Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Pilgrim Jubilees

The Pilgrim Jubilees

Alan Young
Copyright Date: 2001
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Pilgrim Jubilees
    Book Description:

    In 1960, four young men went into a Chicago recording studio and revolutionized the sound of African American gospel music. When they made that groundbreaking recording, the Pilgrim Jubilees had been singing together for more than ten years. Today they are still singing, and they are still at the forefront of gospel music.

    The Pilgrim Jubileesis their story, told in their words. From their beginnings in rural Houston, Mississippi, through the good times and the hard times of more than half a century traveling the "gospel highway" they have played a pivotal role in shaping an entire musical genre. Today, based in Chicago, they stand as senior statesmen of gospel music.

    The Pilgrim Jubilees know the pitfalls and hardships of their calling. They tell of arriving in a distant town so short of money they can't afford to refuel the car, then discovering their concert has been canceled. They recall singing their hearts out, then finding that the promoter has absconded with the money. They remember the days when racism meant that even a gospel singer could land in jail simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And they recount the joys of the gospel life--the elation of having a record at the top of the charts, the companionship within the group and with the people to whom they sing, and above all, the drive to keep spreading the Christian message that has sustained them through the hundreds of thousands of miles they have traveled.

    And all of these elements--the highs, the lows; the successes, the failures; the spiritual, the worldly--are the subjects the Pilgrim Jubilees talked candidly and at length about to New Zealand journalist and gospel researcher Alan Young when he spent several weeks at home and on the road with them. The result--The Pilgrim Jubilees--is the first full-length book on an African American gospel quartet. It's an illuminating look at the lives of the singers and musicians in the Pilgrim Jubilees. For fifty years they have shone in a unique world where showbiz meets religion and the "Jubes" are stars.

    Alan Young is a journalist in Auckland, New Zealand. He wroteWoke Me Up This Morning: Black Gospel Singers and the Gospel Life(University Press of Mississippi).

    eISBN: 978-1-62103-626-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. 1. Houlka, Mississippi
    (pp. 3-14)

    Standing in the shade doesn’t help when it gets hot in Mississippi. As the temperature climbs through the nineties, the air grows heavy and the summer heat attacks from all sides, radiating from every surface and exerting a physical pressure that slows movement, thought, and speech. But the man who has engaged me in conversation seems immune to the temperature. His name is Willie Harris. He looks to be in his fifties, stocky and muscular in a blue suit and with a necktie pulled up to a powerful neck barely contained by his tightly buttoned collar. He is a church...

  5. 2. Got to Be for Real
    (pp. 15-28)

    It is late afternoon on the day before the homecoming program. Major Roberson sits at the small table in his motel room in Pontotoc, just north of Houlka. On the room’s television set, a baseball game plays without sound; the curtains are pulled against the setting sun. Outside, people are splashing and laughing around the motel’s swimming pool, but Major has spent the afternoon sleeping. The night before, he and Michael Atkins drove more than six hundred miles from Chicago, stopping only for a brief rest in Memphis, Tennessee, about a hundred miles away. Now in the self-contained world of...

  6. 3. Mississippi: Cleave Graham
    (pp. 29-36)

    Horse Nation, Mississippi, doesn’t exist today. Traces of it can be seen from the single lane gravel road—the remains of single-story wooden buildings completely engulfed by the trees and undergrowth that have reclaimed the land. But when farmer Columbus Graham and his wife, Josie—the former Josephine Chandler—moved there in 1934 with their family from nearby Woodland, it was a small, self-contained farming community, seven miles from the Chickasaw County seat of Houston, which today has a population of about four thousand. About a mile from the derelict homes, at the intersection of county routes 86 and 85,...

