A Songwriter’s Story: The Americans, “Gospel Roads”

Written by A Songwriter's Story, Music

Visit the Americans at their official site, and hear more music — including their latest release, Home Recordingshere.

There’s an old story I remember, maybe in a book I read as a kid, about a boy with a preacher father. They’re a traveling act just scraping by, pitching their modest tent in each town and taking donations. His father starts doing some odd things – buying second­hand suits, sanding down his shiny shoes, and otherwise disheveling their appearance. Donations increase as locals take pity on the preacher and his boy. Spurred on by their success, they go to greater lengths to fleece their followers.

Washington Phillips was a real­life roaming preacher unaffiliated with any denomination. His surviving musical works ­­– sixteen songs preserved on 78 rpm discs between 1927 and 1929 ­­– are among the most expressive and unusual of their era. One tune, “Lift Him Up, That’s All,” sings the virtues of spreading the gospel. But in the context of that old story I heard it twisted into an advertisement for the profitability of preaching:

Oh, lift Him up, that’s all
Lift Him up in His word
If you’ll tell the name of Jesus everywhere
If you’ll keep His name a­ringing everywhere that you go
He will draw men unto Him

I wrote “Gospel Roads” one night with Washington Phillips’ song going around my head. “Lift Him up, that’s all” remained the first and last line of the song. It’s about the preacher’s son, and what might have happened once he’d left his father’s side.