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Charles Davis Tillman

A pioneer composer, performer, & publisher of southern gospel music

Industry Spotlight...."From Pen to Stage"

Charles Davis Tillman

Tallassee, Alabama , U.S..... Composer, Performer, Publisher

Genres..... Gospel, Spirituals

Lables - Music..... Columbia Records, The pioneer of Southern Gospel music.

March 20, 1861 – September 2, 1943 -Was a popularizer of the gospel song. He had a knack for adopting material from eclectic sources and flowing it into the mix now known as southern gospel, becoming one of the formative influences on that genre..

Was a Popularizer of the Gospel Song

Tillman called Atlanta home for most of his career, was a pioneer composer, performer, and publisher of southern gospel music. During the almost 60 years that he was involved in the music business, he wrote some 100 songs, published 22 songbooks, and toured extensively as a song director with several evangelists, one of whom was his father.

Early life

The youngest son of Baptist preacher James Lafayette Tillman and Mary (Davis) Tillman, Charlie Davis Tillman exhibited early in life a better-than-average talent and inclination for music. His parents were evangelists, and he grew up traveling with them and taking an active role in the musical portion of their services.

14 years prior to 1887 he painted houses, sold sheet music for a company in Raleigh, North Carolina, and peddled Wizard Oil. In 1887 he focused his career more on his church and musical talents, singing first tenor in a church male quartet and establishing his own church-related music publishing company in Atlanta.

As he approached adulthood, Tillman began to yearn for a life outside the revival circuit and struck out on his own in search of a career as a secular entertainer. For fourteen years he worked odd jobs as a house painter, an organ salesman, a medicine show performer, and a minstrel show entrepreneur. Returning to the environment in which he had grown up, Tillman devoted the rest of his life to religious work, notably in the fields of songwriting and music publishing. He conducted his business out of his home, located in Atlanta's West End neighborhood.

"Old-Time Religion"

In 1889 Tillman was assisting his father with a tent meeting in Lexington, South Carolina. The elder Tillman lent the tent to an African American group for a singing meeting on a Sunday afternoon. It was then that young Tillman first heard the spiritual "The Old Time Religion" and then quickly scrawled the words and the rudiments of the tune on a scrap of paper. Tillman published the work to his largely white church market in 1891. Tillman was not first in publishing the song, an honor which goes to G. D. Pike in his 1873 Jubilee Singers and Their Campaign for Twenty Thousand Dollars. Rather, Tillman's contribution was that he culturally appropriated the song into the repertoire of white southerners, whose music was derived from gospel, a style that was a distinct influence on Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley. As published by Tillman, the song contains verses not found in Pike's 1873 version. These possibly had accumulated in oral tradition or/and were augmented by lyrics crafted by Tillman. More critically, perhaps, Tillman's published version of the tune has a more-mnemonic cadence which may have helped it gain wider currency. Tillman's emendations have characterized the song ever since, in the culture of all southerners irrespective of race. The SATB arrangement in Tillman's songbooks became known to Alvin York and is thus the background song for the 1941 Academy Award film Sergeant York, which spread "The Old-Time Religion" to audiences far beyond the South. Following Tillman's nuanced example, editors with a largely white target market such as Elmer Leon Jorgenson formalized the first line as "'Tis the old-time religion" (likewise the repeated first line of the refrain) to accommodate the song more to the tastes of white southern church congregations and their singing culture.

"Life’s Railway to Heaven"

Tillman similarly demonstrated his eclecticism when he published the lyrics of "Truth Reflects upon Our Senses" by Mormon poet Eliza Roxcy Snow together with a tune attributed to himself (though actually George Frederick Root's tune to The Vacant Chair), in an age when being in any way associated with "Mormon" lyrics would have been fraught with market risk for Tillman. The refrain was worded by Georgia Baptist preacher M. E. Abbey. The combination became one of the most popular and frequently recorded songs of all time. "Life’s Railway to Heaven" (occasionally known by its first line "Life is like a mountain railroad") has been recorded by the Carter Family, the Chuck Wagon Gang, Mother Freddie J. Bell on YouTube, The Oak Ridge Boys, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Brad Paisley, Russ Taff, the Amazing Rhythm Aces, and many others. Tillman’s tune is in 3/4 time, but a 4/4 version became also widespread after Patsy Cline recorded it that way in 1959 as a solo; Willie Nelson later dubbed his voice into that version to form a duet. On January 14, 2012, Brad Paisley performed a 4/4 rendition as guest on Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion.

Members of the Western Writers of America chose the song as one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time.