  7. 4. Mississippi: Clay Graham
    (pp. 37-44)

    Clay Graham is a man of contradictions. Fluent and eloquent, he was by far the most forthcoming of the Pilgrim Jubilees, willing to discuss topics—such as relationships within the group and with other performers—that the others often preferred to sidestep. At the same time, he was the most wary about being the subject of a biography, voicing apprehensions that at times ranged into the fanciful—peaking with a suggestion that “some” of the group thought I might be an undercover agent from the Internal Revenue Service. But these suspicions were flickers in a generally harmonious relationship. That Clay...

  8. 5. Chicago: Major Roberson
    (pp. 45-51)

    Away from what Clay today describes as “our bondage—the plow and the mules,” the Graham family settled into Chicago life. Columbus Graham found work in the Chicago depot of the New York Central Railroad; Clay went to school, finishing his education in the tenth grade at Wells High School on Chicago’s North Side, then joining his father at New York Central. C.B. and Cleave also worked together, for a packing company. Theophilus was established as a North Side barber. Separated from his Mississippi group, C.B. had been singing with one of Chicago’s better-known local groups, the Bells of Zion....

  9. 6. Stepping Out
    (pp. 52-60)

    In 1952 the reconstituted Pilgrim Jubilee Singers were one of many local Chicago gospel quartets. They sang on any program that would have them, but the singing had to be fitted around jobs. Major was running his barbershop; Theophilus Graham’s shop next door was providing work for him, Elgie C.B., and Monroe Hatchett, although Monroe was also working at the New York Central Railroad depot, going to the barbershop once his day’s work was over. Clay was nearing the end of his schooldays, and new recruit Kenny Madden was running his own car wash business. Cleave was working for a...

  10. 7. Third Time Lucky
    (pp. 61-72)

    In 1955 the Pilgrim Jubilees’ initial goal of being the top local group in Chicago was effectively achieved when the Chicago chapter of the National Quartet Convention nominated them to represent it at the national gathering, held that year in Oakland, California. The convention was founded in the late 1940s by quartet doyen Rebert H. Harris to keep the quartet tradition alive.¹ By 1955, when the Pilgrim Jubilees joined, its national gathering—held in a different city each year—was a high point in the quartet calendar, attended by national groups and top local groups from all over the country....

  11. 8. Stretch Out
    (pp. 73-86)

    Clay: “We went to Atlanta with Edna Gallmon Cooke, and Barney Parks got us a two hundred dollar guarantee. But the man[the promoter]wasn’t going to pay us. Barney said, ‘Well Edna’s not going on until you pay them.’ So the man paid up and we hit that stage. And we were like little wild children up there, man.” Cleave: “At the City Auditorium. With the Swan Silvertones, the Davis Sisters, the Soul Stirrers, the Blind Boys[of Mississippi],the Swanee Quintet. Oh my goodness, you know that was something! We were the new guest group. And they had...

  12. 9. The Drive
    (pp. 87-98)

    “The drive,” “the beat”—these are the phrases the senior Pilgrim Jubilees use to define the elements that make their music different. None of the group members has any formal musical training, so their arranging of their songs is largely an intuitive process of trial and error, guided by past experience and balancing the traditional Jubes’ style with the need to keep the sound modern and of interest to today’s audiences. But all of the Pilgrim Jubilees agree that the core of their musical identity lies in the rhythm, the blueprint for which was drawn up at the first Peacock...

  13. 10. Bobby McDougle
    (pp. 99-105)

    Bobby McDougle is living in a motel room. Room 152 at the Motel 6, 17214 South Halstead, on the southern outskirts of Chicago. It’s not his first choice of residence—a man who sees as many motel rooms on the road as he sees doesn’t want to come home to another one. But he’s been caught in a house deal. He and his wife, Rosemary—they’ve been together since 1968—sold their home and signed to buy another. With the new house deal about to be closed, they agreed to leave the home they’d sold so the new owners could...

