A Gospel Singer and writer, dedicated to her craft
We first made Essie Mae Brooks’ acquaintance in 1995, when she was 66 years old. Today, she’s in her 90s, still singing the gospel and writing her own songs.
When we established the Music Maker Foundation back in 1994, our first group of partner artists was made up largely of blues players from the area around Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Then, in 1995, we got funding to do some field recording — not much money, but enough to begin. That’s when we headed to middle Georgia to build new partnerships with artists. In two small towns south of Macon — Perry and Kathleen — we found a wealth of musicians whose work had roots that traveled deeply into American soil. We recorded the amazing blues and gospel artist Rufus McKenzie and James Davis, a purveyor of “Georgia drumbeat” music that came from the oldest African-American musical traditions.
And we met Essie Mae Brooks.
Many singers in the gospel tradition stick to traditional hymns that have been passed down through the generations. But Essie isn’t like that. She writes her own songs.
She started writing songs at 9 years old and has kept it up ever since. She goes to church every Sunday and sings her songs. She’s a dedicated writer, keeping a little notebook by her side. Anytime an idea comes to her, she writes a line. And she has piles of these notebooks from over the years. She works on songs for weeks and weeks, line by line. Her lyrics are so vivid that she takes you on a journey with her.
Essie Mae’s lyrics stick to an idea that’s always present in the greatest gospel music — the notion that no matter how heavy are the burdens we bear in this world, something greater awaits us. You can hear that spirit in the title track of an album we recorded with her in 2005, “Rain in Your Life.”
Oh, when I lost my mother, oh you know that was sure enough rain
When I lost my father, you know that was sure enough rain
And when I lost my sister, you know that was more rain
You got to have rain in your life
You got to have some rain in your life
Got to have rain in your life to appreciate the sunshine
Words to live by.
Essie Mae was born on August 7, 1929.
Top photo by Tim Duffy.