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Luther G. Presley was a music teacher, song director, and prolific writer of gospel songs who has been credited with writing more than 1,100 hymns. His best-known song is most likely “When the Saints Go Marching In,” for which he wrote the lyrics in 1937 (the melody was written by Virgil O. Stamps).
Luther Presley was born in Faulkner County on March 6, 1887, to James Thomas Presley and Nancy Ann Brooks Presley. He was educated in Faulkner County’s public schools. Presley attended his first singing school at the age of fourteen, under the direction of M. W. Beckett, and taught at his first singing school at the age of eighteen.
Presley continued his musical education, and according to a 2005 article in the White County Record, “he studied harmony under L. B. Leister, a graduate of the music department at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) and namesake for Luther’s son. He also studied under W. W. Combs, head voice teacher for the Stamps-Baxter Schools, and Dr. J. H. Ruebush, dean of Shenandoah College in Dayton, Virginia.” According to the Arkansas Democrat, he also studied harmony with Dr. J. B. Herbert. His first published song was in the Showalter-Patton Company songbook in 1907.
Presley was married first to Julia Magdaline “Maggie” Yingling of the Clay community in White County. The couple married on October 1, 1911, and had two children before Maggie and their third child, an infant son, both died on February 16, 1922, during childbirth. Presley married Rena Henderson, a native of Faulkner County on December 30, 1923. She was also a songwriter and wrote approximately forty songs, as well as several children’s stories. The couple had one child together.
Starting as a young adult, Presley was immersed in the world of writing music, teaching music, and editing the works of other songwriters. In some of his works, he wrote only the lyrics or words, and in others just the melody. However, in other songs, he wrote both the lyrics and the melody. His oldest son, Leister Presley, credited his father with writing the words and music to 649 songs, writing the lyrics only to 429 songs, and writing the melody only to another twenty-five songs.
Beginning in 1928 and ending in early 1930, Presley was associated with the Hartford Music Company, where he edited songbooks and was in charge of the mailing department. He also worked for fourteen years for the Central Music Company, which was originally located in Hartford (Sebastian County) and later moved to Little Rock (Pulaski County). However, the majority of his professional life, from 1930 until his death in 1974, was spent with the Stamps-Baxter Music and Printing Company of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Dallas, Texas. During his career with Stamps-Baxter, he composed hymns and also ran a music supply store out of his home in Pangburn (White County).
Presley told his friends that his best song was “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” which has been translated into several languages. Other songs that he wrote and thought had merit included “God’s Wonderful Book Divine,” “Getting Ready to Leave This World,” “In Mother’s Way,” “I’ll Have a New Body,” and “He Wills It So.”
Leister Presley said that the motivation for many of his father’s songs came from actual events. In one case, his song “He Wills It So” came from the comments made at a funeral. According to an article in the December 3, 1944, Arkansas Democrat, “‘He Wills It So’ was written after a funeral for a young man. His mother in her deep agony kept repeating ‘Lord, why did he have to go? Why didn’t you take me and let him stay?’ Her agonizing words kept ringing in his mind until he wrote this song.”
In another incident that inspired a gospel song, Presley was involved in a car accident during a rainstorm that resulted in a head-on collision with another automobile. Fortunately, no one suffered serious injury in either vehicle. The next day, while reflecting back on the accident, Presley wrote the lyrics to “The Lord Is with Me.”
At the time of his death on December 6, 1974, Presley, then eighty-seven, was still employed by the Stamps-Baxter Music and Printing Company. He is buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery near Rose Bud (White County). His wife continued to operate the Stamps-Baxter Music store out of her home for the next ten years.
Many of Presley’s songs are preserved at the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) archives in the Luther G. Presley Papers. Leister Presley donated 195 songbooks to UCA’s archives; each songbook contains at least one song written by his father.
For additional information:Allard, C. C. “Arkansan Writes and Sings Hymns: Gospel Song Poems Come Easy to State’s Most Prolific Author and Composer.” Arkansas Democrat Sunday Magazine, December 3, 1944, p. 1.
Cloie Smith Presley Papers. Torreyson Library Special Collections. University of Central Arkansas, Conway, Arkansas.
Luther G. Presley Papers. Torreyson Library Special Collections. University of Central Arkansas, Conway, Arkansas.
Sallee, Bob. “Pangburn Songwriter Remembered with ‘Saints.’” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 21, 1998, p. 4E.
“Songs by Native Arkansan Donated to Conway Archives.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 7, 2005, p. 6R.
“White County Songwriter’s Works Donated to UCA.” White County Record, July 7, 2005, p. 5.
Jimmy BryantUniversity of Central Arkansas
Last Updated 9/16/2013
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