Charles Davis Tillman

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Charles Davis Tillman
Charles Davis Tillman (page 381 crop).jpg
Born20 March 1861 Edit this on Wikidata
Died1943 Edit this on Wikidata (aged 81–82)

Charles Davis Tillman (March 20, 1861, Tallassee, Alabama – September 2, 1943, Atlanta, Georgia)[citation needed] —also known as Charlie D. Tillman, Charles Tillman, Charlie Tillman, and C. D. Tillman—was a popularizer of the gospel song. He had a knack for adopting material from eclectic sources and flowing it into the mix now known as southern gospel, becoming one of the formative influences on that genre.[1]

The youngest son of Baptist preacher James Lafayette Tillman and Mary (Davis) Tillman, for 14 years prior to 1887 he painted houses, sold sheet music for a company in Raleigh, North Carolina, and peddled Wizard Oil.[2] In 1887 he focused his career more on his church and musical talents, singing first tenor in a church male quartet and establishing his own church-related music publishing company in Atlanta.[3]

"Old-Time Religion"[edit]

Print of Tillman's photograph on the title page of Revival No. 2, published in 1896

In 1889 Tillman was assisting his father with a tent meeting in Lexington, South Carolina. The elder Tillman lent the tent to an African American group for a singing meeting on a Sunday afternoon. It was then that young Tillman first heard the spiritual "The Old Time Religion" and then quickly scrawled the words and the rudiments of the tune on a scrap of paper. Tillman published the work to his largely white church market in 1891.[4] Tillman was not first in publishing the song, an honor which goes to G. D. Pike in his 1873 Jubilee Singers and Their Campaign for Twenty Thousand Dollars.[5] Rather, Tillman's contribution was that he culturally appropriated the song into the repertoire of white southerners, whose music was derived from gospel, a style that was a distinct influence on Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley. As published by Tillman, the song contains verses not found in Pike's 1873 version. These possibly had accumulated in oral tradition or/and were augmented by lyrics crafted by Tillman. More critically, perhaps, Tillman's published version of the tune has a more-mnemonic cadence which may have helped it gain wider currency. Tillman's emendations have characterized the song ever since, in the culture of all southerners irrespective of race.[6] The SATB arrangement in Tillman's songbooks became known to Alvin York and is thus the background song for the 1941 Academy Award film Sergeant York, which spread "The Old-Time Religion" to audiences far beyond the South.[7] Following Tillman's nuanced example, editors with a largely white target market such as Elmer Leon Jorgenson[8] formalized the first line as "'Tis the old-time religion" (likewise the repeated first line of the refrain) to accommodate the song more to the tastes of white southern church congregations and their singing culture.[9]

"Life’s Railway to Heaven"[edit]

In 1890, Tillman set to music a hymn by Baptist preacher M.E. Abbey, "Life's Railway to Heaven."[10] (Abbey had drawn from an earlier poem, "The Faithful Engineer," by William Shakespeare Hays.[11][12])

Also known by its first line "Life is like a mountain railroad", the song has been recorded by Boxcar Willie, Carter Family, Bill Monroe, Chuck Wagon Gang, The Oak Ridge Boys, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Brad Paisley, Russ Taff, Amazing Rhythm Aces, and many others. Tillman's tune is in 3/4 time, but a 4/4 version became also widespread after Patsy Cline recorded it that way in 1959 as a solo; Willie Nelson later dubbed his voice into that version to form a duet.[13] On January 14, 2012, Brad Paisley performed a 4/4 rendition as guest on Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion.[14]

Members of the Western Writers of America chose the song as one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time.[15]

The song features prominently in the 1979 TV movie Mr. Horn, sung first by David Carradine, and by Richard Widmark and Karen Black towards its ending.

Other songs[edit]

Besides "The Old Time Religion" and "Life’s Railway to Heaven" the Cyber Hymnal lists other Tillman works, including "My Mother's Bible" as well as "Ready" and "When I Get to the End of the Way" ("The sands have been washed").

The Cyberhymnal lists also the following:

"Old Time Power" (first line "They Were in an Upper Chamber")
"Save One Soul for Jesus"
"The Spirit Is Calling"
"Unanswered Yet"[16]

"My Mother's Bible"[edit]

"My Mother's Bible"[17] is among the 'Mother Songs' of the tear-jerker variety as selected by Mudcat Cafe. Notwithstanding the sentimentality, "My Mother's Bible" emerged in a number of generally stately hymnals, including the Broadman Hymnal edited by Baylus Benjamin McKinney[18] and Christian Hymns.[19] The lyrics were written by a man by the name of Milan Williams, who was an evangelist in the late 1800s. He collaborated with Tillman and reflected his desire to write a song with these lyrics, and apparently the song was completed within a half hour.


