Charles Davis Tillman was born in Tallassee, Alabama, on March 20, 1861. His parents were Methodist evangelists, and for many years young Charles travelled the revival circuit with them and shared in the services – with a strong gift for music he was “a self-taught singer, pianist and composer”.
In his teen years he left the revival trail and sought a secular career, leading him to work as a house painter, a Rawleigh salesman, a comic song singer to advertise Wizard Oil, first tenor in a male quartet and a minstrel show entrepreneur.
It was in August, 1886, that he “personally found the Lord,” as he puts it.
In later years he travelled with evangelist Sam Jones, “singing for the glory of God.”
Foremost among his many compositions is the 1890 melody for the Gospel song:
Life is like a mountain railroad
with an engineer that’s brave …
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Tilman provided the music for a Baptist minister’s lyrics.
Tilman is celebrated as “a pioneer composer, performer, and publisher of southern gospel music. During the almost 60 years that he was involved in the music business, he wrote some 100 songs, published 22 songbooks, and toured extensively as a song director with several evangelists”.
And it was Charlie Tillman who ‘discovered’ the traditional ‘Negro Spiritual‘ and published it for the first time:
‘Tis the old-time religion
and it’s good enough for me …
While he was attending an African-American conference he heard the song and keenly noted it down, before introducing it to white audiences as “Gimme That Old Time Religion“. They loved the song and it brought to life the singing of Negro Spirituals by non-negro congregations.
Charlie Tillman died in Atlanta at the age of 82.
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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com