  14. 11. Ups and Downs
    (pp. 106-117)

    The second half of the 1960s started with the Pilgrim Jubilee Singers as stars of the gospel world and ended with them struggling to survive. In 1965 “Old Ship of Zion”—song and album—ensured a full schedule of bookings. It became even more full and more lucrative when they were selected to tour with James Cleveland and the Caravans. Cleveland was a Chicago singer and pianist who started his professional gospel career in 1950. In the early 1960s he began working with choirs and in 1963 had a major hit with “Peace Be Still,” a soaring epic in which...

  15. 12. Ben Chandler
    (pp. 118-124)

    The anniversary or homecoming is a gospel quartet’s big day. For local groups, it usually marks the date the group was started; for national groups, such as the Pilgrim Jubilees, it can be a founding-date anniversary or a special return to the hometown. Local groups usually organize their own anniversaries, with other singers donating their services in the knowledge that the favor will be returned when their anniversaries come around. For professional groups, the event is more commonly organized by a promoter who assumes the risk and pays the artists—either an agreed fee or a percentage of the door....

  16. 13. Michael Atkins
    (pp. 125-131)

    Rush hour traffic on the 1-90 and 1-94 freeways through Chicago is nose-to-tail by five o’clock in the morning. From then until well into the night, it’s just a question of how busy and how clogged the roads will be. People drive them every day, so obviously it can be done. But as a foreigner hurling myself onto them, I felt an immediate affinity with the little steel ball in a pinball machine. These highways are the most direct route to Michael Atkins’s home in northwest Chicago. It’s an expedition I’m not looking forward to—and one Michael doesn’t think...

  17. 14. “Please Don’t!”
    (pp. 132-143)

    An underlying reason for the camaraderie among traveling professional quartets today is simply that not too many are left. Quartets are not quite an endangered species, but times have changed since the days when they ruled the gospel circuits. Then, competition was fierce, as new groups worked to climb the ladder and those already on its top rungs battled to maintain their positions. The Pilgrim Jubilees quickly found that the meek inherited very little in the gospel music business.

    Major: “When we first came on the road, we tried to stay in different hotels to the older groups so we...

  18. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  19. 15. Cleave Graham: “Back Then”
    (pp. 144-148)

    Cleave Graham sits at his dining-room table, his mind on the days of nearly fifty years ago, when the Jubes first started traveling. “Back then, the groups sat on the stage when the other groups performed. Everyone who was on a program sat on the stage. They didn’t stay in their dressing rooms—they didn’t run it like show business. I used to admire that. They would call the first professional group, and the other groups would come out and sit. They would become like part of the audience, enjoying the groups just like the audience. But they’re onstage where...

  20. 16. Blazing in the Blizzard
    (pp. 149-161)

    Crying Won’t Helpwas the last album the Pilgrim Jubilees made for Peacock. ABC-Dunhill wound the label down, and by 1976 it had ceased recording. Nashboro had shown interest in having the group back during the Don Robey years; now the Jubes were prepared to reciprocate the interest. Nashboro had changed extensively since they left it in 1959. Ernie Young, in his seventies, had sold the label to the Crescent Investment Company around 1966. The following year, a Crescent-owned theater in Nashville was converted into the Woodland Recording Studios, replacing Young’s handkerchief-wrapped microphone with a multitrack recording facility. In charge...

  21. 17. “We’d Have Been Up There . . .”
    (pp. 162-174)

    Although the “Blazing in the Blizzard” album sold well, Clay Graham says: “We didn’t get a quarter out of it. The company went out of business. Well, they sold it to another company, then they sold it to some bank, then that bank did something else with it. It moved around so much that it was hard to keep up with what was going on.” Nashboro was not, in fact, sold until 1981, but the Pilgrim Jubilees’ contract expired around the time of the double album, and lawyer Gene Shapiro found them a more lucrative opportunity. At the same time,...

