One of the most regarded composers of African American religious song, Lucie E. Campbell was a pioneering figure linking traditional hymnody to modern gospel composition and bridging gender and racial divides in the world of gospel music. Alongside such musical peers as Thomas A. Dorsey, Roberta Martin, and fellow Memphian Reverend W. Herbert Brewster, she helped forge the black gospel sound of the first half of the twentieth century and further belongs to a small coterie of composers who have set lasting standards for religious music in the black Baptist church.
Born the youngest of nine siblings to former slaves in Duck Hill, Mississippi, Lucie never knew her father, Burrell Campbell, a Mississippi Central Railroad worker who died on the job around the time of her birth, which occurred ironically in the caboose of a train. Shortly after, mother Isabella Wilkerson Campbell relocated her family to Memphis, where she worked as domestic help and where Lucie initially taught herself piano modeling the lessons of oldest sister Lora. Lucie excelled in school and graduated valedictorian of her 1899 class at Kortrecht High School (later rechristened Booker T. Washington). She became a teacher, first at Carnes Avenue Grammar School, then in 1911 at her alma mater where she taught English and American history for more than four decades. In 1927, Campbell earned a baccalaureate from Rust College and, at the age of sixty-six, a master’s degree from Tennessee’s Agricultural and Industrial State College (Tennessee State University).
In the same city that saw Ida B. Wells once take a determined stance against segregation, and coming a decade before Rosa Parks’ galvanizing act of civil disobedience, Campbell too defied the era’s Jim Crow laws by refusing to relinquish a seat in the whites-only section of a streetcar. She carried those convictions into her professional life, from the gospel pageants she produced such as Ethiopia at the Bar of Justice, which promoted racial pride, to her many appointments and engagements in the educational and political arenas.
As author Luvenia A. George quoted one former Campbell student saying,
“She was a woman who made politicians think religion.”
Invited by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Campbell attended, for example, the 1938 Negro Child Welfare Conference, and she served during the 1940s as president of the Tennessee Negro Teachers’ Association during which time she fought for equal pay and benefits for black teachers. Curiously, the only two secular songs she was known to have written both came in 1919 following World War I with words by a sergeant that addressed the inequalities suffered by African American soldiers.
Campbell gained her considerable musical reputation, however, through her long tenure with the National Baptist Convention U.S.A. Inc., the largest black denomination in America. In 1916 she became its music director, the notable female member of a newly formed congress charged with reorganizing the convention following an acrimonious split with its publishing house. At the NBC, Campbell directed the activities of its National Sunday School and Baptist Training Union Congress, choosing songs to enliven attendees and set the tone, organizing thousand-voice choirs, staging pageants, introducing new talent, and writing new worship material. A beloved force at the convention for five decades, Campbell was in a position to not only promote her own songs but the songs of a new generation of gospel composers, thereby shaping the tastes, style, and repertoire of black congregational and gospel music through much of the twentieth century.
She also sat on the board that chose songs for several landmark hymnals, notably 1921’s Gospel Pearls, used to this day as a standard bearer of black hymnody. It was both the first hymnal with gospel in its title and the first to include songs that would be known as gospel, including music by Charles Tindley, Thomas Dorsey, and Campbell herself (“The Lord Is My Shepherd).
Among the future stars that got their first break at the NBC through Campbell was a young Marian Anderson, accompanied by the music director at the 1919 convention. Campbell also invited Thomas Dorsey to the 1930 convention based on the promise she heard in his early gospel composition, “If You See My Savior, Tell Him That You Saw Me,” essentially propelling Dorsey on his career path as the Father of Gospel Music. And Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s favorite singer, Memphis-born J. Robert Bradley, was plucked from childhood anonymity to sing in her Good Will Singers quartet in the 1930s. He later became a champion of her songs, introducing many of them on a national and international stage (including a 1955 concert at the Royal Festival Hall attended by Queen Elizabeth II), and in the 1960s succeeded her as music director of the NBC.
In 1919 Campbell made her compositional mark at the NBC with her now classic song, “Something Within,” historically recognized as the first gospel hymn published by an African American woman. The story goes that Campbell overheard a group of people on Beale Street provoke a blind guitar evangelist, Connie Rosemond, to “get down in the alley” and play “St. Louis Blues,” to which he replied that “something within” kept him from doing so. Campbell unveiled the song at the convention with its performer who recorded it and three additional Campbell compositions at his 1927 sessions for Victor. Decades later “Something Within” has remained a favorite in black and white gospel circles from Elvis Presley harmonizers the Jordaniares to Take 6 and has inspired both a website on women and faith and the title of a book on African American political activism.
Her songs became hits for a number of gospel greats including Margaret Allison’s group the Angelic Gospel Singers (“Touch Me, Lord Jesus,” 1947), Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers (“Jesus Gave Me Water,” 1951), and Mahalia Jackson (“In the Upper Room,” 1957). Her best-known composition, “He Understands; He’ll Say, ‘Well Done’,” which Sister Rosetta Tharpe recorded for Decca in 1941 as “The End of My Journey” and is commonly known as “He’ll Understand and Say Well Done,” remains a standard at funerals regardless of denomination and is a song gospel music scholar Horace Clarence Boyer calls the second most popular modern black hymn behind Dorsey’s “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”
It came out of Campbell’s own experience, when she was ousted from her place of worship, Metropolitan Baptist Church, after leading protestations over the appointment of a new pastor. She responded in 1933 by writing “He Understands,” one of the most poignant statements of endurance and spiritual pardon ever penned. Stylistically, many of Campbell’s songs are often informed by the lining out tradition of, among others, Anglo and African American southern Baptists, a performance device that lends slow, expressive, and dignified phrasing to such compositions as “In the Upper Room.” She also made innovative use of the gospel waltz, which Boyer has argued informed Ray Charles in developing his brand of soul music.
Considering her musical stature, Campbell self-published most of her songs with longtime companion Reverend C. R. Williams, whom she finally married in 1960 at the age of 75. That same year, she and her husband relocated to Nashville and two years later Campbell died. At the time of her death, she had served forty-seven years as the NBC’s acting music director, a role that inspired millions of worshippers through decades of social change and progress. She is buried at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Memphis. Such is her influence that the Smithsonian Institution dedicated an entire conference to her in 1984. Today, an elementary school in Memphis bears her name.
Darden, Robert. People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music. New York: Continuum, 1996.
DeCosta-Willis, Miriam. Notable Black Memphians. Amherst, N. Y.: Cambria Press, 2008.
George, Luvenia A., and Ada Gilkey. “Lucie E. Campbell: Baptist Composer and Educator.” The Black Perspective in Music 15, no. 1 (Spring 1987): 24-49.
Lornell, Kip. “Happy in the Service of the Lord”: African-American Sacred Vocal Harmony Quartets in Memphis. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995.
Reagon, Bernice Johnson, ed. We’ll Understand It Better By and By: Pioneering African American Gospel Composers. Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.