"Ready to suffer grief or pain" had a British author in the tradition of the Keswick Hymn-Book, but Tillman wrote the tune which is invariably and exclusively used in the United States. Tillman first published the British lyrics with his tune in Tillman's Revival No. 4 in Atlanta in 1903. The British lyrics are in five quatrains. Tillman moved the original first quatrain into the refrain of his version and altered the words to wed better to the repeated nature of a refrain. He printed the song with a reference to 2 Samuel 15:15 ("Behold, thy servants are ready to do whatsoever my lord the king shall appoint"). In conveying this background, William Jensen Reynolds[20] observes that the Southern Baptist Hymnal Committee decided to name the tune TILLMAN. Reynolds disputed the author's identity as A. C. Palmer, but other researchers have accepted the author's identity as Asa C. Palmer (1845–1882).[21]

"When I Get to the End of the Way"[edit]

Forrest Mason McCann describes "When I Get to the End of the Way" as "A popular song with older folk"[22] (like some hymnals which carry it, McCann indicates the song by its first line, "The sands have been washed"). The ability of Tillman's work to appeal outside the time and context of southern gospel is evident in the inclusion of "The Sands Have Been Washed" in the British Favourite Hymns of the Church[23] where the tune name is indicated as THE END OF THE WAY; in the "Preface" (pp. iii-viii) editors Albert E. Winstanley & Graham A. Fisher emphasize that requests from churches which had previously used Elmer Leon Jorgenson's Great Songs of the Church[24] (where the song appears) were a major consideration in which works to include. Jorgenson's hymnal, which offered traditional hymns and gospel songs, had spread "The Sands Have Been Washed" internationally throughout the Restoration Movement with which Jorgenson's hymnal was associated. "When I Get to the End of the Way" ("The sands have been washed") has also been popularized internationally by George Beverly Shea, Bill Gaither, and Lynda Randle.[25]

"I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger"[edit]

Additionally, Tillman was responsible for publicizing the lyrics of "I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger" from Bever's Christian Songster (1858)[26] together with two additional stanzas from Taylor's Revival Hymns & Plantation Melodies (1882) and popularizing the combination with the minor key tune of various African American and Appalachian nuance. The combination is so hauntingly striking and memorable that the tune itself has been widely recognized as POOR WAYFARING STRANGER or just WAYFARING STRANGER ever since Tillman spread it beyond the Sacred Harp tradition in his Revival songbook of 1891.[27] It has been frequently analyzed,[28] arranged,[29] and recorded, its artists including Burl Ives,[30] Joan Baez, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Johnny Cash, Dusty Springfield, Emmylou Harris, Bill Monroe, Jack White, Annah Graefe, Selah, and Peter, Paul and Mary, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.[31]

Recognized significance[edit]

Tillman was so recognized in his own time that, at the 1893 World Convention of Christian Workers in Boston, he served as songleader in place of Dwight L. Moody's associate Ira D. Sankey. Tillman's Assembly Book (1927) was selected by both Georgia and South Carolina for the musical scores used in public school programs. Tillman broke into radio early and performed regularly on Atlanta's radio station WSB 750 AM. Once in 1930 the NBC radio network put him on the air for an hour featuring his singing while his daughter accompanied on the piano. He also recorded on Columbia Records.[32]

Tillman, who spent most of his life in Georgia and Texas, published 22 songbooks.[33] He is memorialized in the Southern Gospel Museum and Hall of Fame and was among the first individuals to be inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.[34]

Charlie D. Tillman is buried in Atlanta's Westview Cemetery.[35] The monument at his grave bears selected "Life's Railway to Heaven" lyrics.[36]


