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Luther G. Presley


He Wrote 'When The Saints Go Marching In' For $5


Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 21, 1998


Virgil O. Stamps composed the famous melody in Dallas one day in 1937 and Luther G. Presley penned the immortal lyrics at his rural Arkansas home in White County.
Neither composer nor author had the foggiest notion that their rousing, inspiring religious song would become a Dixieland standard - and, 30 years later, the theme song of the New Orleans Saints football team.
Anyone can sing a few lines of "When the Saints Go Marching In," or hum a few bars of the melody.
Folks around Searcy are amazed to discover that the man who wrote the lyrics to the popular song was one of them. Even employees of a local music store weren't convinced until they were shown his credits in a song book from a display rack.
Presley's eldest son, Leister Presley of Pangburn, says he thinks his dad got $5 for writing those lyrics. But that was only the beginning of royalty checks. A music registration organization has paid royalties over the years. "Sometimes he'd get maybe $1,000," Leister recalls. "Every time the song was played on television or a radio station, they'd send a little check."
A 1944 article in the Arkansas Democrat described Luther Presley as the state's most prolific songwriter. He composed the music or wrote the lyrics to hundreds of gospel songs - 1,500 or more, according to the article. Personal experiences inspired him. Most of his songs were written at his home just south of Pangburn in the countryside near Clay and Drake Spur.
Presley's home was listed on a company letterhead as the Arkansas office of music publisher Stamps-Baxter of Dallas and Chattanooga, Tenn. He had worked for other music publishing companies before joining Stamps-Baxter in 1930.
In those days, the company usually put out two song books a year, and Presley contributed five songs to each of them. Certain pages in each year's books were reserved for him, Leister says.
Some years later, Leister Presley began searching for songs written or composed by his father, fearing they might be lost if nobody collected them. He had seen two old song books stripped of their covers on an organ at a Pioneer Village display at the White County Fair. Leafing through the aging pages, he found two of his father's old songs - one composed in 1916 and the other in 1919.
So far, he has filled seven looseleaf notebooks with his father's compositions - music and lyrics of 649 songs, the lyrics for more than 400 others and the music for 25 others.
Leister Presley, a retired construction supervisor, is 85 now. His collection will go to the University of Central Arkansas where his wife, Cloie Presley, a county historian, was educated when the institution was Arkansas State Teachers College.
Leister Presley says his father also edited the gospel hit "The Great Speckled Bird," made famous by Roy Acuff at the Grand Ole Opry. (The same music was also used for the popular country hit, "I Didn't Know God Made Honky Tonk Angels." Which wasn't unusual in the past.)
Luther Presley was born March 6, 1887, on Beckett Mountain in Faulkner County, five miles west of Rose Bud. He grew up with religious music at a Free Will Baptist church. At 14 he attended his first music school and began directing the church choir. He wrote his first song, "Gladly Sing," when he was 17.
Known in those days for writing customized poems for $1, he always carried scraps of paper to write on. Often after a trying experience, the composer would wander off and write - while sitting under a tree or standing on a street corner.
One day his brakes locked when he tried to stop for another vehicle crossing a one-lane bridge over the Little Red River. He had to scrape up the money to fix the other man's car - no small thing in those days. But thankful that nobody got hurt, he was inspired to write, "I Know the Lord Is With Me."
After attending a funeral, he wrote the hymn, "He Wills It So."
Luther Presley's most famous song may be "When the Saints Go Marching In," says Leister Presley, but his dad's favorite song was "I'd Rather Have Jesus" - composed after he had studied the parable of the rich man in the 12th chapter of Luke.
"I'll Have A New Life" was composed one Easter after he heard a sermon by Dr. D.N. Jackson, a well-known minister in White County.
Leister Presley says his own favorite among his father's songs is "Give Them Red Roses (The Boys Will Be Coming Home)," composed near the end of World War II while he and his brother Clarence were serving in Europe. "I knew Dad was thinking about us. Dad wrote three or four songs about soldiers."
Luther Presley responded to his personal losses by composing hymns, Leister says, as though he knew his faith was being tested.
His wife and second child died in childbirth. He married again two years later. His second wife, Rena, was known for her fine singing voice, and together they made many public appearances promoting his songs. Rena Presley wrote some 40 songs on her own, including two that were published in recent years.
Luther Presley died in December 1974 [and is buried in St. Mary's Cemetery at Rose Bud, Arkansas, near Beckett Mountain where he was born] but Rena Henderson Presley continued his work for a decade - for the Zondervan Co., which had acquired Stamps-Baxter. She taught piano until she was 90. During an interview two years later, Rena said she still received orders for song books but she forwarded them to someone else.
At her funeral two weeks ago, a choir of singers from around White County sang a triumphant version of "When The Saints Go Marching In."
Footnote: G.E. Best Jr., president of the White County Historical Society, says one of his personal projects is to achieve permanent recognition for Luther Presley. "I have even thought about asking the New Orleans Saints if they would pay for some kind of marker - maybe up at his old home…" Or maybe at the Superdome in New Orleans?


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