The house that I grew up in was at the end of the electrical grid, which meant that every time the power was out anywhere, it was out at our house. In those early days, having electrical power, or not, didn’t really change much. One of my fondest memories of my childhood occurred during these frequent power outages. I can recollect my mother singing cherished Baptist hymns and playing the old pump organ on many occasions. She didn’t have any formal training and she mostly played “by ear.” I suppose she learned from her mother, my Nana, Virginia Mae McLean, who lived in Boone until her death in 1987. My Nana was also a talented singer and self-taught organ player. We had a collection of hand-me-down hymnals and we would get these out during power outages and sing the afternoon away. During those summertime thunderstorms, I will never forget how intermittent lightning would strike our iron bathtub with a loud pop followed by my mom’s lamentations and exhortations to avoid that side of the house lest death ensue. Granted, we had many power outages in the colder months too, but we never sang around the organ in the winter since the sitting room didn’t have any heat.
Among the few songs that my mother could play was an old hymn called, “The Church in the Wildwood.” My mom grew up near Howard’s Knob in Boone, so far down in the hollow, they had to pipe in sunshine. Her family attended Doe Ridge Baptist Church when she was a child and I presume in the old days they had to walk to church. I’ve been up there, and the word “ridge” is sorely misleading. It’s a mountain, especially if you’re going up. Though Doe Ridge was definitely not in a vale, I expect this song reminded her of her own little brown church.
Here is a link to hear country music pioneer Charlie Pride’s rendition, which is a bit faster than we usually sang it. This song has also been recorded by Loretta Lynn, the Carter Family, Dolly Parton, and others. Those who know the song will be immediately transported to earlier times, perhaps to the place where they first heard it. Here are the lyrics, though there are slight variations in some hymnals.
The Church in the Wildwood
a church in the valley by the wildwood
No lovelier spot in the dale
No place is so dear to my childhood
As the little brown church in the vale.
[Chorus:] (Oh, come, come, come, come)
Come to the church by the wildwood
Oh, come to the church in the vale
No spot is so dear to my childhood
As the little brown church in the vale.
How sweet on a clear Sabbath morning
To listen to the clear ringing bells
Its tones so sweetly are calling
Oh come to the church in the vale.
close by the church in the valley
Lies one that I loved so well
She sleeps, sweetly sleeps, ‘neath the willow
Disturb not her rest in the vale.
close by the side of that loved one
‘Neath the tree where the wildflowers bloom
When farewell hymns shall be chanted
I shall rest by her side in the tomb.
I did a little research on the “Church in the Wildwood” song. It was written in 1857 by Dr. William S. Pitts, a curious coincidence, but not a relation as far as I know. He wrote it after finding a beautiful building site for a church in Iowa. A few years later, a church was built there, and he was invited to sing the hymn at the dedication of the church. Soon after, he sold the rights to the song for $25 and he used the proceeds to go to medical school. In the early 1900’s, the song grew in popularity and it was well-known throughout the country. Dr. Pitts didn’t write any other songs, but I couldn’t bear to not share this story.
Today, if you take the winding dirt road up to the top, you can see Doe Ridge Baptist Church, a fairly nondescript brick building that was built sometime in the early 1970’s. There is a small, but dedicated, group of followers who still gather there and many, including the pastor, are extended relatives of mine. The only photo I could find of the old church was taken in 1976 and is shared here with permission from the owner. Through the trees on the left in the background, you can see the new church. The original Doe Ridge Baptist Church is in the foreground, but it has long since been torn down. It strikes me now that dear family memories don’t have to be built around major holidays with gifts or lots of food, they can also happen when we just turn off the power and focus on being together.