The Red Back Hymnal is as familiar to some who were raised in small churches in the South as their Bible. For those not familiar with it, the hymnal is more of a maroon shade with “Church Hymnal” printed in gold letters. The hymnal was first printed in 1951 by Tennessee Music Printing Company in Cleveland, Tenn., now known as The Pathway Press. It’s still widely used in churches today. Not all versions were red. In the picture is a green cover.
The Musum Center at Five Points in Cleveland, Tenn. has a permanent exhibit about the hymnal that is part of the Tennessee Music Pathway, a collection of sites throughout the state that contributed to all genres of music. The Red Bank Hymnal exhibit is all about the Southern Gospel music that had us clapping and tapping our feet for generations.
Walking into the exhibit took me back to the days when most everyone went to the choir loft to sing, no matter what your ability was. On the wall are the words to “Just a Little Talk with Jesus.” If it felt right, you could be singing the last verse and chorus of that song for a good 15 minutes. It’s been years since I have belonged to a church that uses it regularly but I can still remember the page numbers of my favorites. Page 333 was “I’ll Fly Away.” “Amazing Grace” is on page 57. And my personal favorite, “Blessed Assurance,” is found on page 181.
One reason for the hymnal’s popularity: Even if you couldn’t read music, you could figure out how to follow the songs in the Red Back Hymnal. The music is written using “shape notes” that serve as a guide and is easy for even novice singers to follow. Shape note singing was first developed in the 19th century and is used in many churches today.
The Tennessee Music Company printed the hymnals using a linotype printer that was also used to print everything from newspapers to Sunday school lessons. A printer is on display at the museum. It works and some days there is someone there to demonstrate how the hymnals are printed.
The exhibit takes you on a journey thorough the history of the book. Some of the hymnals were printed with a green cover in the early years. “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” and “When God Dipped His Love in My Heart” were written by Rev. Cleveant Derricks, Sr., who lived in nearby Chattanooga. He wrote more than 300 other songs and pastored several Baptist churches in Tennessee.
The old pictures of the quartets brought back memories of “Mull’s Singing Convention” and waking up on Sunday mornings to the sounds of what I now know is called “The Happy Jubliee,” a song that never leaves your memory or mind.
On the wall is a place for people to leave their memories of singing from the Red Back Hymnal. This was my favorite part. A visitor from Idaho shared their memory of singing “I’ll Fly Away” with their grandfather at the First Baptist Church. Another person wrote, “I grew up learning almost every song in the book. These songs were fundamental in my understanding of the Scriptures.”
The Red Back Hymnal is a permanent exhibit at the Museum in Five Points. Even if you are not a fan of Southern Gospel music, it’s worth a trip to learn more about this important part of Tennessee history. And if you don’t have your own copy of the Red Back Hymnal, you can buy one in the gift shop for $10.
The musuem is located at 200 Inman Street in downtown Cleveland and is open Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Adult admission is $9; Children 4-17 are admitted for $3.50 and admission is $5 for college students and active military members. Contact the museum about group rates.