The playing methods of early Southern blues pickers and their often-visceral vocal styles were, in many ways, informed by their local church.
Regionally popular denominations had preserved the various folk music practices brought to the States by slaves and settlers alike; over time houses of worship served as incubators where new forms of musical expression took shape. While many influential guitarists and singers crafted secular visions that ultimately inspired the birth of modern popular music, Sister O.M. Terrell used early 20th century innovations and playing styles to add a high-energy touch to sacred music.
Born Ola Mae Terrell in 1911, the Atlanta native experienced a salvation experience at age 11 while attending a Holiness Movement tent revival, a type of gathering where worship songs were played on whatever musical instruments were at hand. By the Great Depression, she had become a blues-minded street musician who used her talents to evangelize passers-by, singing original compositions such as “God’s Little Birds,” to spread promises of both eternal security in Christ and more prosperous times here on Earth.
Terrell eventually went commercial and recorded several sides for Columbia Records. Her spiritual fervor remained intact in the studio, which made for some of the most moving recordings of the Delta blues and gospel genres.
Many of Terrell’s songs, namely “The Bible’s Right,” find her playing guitar with open D tuning (referred to sometimes as Vestapol tuning), and a slide. On other songs, including “Life is a Problem” and “How Long,” she utilized cross-note tunings to convey messages of hope through the lens of unwavering faith.
When the 1960s folk revival gave new life to the careers of various practitioners of African American gospel, Terrell’s talents and contributions went largely unnoticed. What a missed opportunity, as Terrell’s gospel music would’ve sounded at home on the same festival stages as the Staples Singers or Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Terrell’s music and ministry remained obscure through the final years of her life. An article by musicologist and author Bruce Nemerov for NPR covered the time he was asked by a music publisher to find Terrell and deliver royalties owed her from an off-Broadway play featuring “God’s Little Birds.” Nemerov’s search ended at a Conyers, Georgia nursing home, where Terrell spent her final years. She passed away in 2006 at age 95.
As an overlooked talent representing the musical approaches of pre- and post-War blues, the late Sister O.M. Terrell deserves to finally be remembered as a Southern blues and African American gospel innovator and legend.