mae Ford Smith


-African American Registry
-Black Gospel Choir Tribute
-Nation Master Encyclopedia
-New York Times Obituary


01. Willie Mae Ford Smith singing: National Endowment of the Arts
02. Smith singing: African American Registry
03. Singing in church: Find A Grave



  1. I love gospel. Followed your link and went through the painful long download process with my dial up but it was well worth the wait. What a wonderful voice. Can't help but feel the spirit fill you listening to this lady. Thank you for another great post.

  2. Thank you. I, too, love gospel. There are three or four of her songs on YouTube (type in her name under 'search') and listen away. I wish I could find an album of her music that was reasonably priced - even tried EBay, but no luck.