Other songs

Besides "The Old Time Religion" and "Life’s Railway to Heaven" the Cyber Hymnal lists other Tillman works, including "My Mother's Bible" as well as "Ready" and "When I Get to the End of the Way" ("The sands have been washed"). Wayne W. Daniel pays particular notice to Tillman's "The Great Judgment Morning":

In 1893 Tillman found a poem titled "A Dream" in a Salvation Army publication. He set it to music and published it in a songbook under the title "The Judgment." Bearing the alternate title "The Great Judgment Morning," the song subsequently was published extensively in southern gospel songbooks and recorded by numerous country music artists. It was written anonymously as "Nomad" by Rev. B. H. Shadduck, PhD, in the Salvation Army's War Cry publication in 1893. The Cyberhymnal lists also the following:

"Old Time Power" (first line "They Were in an Upper Chamber")
"Save One Soul for Jesus"
"The Spirit Is Calling"
"Unanswered Yet"

"My Mother's Bible"

"My Mother's Bible" is among the 'Mother Songs' of the tear-jerker variety as selected by Mudcat Cafe. Notwithstanding the sentimentality, "My Mother's Bible" emerged in a number of generally stately hymnals, including the Broadman Hymnal edited by Baylus Benjamin McKinney and Christian Hymns.


"Ready to suffer grief or pain" had a British author in the tradition of the Keswick Hymn-Book, but Tillman wrote the tune which is invariably and exclusively used in the United States. Tillman first published the British lyrics with his tune in Tillman's Revival No. 4 in Atlanta in 1903. The British lyrics are in five quatrains. Tillman moved the original first quatrain into the refrain of his version and altered the words to wed better to the repeated nature of a refrain. He printed the song with a reference to 2 Samuel 15:15 ("Behold, thy servants are ready to do whatsoever my lord the king shall appoint"). In conveying this background, William Jensen Reynolds observes that the Southern Baptist Hymnal Committee decided to name the tune TILLMAN. Reynolds disputed the author's identity as A. C. Palmer, but other researchers have accepted the author's identity as Asa C. Palmer (1845–1882).

"When I Get to the End of the Way"

Forrest Mason McCann describes "When I Get to the End of the Way" as "A popular song with older folk" (like some hymnals which carry it, McCann indicates the song by its first line, "The sands have been washed"). The ability of Tillman's work to appeal outside the time and context of southern gospel is evident in the inclusion of "The Sands Have Been Washed" in the British Favorite Hymns of the Church where the tune name is indicated as THE END OF THE WAY; in the "Preface" (pp. iii-viii) editors Albert E. Winstanley & Graham A. Fisher emphasize that requests from churches which had previously used Elmer Leon Jorgenson's Great Songs of the Church (where the song appears) were a major consideration in which works to include. Jorgenson's hymnal, which offered traditional hymns and gospel songs, had spread the "The Sands Have Been Washed" internationally throughout the Restoration Movement with which Jorgenson's hymnal was associated. "When I Get to the End of the Way" ("The sands have been washed") has also been popularized internationally by George Beverly Shea, Bill Gaither, and Lynda Randle.

"I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger"

"I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger" Additionally, Tillman was responsible for publicizing the lyrics of "I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger" from Bever's Christian Songster (1858) together with two additional stanzas from Taylor's Revival Hymns & Plantation Melodies (1882) and popularizing the combination with the minor key tune of various African American and Appalachian nuance. The combination is so hauntingly striking and memorable that the tune itself has been widely recognized as POOR WAYFARING STRANGER or just WAYFARING STRANGER ever since Tillman spread it beyond the Sacred Harp tradition in his Revival songbook of 1891. It has been frequently analyzed, arranged, and recorded, its artists including Burl Ives, Joan Baez, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Johnny Cash, Dusty Springfield, Emmylou Harris, Bill Monroe, Jack White, Annah Graefe, Selah, and Peter, Paul and Mary, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Passing & Recognized significance

Tillman was so recognized in his own time that, at the 1893 World Convention of Christian Workers in Boston, he served as song-leader in place of Dwight L. Moody's associate Ira D. Sankey. Tillman's Assembly Book (1927) was selected by both Georgia and South Carolina for the musical scores used in public school programs. Tillman broke into radio early and performed regularly on Atlanta's radio station WSB 750 AM. Once in 1930 the NBC radio network put him on the air for an hour featuring his singing while his daughter accompanied on the piano. He also recorded on Columbia Records.

Tillman, who spent most of his life in Georgia and Texas, published 22 songbooks. He is memorialized in the Southern Gospel Museum and Hall of Fame and was among the first individuals to be inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.

Charlie D. Tillman is buried in Atlanta’s Westview Cemetery. The monument at his grave bears selected "Life's Railway to Heaven" lyrics.