  22. 18. Houston, Mississippi: Eddie Graham
    (pp. 175-181)

    Houston, Mississippi, seat of Chickasaw County, was founded in 1836 on an eighty-acre block given for the purpose by local landowner Joel Pinson. A memorial stone in the town square tells how Pinson requested that the town be named after his friend Sam Houston, “previous Governor of Tennessee and only president of the Republic of Texas,” who also gave his name to a much better known city in Texas. Chickasaw County’s Houston has outgrown Pinson’s eighty acres and now straggles along State Highway 8 from the gas station and barbecue shop at one end to the local hospital and the...

  23. 19. Meridian, Mississippi: Fred Rice
    (pp. 182-187)

    Advertising and political wisdom has it that if something is said often enough, it will become the truth. The Super Inn motel, next to the 1-20 in Meridian, Mississippi, defies this belief No amount of repetition is going to make the Super Inn super. Its blocks of units are separated by pitted asphalt that hurls the summer heat against the walls, helping the sun’s direct rays peel paint and split timber. Someone has smashed a bottle against the base of the tall sign proclaiming to passing freeway traffic the motel’s superiority. But the Super Inn’s rooms are comfortable enough, the...

  24. 20. “That’s the Way We Run It”
    (pp. 188-198)

    “Strictly business” . . . “fourteen hundred for two shows” . . . “a solid job”—it’s the worldly side of a spiritual business. A gospel group is a vehicle of religious expression that through its singing gives praise and thanks to God and messages of hope and joy to its audiences. As long as it stays an amateur group—one in which members earn their daily bread at other occupations and sing together essentially for the pleasure it brings them and others—it can function primarily on this spiritual level. But black American gospel music has two tiers. On...

  25. 21. Burying the Goat
    (pp. 199-213)

    The second half of the 1980s was not a good time for the Pilgrim Jubilees to be without a recording deal. The old labels were gone; the new ones were more interested in choirs and crossover gospel. But in Jackson, Mississippi, one company was having success supplying a mainly southern African American market with two staples largely neglected by competitors—soul-oriented blues and traditional-based gospel. The Malaco label grew from a band booking business started by Alabama-born pharmacy student Tommy Couch at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. In September 1967 Couch and his brother-in-law, Mitch Malouf, opened their Malaco...

  26. 22. “I’m Not Perfect...”
    (pp. 214-224)

    Cleave Graham’s statement is elegant in its simplicity. “I’m not perfect,” he says, “but the one I sing about is.” In that one sentence is encapsulated his abiding Christian faith, his desire to spread a message in song about that faith, and his recognition of human frailty, including his own. As veterans of nigh on fifty years on the road, the Pilgrim Jubilees have met all the pitfalls and temptations that await the traveling performer—and learned from their experiences.

    Major: “We had to learn. It’s a hard way out there. When you get in the lights, they’ll all be...

  27. 23. Today and Tomorrow
    (pp. 225-236)

    In Houlka, the sun has gone down. The temperature hasn’t. In the high school gymnasium, the large fan by the back door is still shifting hot air, pushing it across the room until it meets the blast from the fan by the front door and is sent back again. On the stage, the Holy Visions have been followed by the Shining Stars—from Bruce, Mississippi, twenty-one miles west of Houlka—Houston’s Spiritual Harmoneers, and the New Magnolia Jubilees. The late start has robbed the Friendly Brothers in Christ and the Aires of Joy of their chance to sing, and they...

  28. The Pilgrim Jubilees on Record
    (pp. 237-262)

    This listing gives details of all Pilgrim Jubilees’ recordings and videotapes. It is arranged chronologically and lists the personnel on each recording, the date—usually approximate—of the recording, the original record on which each track was issued, and as many reissues as the author has been able to trace. The pre-1970 section of the listing is based on Cedric J. Hayes and Robert Laughton’sGospel Records,1943–1969 (London: Record Information Services, 1992); this and the post-1970 section have been augmented by information from a wide range of sources and people (see the Acknowledgments).

    The layout and style follow...

  29. Notes
    (pp. 263-272)
  30. Index
    (pp. 273-287)