I was raised in a rural church very much like the Church of God in Burnwell that the Goodmans once called home. Southern Gospel artists like Howard and Vestal Goodman provided the soundtrack to my childhood.
As an adult, I have learned to appreciate the beauty and depth of hymns like “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” However, I must confess that I find some of the lyrics cumbersome, and the tempo of many of these old standards is too slow for me.
I often long for the energy of “I Wouldn’t Take Nothin’ for My Journey Now.”
While English teachers may cringe at that title, it is the quintessential Southern Gospel song.
The words aren’t meant to be sophisticated. They tell a universal story that can be understood as easily by a child and a country farmer as by college educated brethren.
Who better to represent common men and women of the faith on the stage than the Goodmans?
I used to love hearing Vestal being interviewed on the Homecoming videos. I knew her accent well because it also belonged to me and to all the people I loved most in the world.
The artists on the Homecoming tapes hailed from all over the United States: the Gaithers from Indiana, the Hoppers from North Carolina, etc. I was proud to know that the Goodmans were representing Alabama.
My affection for Vestal runs so deep that I was slightly offended when a friend and local history buff had no idea who she was when I was telling him about the Burnwell homecoming.
I immediately pulled up her Wikipedia page on my phone.
“What does that say under her name?” I demanded.
“Queen of Southern Gospel music,” he read.
Later, I sent him a YouTube clip of the Happy Goodmans. Whether he falls in love with their songs or not is his own business, but I had to try to help him overcome this deficiency in his musical knowledge.
I would imagine that some people who watch a Goodman performance for the first time don’t have a very high opinion of them.
They could easily be dismissed as caricatures, Vestal waving her white hanky in the air and Howard hopping up and down on the piano bench.
Even their name, the Happy Goodmans, might lead some to believe that they were just pie-in-the-sky Christians who used faith as an excuse to turn a blind eye to harsh reality.
However, anyone who might adopt this view of the Goodmans is missing a theme in their music that stood out to me as I became reacquainted with them recently.
One of Vestal’s signature songs was “God Walks the Dark Hills.” The lyrics speak of billows on a troubled sea, shadows of midnight, silent highways and rivers that cut across valleys.
Nowhere does it suggest that God plucks his children out of these menacing places and sets them safely in the sunshine. Instead, God walks the dark hills “to guide my footsteps,” to show me the way” and “because he loves you and me.”
My favorite song of Howard’s is “I Don’t Regret a Mile.” The speaking part that he has in the middle of the song breaks my heart no matter how many times I hear it.
He laments dreams that vanished at dawn, prayers that went unanswered, sown seeds that seem wasted and friends who left him to weep alone.
I think the most poignant line is “I’ve gone many a day without a song.” Surely even the Goodmans went through seasons where their inner song was stolen by the enemy.
During my conversation with Tanya Goodman Sykes, we talked about how her father, Rusty, often wrote his way out of these low places.
Whatever may come, writers of songs and stories know that the pain will be made bearable if we can just get it down on paper.
If the words ring true, they become a comfort to us and others and will live on long after our mortal bodies return to dust.
That is certainly the case with the lyrics made famous by the Happy Goodmans.