  1. ^ See southern gospel and James David Vaughan.
  2. ^ For a description of Wizard Oil, see Hamlin's Wizard Oil Archived April 5, 2011, at the Wayback Machine and site tabs. Note its association with songbooks.
  3. ^ William Jensen Reynolds, Companion to Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1976), p. 444, ISBN 0-8054-6808-0.
  4. ^ William Jensen Reynolds, Hymns of Our Faith (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1964), p. 423. Reynolds gives the date of the tent meeting as 1891, but it is elsewhere widely indicated by others as 1889; the confusion may be that Tillman published it in his Revival songbook for 1891, where it appears as Item 223.
  5. ^ (Nashville: Lee And Shepard, 1873), Item 198.
  6. ^ See the "Old Time Religion" article.
  7. ^ William Shiver, "Stories behind the Hymns: Old Time Religion" Archived 2008-08-26 at the Wayback Machine in Lincoln Tribune (Lincolnton, North Carolina), 2008 August 17.
  8. ^ In Jorgenson's Great Songs of the Church, Number Two Edition (Louisville: Word and Work, 1937), the song is Item 275. Jorgenson also, like Tillman, put both gospel songs and stately hymns into the same book. Tillman augmented his Revival hymnal in successive editions, its more-formal or high-church items lending broader credibility to the inclusion of the selections which formed so much of the basis for southern gospel.
  9. ^ For the various phrases which have been employed for the first line, see the "Old-Time Religion" article.
  10. ^ "Charlie D. Tillman (1861-1943)". New Georgia Encyclopedia. Georgia Humanities and the University of Georgia Press. 20 July 2018.
  11. ^ Hays, William Shakespeare (1886). Will S. Hays' songs and poems. Louisville, Ky.: Courier-Journal Job Printing Co. p. 44.
  12. ^ Cohen, Norm (2000). Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press. pp. 612–613. ISBN 0252068815.
  13. ^ See also "Reader Offers Willie Fitting Lyrics" Archived October 18, 2006, at the Wayback Machine and cf. "Reader Offers Willie Better-Fitting Lyrics"[dead link] in the Reporter-News (Abilene, Texas) for 2006 October 16 and 2007 February 13 respectively. A Welsh improvisation on "Life's Railway to Heaven" preserves the Snow-Abbey-Tillman lyrics but matches them to the "Welsh National Anthem"; see CALON LÂN.
  14. ^ Keillor, Garrison (2012-01-14). "Brad Paisley". A Prairie Home Companion. Retrieved 2012-01-15. And the following week, on 2012-01-21, Keillor himself reprised with a parody beginning "Life Is like a Winter Highway" caricaturing cold weather in Minnesota.
  15. ^ Western Writers of America (2010). "The Top 100 Western Songs". American Cowboy. Archived from the original on 19 October 2010.
  16. ^ Cyber Hymnal biographical sketch on Tillman, accessed 2009 January 19.
  17. ^ Words by M.B. Williams, music by Charles Davis Tillman, copyright 1893 by Tillman.
  18. ^ (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1940), Item 380.
  19. ^ (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1935), Item 348.
  20. ^ Companion, p. 183; Hymns of Our Faith, pp. 162-163.
  21. ^ See, e.g., John P. Wiegand, ed., Praise for the Lord, Expanded Edition (Nashville: Praise Press, 1997), index of "Authors, Composers, Sources" (ISBN 0-89098-119-1).
  22. ^ Hymns & History: An Annotated Survey of Sources (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1997), p. 592, ISBN 0-89112-058-0. On 2004 February 24 Richard Oldham, of the Glendale Baptist Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky, preached a sermon titled "When I Get to the End of the Way" at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He concluded by quoting Tillman's eponymous song (written in 1895), which "we used to sing" but "don't hear . . . much anymore"; the text for the sermon was 1 Corinthians 15:51-58.
  23. ^ (Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, England: Eye-Opener Publications, 1995), ISBN 0-9514359-1-4, Item 511,
  24. ^ Number Two Edition (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1937O), Item 570.
  25. ^ Go to "When I Get to the End of the Way" on YouTube for Randle's rendition.
  26. ^ See also Ananias Davisson's Kentucky Harmony which had already established the background of the song in shape note display.
  27. ^ John P. Wiegand, ed., Praise for the Lord, Expanded Edition (Nashville: Praise Press, 1997), ISBN 0-89098-119-1, Item 252.
  28. ^ See, e.g., the transcription of Wayfaring Stranger on
  29. ^ Including a special arrangement, intended for acappella congregation use, by Jack Boyd Archived July 4, 2008, at the Wayback Machine in Elmer Leon Jorgenson's Great Songs of the Church, Number Two edition with 1974 supplement (Abilene, TX: Great Songs Press, 1974), Item 625.
  30. ^ Ives was so fond of the song that he recorded two albums with Wayfaring Stranger as the title, encouraged "Wayfaring Stranger" as his nickname, and titled his autobiography The Wayfaring Stranger. See the article on Ives.
  31. ^ The song is listed as well as by the Negro Spirituals web site.
  32. ^ Wayne W. Daniel, "Charlie D. Tillman (1861-1943)" in New Georgia Encyclopedia: Arts Section.
  33. ^ New Georgia Encyclopedia Tillman page.
  34. ^ "Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame site on Tillman". Archived from the original on 2008-05-01. Retrieved 2009-01-17.
  35. ^ Hymntime on Tillman. Archived June 3, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  36. ^ Wayne W. Daniel, "Charlie D. Tillman: Christ Was the Conductor on His 'Life's Railway to Heaven'" in Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin 58, no. 2 (1997). See also Westview Cemetery home page. Archived 2009-03-04 at the Wayback Machine

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