Remembering times with D. V. Johnson

Published 12:34 pm Wednesday, October 24, 2007

By By Lowell McGill
I have a series of columns prepared about friends and associates who gathered regularly at daily coffee sessions in town.
Those sessions began in the 1950s in the local drug stores, Rex Sporting Goods sandwich shop and continued at Buster's for many years. The reason the sessions ended for our particular group is because so many of them passed away. Yes, I have accounted for more than 35 who are no longer with us.
Rather than list them all in one column, I would like to feature them one by one.
Today, I am writing about a very good friend whom I met in the 1950s when he would come by WATM and sit in the control room with me and listen to our "Suppertime Gospel" program. On that show I played songs by current quartets and family group singers. I tried to play a variety of quartet styles. Back then The Blackwood Brothers, The Statesmen and The Blue Ridge Quartet were popular. But many of the older listeners liked the songs of The Chuck Wagon Gang and Jimmy Davis, the former Governor of Louisiana. I thought Davis had a tremendous singing voice. He wrote and sang non-Gospel songs "Be No Body's Darling But Mine" and, of course his famous, "You Are My Sunshine." I had the opportunity to attend one of his performances when I was in college. I think I have never heard a male singer with such rich, resonant voice quality and the ability to properly use a microphone in his singing.
But, today, I am writing about D. V. Johnson.
D. V. was blessed with a tremendous bass voice, which blended in perfectly with male singing groups. He was familiar with the Stamps Singing School of Texas. At Buster's many times he told me of always wanting to go there and further train his voice. But the opportunity never presented itself for him to attend.
We both enjoyed those quartet groups back in those days. It was during this period that I learned he was involved with another form of Gospel music. It was called "Shape Note Singing." Some referred to it as "Sacred Harp" singing. Now, I knew nothing about this music but D. V., over a period of several years at our coffee sessions, told me about it.
He and his wife were very active in these singings and they traveled throughout the entire south. They, not only went to hear the groups sing, but they actively sang with them. In fact, over the years, his voice became well known by other participants and he actually was elected an officer with the particular organization with whom he was affiliated.
He had asked me many times to accompany he and his wife to their singings. If I remember correctly, they would meet at various churches each month or quarter.
I finally found time to attend one of the get togethers. It was at a large, rural frame church in either Coffee or Geneva County. It was located in a beautiful country setting, but, for the life of me I can't remember the name of the church. This was 30 years ago.
I went alone in my own car because I had some work to do in that area. It was on a Saturday. I met the Johnsons at the church just after noon. D. V. was waiting for me and he took me in and gave me a seat. Soon the groups began singing. Each group sat in a circle in straight back wooden chairs facing each other. They were divided up according to their voices, tenors, basses, baritones, etc. Each would take turns leading his respective group. They sang in four-part harmony without musical accompaniment. But, amazingly, they sang from books that contained no words. Instead they sang in this manner "FA, SOL, LA, MI." The songs were performed with rhythmic feeling. The notes were "shaped" and had an appearance of a triangle, a circle or a rectangular box.
Now they sang for hours in this manner and many came out to hear them. I spoke with one elderly gentleman in the audience who told me that he had "done this type of singing for more than 50 years." He also told me that it was difficult "to pick up on this music." In other words, it was somewhat hard to learn.
But D. V. learned it and he could do it with the best of those singers. He told me later how much he appreciated my coming to their singing. He also told me something very meaningful to me. He said "you want to know why I use to come to WATM in the late afternoons when you played those quartet songs?" I said I was sure it was because he loved Gospel music. He said that was one of the reasons, but he said, "I knew you were working your way through college. I knew you loved the radio work and you had to work to be able to go to college." He further said, "I wish I could have attended that Stamps School of singing, but I didn't have the opportunity to go." I wanted to offer you encouragement and wanted you to keep on what you are doing and get that college education." He said "many old folks listen to you on the radio playing all those Gospel songs and telling the names of each quartet member."
Well, D. V. is gone now. But he will always be remembered by not only his local friends and family, but by all those "shape note singers" who truly appreciated his great singing talent.
Lowell McGill is a historical columnist for The Atmore Advance. He can be reached at

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