The corner of Royal and St. Peter is never quiet on weekend afternoons. There are jazz bands, folk musicians, blues singers, newspaper vendors, producting the sounds that help make New Orleans unique. One particular group of singers that assembles across from the A&P, when there is room for their voices, calls themselves “The Gospel Singers,” a title as down-to-earth and unpretentious as they are. The unique musicians express a philosophy about God and love. Their songs capture the unifying feeling that comes when people share their most towering emotions.
Artful but mature, humble but powerful, gospel singing has a special sound and needs special people to create it. Mr. Lee William, his wife Minnie, and their partner Idelle Gatling (“…or Adelle, it's spelled either way…”) have been singing and spreading the Word most of their lives, and one can only guess how long those lives have been. Minnie talked about the soup lines of the Depression, about a former slave she had known, about marrying Lee William, and about “getting out and singing the Gospel.”
Minnie William is a big woman with humor, warmth, and charm. She has a kind face and the type of intelligence one calls wisdom. She is full of energy, averaging four hours of sleep a night.
Idelle Gatling is a short woman, thin, with strong, proud features. She is quiet and has a stare that seems to look into you rather than at you.
Lee William is polite and dignified. His silence contrasts strongly to his wife's openness. He gently rattles his tambourine and taps his foot as the Community Standard interviews the Gospel Singers.
Community Standard: Are all of you originally from New Orleans?
Idelle: I was born in Clayton, Alabama. I was up there about a month ago. My people came in and put me in a station wagon and carried me up there. I enjoyed it but I didn't want to stay up there. That's where I come from but I've been in Louisiana so long. I like New Orleans and I like Lousiana.
Community Standard: Mr. William, where were you born?
Community Standard: Of which church are you members?
Minnie: We all doesn't belong to the same church. My husband and I belong to the Apostolic Church, but she [Idelle] is different.
Idelle: Since the Bishop died I don't go to church anymore. I attend the street services. I belong to God. I don't belong to her church, but we're all Sanctified people.
Community Standard: How long have you been singing?
Minnie: Oh, years and years. I started singing when I was young. Mama would sing; Papa would sing, too. When I was about 14 years old I got converted. My Mama was a Baptist, but I come to the light. I joined the choir and later on, as I got older, we would just travel to different churches and sing.
I've been working for the Lord ever since my young days. I'm not young now, I'm at evening time now, and I like to sing. It's a gift the Lord gave me.
The Gospel Singers: Lee William, Idelle Gatling, and Minnie William.
Community Standard: Mrs. Gatling, how did you first become involved with gospel music?
Idelle: Just going around singing in different churches and street services, playing music. We used to go to different churches and sing. We were a group of singers, singing Christian songs.
Minnie: She's been all up in California, she has, but I haven't. A man gave her that guitar. He was traveling with his wife. We was on the corner and he stopped and said, “You stand here thirty minutes and I'll go and get you a guitar.”
Community Standard: Aside from singing, have you done other kinds of work?
Minnie: I worked house work when I was younger, but I always loved that church work. It doesn't satisfy me to be around a house fooling around. I like to get out. I always feel better when I get out and work for the Lord.
Community Standard: Have you done much schooling?
Minnie: I went to school. My Daddy had a farm. Sometimes he'd take me out of school to make me work. Sometimes I cried. I wasn't lazy, didn't mind working, but I hate to miss a day out of school. Mama had a big old dinner and my teacher came and said, “This girl work so good. Don't let her stay out; let her get education and learn all she can.” She was so good to me, my teacher. She lived in Macon, Georgia. She was just as sweet as she could be.
At this time I learned easy. But then I got a teacher who just scold, scold, scold. Can't stand nobody to scold me. You can't learn no child nothing, scolding.
Community Standard: Do you listen to other forms of music, like rock or jazz?
Minnie: I have to listened to it in my younger days. I used to like it pretty good. But I never did get out and sing no blues.
Community Standard: Are you familiar with such local musicians as Emma Barrett or Louis Armstrong?
Minnie: I never seen him but I heard talk of this Armstrong. I met some of them Glee Club singers, they shake your hand. I heard the Hummingbirds; I met some of them.
Minnie William - “No blues.”
Community Standard: Who are your favorite singers?
Minnie: Mahalia [Jackson] was one of them. I've seen her but I never met her. But she sure could sing.
Community Standard: Do you have a favorite song?
Minnie: I like “The Old Rugged Cross” and “Ananias” and, oh, a heap of 'em. I like to sing 'em.
Community Standard: You often sing with your hand over your mouth. Why is that?
Minnie: Sometimes I be singing that way. I get hoarse. I got a lemon in my bag. I have to stop singing. You know, singing out in the open air is bad on your lungs.
Sometimes I'm singing, I put my hand like that, that's kinda like a mike. One gentleman told me, “I hear you all around the corner sounding like a mike, you got such a loud voice.”
Community Standard: You sing in the Quarter on weekends. Do you work anywhere else during the week?
Minnie: Sometimes I take a notion, I go uptown working. I like to work up there. The Lord showed me ahead of time, like a vision, of a place up there and I like to go up in there where he showed me. He gave me a song, a new song, that same night and he showed me — I was on a street corner teaching the Word. I looked up and saw a lady, I know her, she's a missionary. She wouldn't come close to me. That's what I saw in the vision. She stood off and looked at me. She wouldn't come near me. But I was working for the Lord, teaching the Word, and he gave me a new song, and the song is “I Got to Tell It Everywhere I Go.” And Lord, let me tell you one thing, I went to work singing that song.
