Black gospel music is integral to all religions. An often unsung hymnist and composer is Magnolia Lewis Butts
Magnolia Lewis Butts. Lewis, a classically trained musician, composer, and soloist was a pioneer in the gospel revolution that took place in Chicago during the 1930s. She was born in Tipton, MO and died in Chicago, IL. Two of her compositions, “Let It Breathe on Me”, and “While I’m Working Lord in Your Vineyard”, are still sung today in Lutheran and Methodist churches. They are found in “the Gospel Pearls”, the African American Heritage Hymnal and “Forty-Two Treasured Favorites from the African American Hymnal”. She relocated to Chicago in 1918 after graduating from Chriswell Delsartan School of Expression in Kansas City, MO. Magnolia Lewis married Jesse Butts in 1932.
Magnolia soon became involved in the musical culture of Chicago. Magnolia was a woman who shared her talents by directing pageants for church performances and teaching dramatics arts at Pauline Lin’s Chicago University of Music. Her secretarial skills as a stenographer were invaluable not only for her main sustenance, but also for volunteer work with Chicago’s classical musical community. Her dual skills in music and secretarial prowess, gave her an ample annual income – often above that of her acquaintances and friends.
Magnolia formed a lasting relationship with the well-known musical director of the Metropolitan Community Church by the name of Professor J. Wesley Jones. She joined his Progressive Choral Society, and also served as its recording secretary. She was a skilled soprano, able to sing spirituals and classical selections. She prepared the principal soloists for the Society’s performance of Esther in 1920. Magnolia joined the music department of the Metropolitan Community Church in the early 1920’s. She became Jones’s assistant director in 1926 as well as serving as one of the highly recognized soloists of the choir.
Wesley’s Jones ‘Prize Winning and Radio Choir’ represented the apex of middle-class classical artistry. Their repertory, comportment and prestige embodied the spirit of facial uplift as well as the economic and social aspirations of middle-class black Chicago. The ensemble was one of the first black choirs to record, to be heard on radio, to perform before a mixed audience, and to win a major choral competition (Marovich, 2015)
The Metropolitan Community Church was organized by Rev. W.D. Cook, formerly an A.M.E. pastor at Bethel in Chicago. The executive A.M.E. council decided to move him to a pastorate outside of Chicago. He instead, with a group of members from Bethel, established Metropolitan Community Church. He asked Magnolia Lewis to organize a choir to sing at funerals in 1929 whose repertoire consisted of spirituals and hymns. The choir, after Rev. Cook’s death in 1930, became known as the W.D. Cook Choir in his honor. Their name was later changed to the W.D. Cook Gospel Choir.
The W.D. Choir was very popular with many engagements. The choir was sincere in their worship and maintained a balanced musical sound. They sung twice a month at Metropolitan. Thomas Dorsey was asked to attend one of these performances. He later gave the choir advice on how to have a greater stage presence. Magnolia was firmly entrenched in the black musical hierarchy of the 1930s along with Thomas A. Dorsey, Theodore Frye, Sally Martin and Mahalia Jackson. Magnolia, however, had acclaim in classical, religious and social organizations. The popularity of her singers, and her standing in the black musical community and the National Association of Negro Musicians, were a formidable force in helping hard-line pastors accept the social revolution that gospel music achieved during the 1930s.
Magnolia was instrumental to Thomas Dorsey’s plans to further the spread of gospel music nationally. Dorsey called a meeting with Theodore Frye and Magnolia Butts which was held at Metropolitan in 1931 to form a gospel choral union. The choral union was composed primarily of members from Ebenezer, Metropolitan, and Pilgrim churches. The success of their first performance led to the formation of the first choral union which was organized on August 17, 1932. The original name of the convention was “The National Convention of Gospel Choirs, Choruses and Smaller Musical Groups, Inc.” It grew from six to twenty groups within one year. This widespread acceptance led to the organization led to the convention which became The National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses (NCGCC).
The radical gospel choir revolution was official. Hard-line pastors took notice as their congregations demanded music that reflected their Southern ancestry and musical heritage. The first gospel choir was formed at Ebenezer Baptist Church by Professor Theodore Frye and Professor Thomas Dorsey as pianist in 1931. The following year, Professor Dorsey, organized the gospel chorus at Pilgrim Baptist Church. Pilgrim became the ‘home of gospel music, while Ebenezer remained the ‘birthplace of gospel music’ (Kemp, 2015).
The first national convention took place from August 30, 1933 to September 1, 1933. Fifty-two delegates were present. There were an estimated 600 gospel choristers in attendance from various churches. Magnolia Butts was a powerful force within the convention, nominating Dorsey for president, while also serving in many key positions. Magnolia Lewis Butts became the 2nd Vice President of NCGCC and presided over the convention held in Chicago, 1933. She chaired the committee that drafted the first convention by-laws. She then served as mediator, while also compiling the first official minutes. Her input was vital in the formations of various convention components that included scholarship, governance interpretation; design and print of credential forms, and the institution of an artists’ night (Tillitson, 1976). Mother Willie Mae Ford Smith and Magnolia Butts were among the organizers of the “Soloists’ Council”, which was later renamed the Soloist Bureau of the NCGCC in 1944. Its mission was to foster soloists who came with the desire to grow in ministry at their local churches as well as becoming convention soloists.
Magnolia Lewis Butts continued her Chicago musical activities as well during the emerging gospel platform of the 1930s outside of her continuing participation with the National Convention. She appeared in a gospel fest in 1937 with the Pilgrim Gospel Chorus and the First Church of Deliverances at the DuSable High School auditorium. There she gave a dramatic reading. Magnolia Butts also sang in private venues that included white audiences.
Magnolia Lewis Butts may be best remembered, however, for the institution of the NCGCC’s Consecration service, an elaborate ceremony with Levitical symbolism. A night of preparation begins before the Monday morning service. The conventioneers are individually anointed during the service and encouraged in their Christian walks and ministries.
Anointed to Sing the Gospel: The Levitical Legacy of Thomas A. Dorsey., Kemp, Kathryn B. Chicago: Joyful Noise Press, 2015
A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music. Marovich, Robert M. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015