For more than half a century, Mother Smith--that's what she's called by her many friends and admirers--has moved in perfect harmony with her song, and that song has been the good news, the glad sound of gospel. Outside of her St. Louis community and raditional black gospel circles, Willie Mae Ford Smith has barely been known, but all that has changed with the success of the film "Say Amen, Somebody."
"I love gospel singing, I love people and I love God," she says leaning forward in her wheelchair. At 78, she is a bundle of evangelical grace and warmth enveloped by family, friends, gospel singers, young and old, who stop by to squeeze her soft hands and give thanks.
Smith was at the Washington Convention Center recently with most of the stars of "Say Amen, Somebody"--Zella Jackson Price, Delois Barrett and the Barrett Sisters, the O'Neal Twins--to help WYCB-AM celebrate its fifth anniversary as Washington's 24-hour gospel radio station.
"Say Amen" has given Smith--belatedly but convincingly--the attention and the credit she deserves as one of the most influential female singers and inspirational figures in black gospel. She is as much a pioneer as 84-year-old Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey, the "father of gospel music," who is also featured in the film. Dorsey wrote many of the classic songs and inspired the music we now call gospel, but it was Mother Smith who developed the openly emotional and spiritually exuberant performance style and then traveled around the country teaching it to several generations of singers.
No other gospel singer has so greatly inspired so many great soloists.
"She is a very strong religious woman, an evangelist, who has all through her life given encouragement to younger people to accept Christ in their life," says Rhodessa Barrett Porter, who has known Smith for more than 30 years. "Through her singing and her hardiness, Mother Smith--we all call her Mother--didn't allow anyone to be discouraged. Young people wanted to be around her. She was a woman that had all the grace, all the soul and all the moves that any person would want to possess. Everybody wanted to have some form of Mother Smith in their presentation."
While her charges made careers and money in the gospel world, Smith's work was always much less public. According to gospel historian Tony Heilbut, Smith is "the greatest of the anointed singers, the ones who live by the spirit and sing to save souls." Although her performances are legendary, Smith was not recorded until she was 68. "I sing for reality," she told Heilbut, "not for formality, and not for financial gain. I need money, I need money bad, but there's some money so dirty you hate to touch it."
In the '40s, Smith, a charismatic, natural teacher, felt that gospel singing was a gift from God, not to be "studied" but to be encouraged. Zella Jackson Price, virtually unknown before "Say Amen" and one of the most astounding discoveries in that film, says "my mother traveled with Mother Smith for 10 years as her personal secretary, and sang also. I grew up in this atmosphere. I looked at these two ladies and I admired them--that's who I wanted to be like. She's always inspired me. All this attention, I just wish it had come earlier. At least Mother Smith is seeing it while she's alive, she's experiencing it now. And she hasn't changed. She doesn't know just how popular she is."
Willie Mae Ford was born in Rolling Fork, Miss., but raised in Memphis, "born in a family of 14 children. I was the seventh child, so there were six that stood over me and seven that pulled on me. My mother was a teacher, my father a railroad man, and they did everything they could to keep the children together. The main thing was singing, and we'd get together and have family songs, group singing."
Her first memories are of the spirituals and slavery songs passed down by her grandparents. "He was 110 years when he passed and she was 120; my father was 99 when he went away. Mother died kind of early at 68 years. Wonderful people. That's where I started with group singing.
"My mother would teach us and she'd get happy when she did," a quality also obviously passed down. There was church singing, of course, but "we didn't know about soloists then. The quartets were the main thing, and from them came the groups and out of the groups come the soloists."
As a youngster, "I sang what people wanted--ragtime songs, blues." (Dorsey believed she would have rivaled Bessie Smith as a blues singer.) "I didn't know about dancing. They wanted me to cut the bucks," Mother Smith laughs. "I didn't know what that was but I tried . . . as a youngster," she adds, with a smile. "But there was something in me wanting to bring out the love of God. I just didn't know what it was."
The Ford family moved to St. Louis when she was 12, and in 1922 she and three siblings formed the Ford Sisters, a rarity among quartets, up to then mostly male. A few years later, she began a solo career at about the same time that Dorsey was sowing the seeds of gospel.
Dorsey had already had a brief career in the blues as Georgia Tom, pianist, songwriter and band leader for the legendary Ma Rainey. In the '20s, however, he turned away from the blues to create uplifting messages in songs incorporating rhythmic elements of jazz and blues. Dorsey, whose best-known song is "Take My Hand, Precious Lord," started using the word "gospel" to distinguish his work from the liturgical music of the day, but his mix of a sinful beat and uplifting lyrics was at first strongly rejected by the church (though embraced in the storefront and street-corner Holiness churches).
Nurtured in the ghetto during the Depression, gospel took hold of the people long before it took a hold of the preachers. Where spirituals had talked about trials and tribulations, gospel talked about the good news that a life could be blessed, that there was a better world awaiting. It was upbeat testimony full of vivid call and response, ecstatic harmony and a strong beat, and it provided community and identity for many black Americans.
Its exuberance also created conflicts, admits Smith, an ordained evangelist in the Holiness Church. "When I started singing gospel, we didn't know what to call it--spiritual singing, hallelujah singing, or just church music." It was so different from the staid music of the time that Smith, Dorsey and other gospel pioneers were actually kicked out of or banned by many churches.
(With Sallie Martin, who is also featured in the film, Dorsey went on in 1933 to found the influential National Convention of Gospel Choirs, over which he still presides.)
"You had to have faith in God," says Smith. "There have been times when I would go to a church to sing and people would say, 'We don't want that common stuff in here; we don't want that ignorance, that coonshine stuff.' They felt it was too close to blues and jazz, that we were just old sinners, you know.
"Yes, there was a time when they didn't want gospel," says Smith. " 'That Willie Mae Ford, we don't want her here. That child, she's crazy!' I had the Holy Ghost and they thought I had lost my mind. But the Lord made me know: Hold on and I'll make your great commission known. But I didn't know He was going to spread it all over like He's doing it now."