Community Standard: Then it's the Lord who inspires your music?
Minnie: He gives me what you call a gift of songs. Sometimes I'll be quiet in a room and He'll give me different songs. I get up and copy the words but I never had anyone to print it. You know, the Lord sometimes takes what he gives you if you don't make nothing of it.
Community Standard: How long have you and Mr. William been married?
Minnie: Oh, I don't know; it's been so long, a whole lot of years. I'd have to go back and find the papers to find out.
Community Standard: How did the two of you meet?
Minnie: He came in church and we was going around shaking hands with different ones, getting acquainted. Finally he acquainted with me. He said, “Are you married?” and I said, “No.” He said, “Well, where do you live?” and I told him. He said, “Can I come see you sometime?” I said, “Yeah.”
I thought, “I won't see him no more.” You meet up with people like that, saying things, don't mean what they say. But he come a few times and then he asked me would I marry him.
I didn't agree with him right then. I looked at him and said, “Marry you?” I told him, “I don't know you long enough.” He said, “You study long, you liable to study wrong.”
He come another time, talking about marrying again. You know how you think but you got the wrong thought? I thought, “I know how I'll get rid of him — I'm gonna tell him ‘Yes.’”
He went and got his license, went to the doctors, got his tests. He says, “Now the next thing's the preacher.” He wasn't playing.
Well, I couldn't back out and there was nothing for me to do but marry him. He's a good husband, a good honest man; I couldn't have got a better one. I understand him, he understands me. Sometimes he's just like a little old child. Since we got old, you know, I go and play with him, pat him on the face. He says, “Don't do that, now.” I just like to play. We get along good together.”
Lee William - “You study long, you study wrong.”
Community Standard: Do you have any children?
Minnie: I have one son.
Community Standard: Mr. William, have you ever done any preaching?
One time we had a prayer meeting. That man got up to tell a little testimony of his life. When he got up, he didn't know himself about it, but the Power came on him and he just got to preaching as hard as he know. One of the sisters says, “Look at him, that man's preaching,” and he was preaching. That's anointing, preaching through the power of God.
One time we was at a place helping a preacher and he had his guitar with him. He got to picking that guitar and when that anointing power came on in him that guitar sounded altogether different. The people came all out of the streets, coming up in there. The preacher looked at me, he couldn't believe it himself. It was anointing; he can preach when anointed.
Community Standard: Do any of you recall the Depression?
Minnie: I sure do. I remember when they lined up with those soup bowls. I was on and bus and I said, “Why are all them people lined up?” They were all in line to get their soup. I think we should be thankful now that the Lord has blessed us, because we have plenty to eat.
I don't like to waste nothing now, because somebody's hungry somewhere. I think about all of those people across that water starving for food. We have to have a tender heart and gifts. We don't have much but we cut back a little so we can send them something to help them. I do, I buy my little bit, send it over there.
Community Standard: Do you have memories about the First World War?
Minnie: I don't remember about that but I won't say I wasn't there.
Community Standard: Did you ever meet anyone that was alive at the time of the Civil War?
Minnie: My grandmothers — I never seen one of them, but I saw my two granddaddies. I heard Mama tell the things they told her when she was a girl, about how they suffered so.
I met up with a lady, she had been back in slavery. She was close to me, the most honest lady you ever saw. She was so nice and humble. She got to be a good-sized girl when her brothers and sisters were sold from her. I'll never forget, she'd been crying and telling me about it. She said, “I'll never see 'em no more.” She was there when they sold them, sold colored people just like they do horses.
Community Standard: Are you interested in politics?
Minnie: I listen to the talk but I really don't know anything about politics.
Idelle Gatling - “No ripping around.”
Community Standard: Are you married, Mrs. Gatling?
Idelle: I used to be married — my husband's dead. He was a top Sergeant, a veteran. I got an adopted son, I raised him up. He had three children, so I'm a grandma. He was given to me. He was mine from five days old out of the hospital.
Minnie: When you raise them up like that, they're just like your own.
Idelle: My son got killed, the one I raised, but he had two boys and a girl. He was named John and his first, oldest child is called Baby John, but he's a grown-up young man. He's grown up in a hurry.
Community Standard: When you're not singing gospel music, what do you like to do?
Minnie: I may not sleep but four hours tonight. I'm gonna be on my knees praying. I get back in the kitchen and I'm praying sometimes till five o'clock. I'm praying for myself and others. I have to pray for sick people. I pray for people that don't know the Lord. I have a list of things to pray for, then I get up off my knees and take my Bible and read it. I realize I'm getting older every day. The time is running out and I have to stay prayed up.
Idelle: Yeah, we're all getting older, every day.
Community Standard: How about you, Mrs. Gatling, do you do much praying?
Idelle: I'm saved and I pray, too. See, I don't go to no barrooms, ripping around, or nothing like that. I go out and thank God. But I go home and go to bed like I have some sense.
Minnie: I come up in my young days, I was taught that old fireside praying. Mama put into me so much of those things when I was little, I never have given any trouble.
Copyright © 1974–2009 Henry H. Mitchell.