CHEROKEE COUNTY TEXAS
By: C. Barnwell Andrson
Jacksonville, Texas and Cherokee County have played a seminal role in the development of southern gospel music. It was here that what is commonly known as “Stamps-Baxter music” had its beginning. This significant event of musical history was the culmination of a revolution of sacred music in the South after the Civil War.
During the mid-nineteenth century, sacred music in Texas was largely characterized by the shaped four-note method of notation found in the venerable “Sacred Harp” and similar tune-books. This so-called “fasola” music dominated singing conventions in the area.
In 1880, A. J. Showalter, renowned music teacher, songbook publisher and the composer of the well-known hymn, “Leaning On The Everlasting Arms,” taught a normal music school at the Methodist church at Rusk, Texas. During this school, Showalter introduced the modern-shaped seven-note system of notation and the new style gospel song to East Texas.
As a direct result of Showalter’s school, in 1881 the Cherokee County Gospel Singing Convention was organized at Old Harmony Presbyterian Church a few miles northeast of Alto. This convention embraced the seven-note system of gospel singing which was coming into vogue through the South. Singing classes from various communities in the county were represented in this convention.
This genre of singing became very popular. It soon covered Dixie like the dew. Songbook publishers, music schools, and gospel singing conventions proliferated rapidly; and by the 1920’s they were ubiquitous in the rural south.
It was at this time a native East Texan, Virgil Oliver Stamps, opened a branch office in Jacksonville for the leading James D. Vaughan Music Publisher of Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. Two years later, in 1924, Stamps left the Vaughan company and established the V. O. Stamps Music Company.
In 1925, the new Stamps enterprise published its first songbook, Harbor Bells. This book enjoyed phenomenal success and gave impetus to the company. It also created favorable publicity for Jacksonville.
The following year, in 1926, Stamps entered into a partnership with J. R. Baxter, Jr., and the Stamps-Baxter Music Company was established. The Alabama-torn Baxter, well-known teacher and songwriter, had been serving as a Showalter representative in Texarkana. Although Stamps and Baxter were competitors, they were also close friends.
The quite different personalities of the two men complemented each other, and their respective talents help assure the company’s astronomical success. Stamps, the charismatic extrovert known as “the man with a million friends” was the consummate promoter and innovator. The more reserved Baxter provided a depth of musical knowledge to benefit the business.
A story still widely circulated among gospel singers details the division of labor between the men. Stamps reportedly said, “Baxter, you make (i.e. edit and compile) the songbooks, and I will sell them.”
Stamps and Baxter were committed to the production of superior publications. Their books, along with the charisma of the visionary Stamps and business prowess of the scholarly Baxter were key factors in the company’s growth.
Not to be overlooked were the music schools conducted by these men. During the Jacksonville years, Stamps schools were held in the facilities of First Baptist Church. Students came from seven states, and they were usually boarded in local homes.
In 1929, the owners moved Stamps-Baxter Music Company to the Oak Cliff section of Dallas where it continued to expand. It ultimately became the largest publisher of gospel songs in the world. The company sold millions of songbooks to singing conventions, singing schools, and churches during its illustrious history. What Sears-Roebuck was to merchandising, Stamps-Baxter became to gospel music. It all began right here in Jacksonville 91 years ago!