The daughter of freed people, Lucie Campbell was born in Duck Hill, Mississippi, on April 30, 1885, in the caboose of a train when her mother went into labor while bringing dinner to her father, who worked for the railroad. A teacher, an activist, and a musician, Campbell is best known as a pioneering and prolific gospel composer. Her most famous song, “He’ll Understand; He’ll Say, ‘Well Done,’” was recorded as “The End of My Journey” by artists such as Johnny Cash, Ferlin Husky, and Ernest Tubb, but she also had a long career as a teacher and advocate for racial and social justice.
Before she was two years old, Campbell moved to Memphis with her mother and eight siblings after a train accident took the life of her father. Her mother Isabelle Campbell was the family’s only provider but saw to it that her children received an education that included the arts. Lucie was able to learn music by closely observing her older sister Lora’s piano lessons.
Campbell graduated high school as valedictorian at the age of fourteen, after which she began her career as a teacher in Memphis’s public schools. As a teacher, she continued to work on her musical abilities and in 1904 created a group called the Music Club, which gave music performances and taught music lessons.
The following year, Campbell organized a group of musicians from Beale Street and the Music Club to form a thousand-voice choir that performed at the National Baptist Convention. This began her long relationship with the organization. In 1915 the National Sunday and Baptist Training Union Congress of the National Baptist Convention held a meeting in Memphis and made Campbell, then thirty-one years old, their music director. In that position she wrote songs and created Bible study lessons. In 1919 Campbell was inspired to write her first hymn, “Something Within,” when she witnessed a blind musician on Beale Street refuse to play blues for spectators requesting the W. C. Handy tune “St. Louis Blues” because he said “something within” prevented him from playing the secular material. She conducted thousand-voice choirs performing her original songs for immense audiences of black Baptists across the United States. She composed over one hundred religious songs; the best known include “The Lord is My Shepherd,” “Heavenly Sunshine,” and “Touch Me, Lord Jesus.” Campbell was music director for the Congress until her death in 1963.
Along with serving as the music director for the Congress, Campbell worked as an educator and mentor, helping to compile hymnals and to launch the careers of young gospel singers, including Marion Anderson and J. Robert Bradley. She gained a reputation in Memphis as an inspiring teacher and effective leader, and city politicians often went to her for advice on issues in the black community. She was such an effective orator that she was sought after for public-speaking engagements but was banned from speaking in some churches, as the Baptist church did not allow women preachers.
In 1927 Campbell earned her AB from Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi. She was invited to Washington, DC, for the Conference on Negro Education in 1934 and for the Negro Child Welfare Conference in 1938.
Outside the church, Campbell was also an activist for racial justice. The only two secular songs she ever composed were “Please Let Your Light Shine on Me” and “Are They Equal in the Eyes of Law?” For these pieces Campbell supplied the music to poems written by Sergeant A. R. Griggs about his experiences with discrimination in America after serving the country in World War I.
Her work as a musician and teacher was so influential within the church that the National Sunday School and the Baptist Training Union Congress of the National Baptist Convention declared June 20, 1962, as Lucie E. Campbell Appreciation Day. Campbell died January 3, 1963, in Nashville and was buried in Memphis. An elementary school in Memphis bears her name, honoring her lifelong work in education.
- Robert Darden, People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music (1996)
- Luvenia A. George and Ada Gilkey, “Lucie E. Campbell: Baptist Composer and Educator,” in Black Perspective in Music, vol. 15, no. 1 (Spring 1987)
- Kip Lornell, “Happy in the Service of the Lord”: African-American Sacred Vocal Harmony Quartets in Memphis (1995)
- Bernice Johnson Reagon, ed., We’ll Understand It Better By and By: Pioneering African American Gospel Composers (1992)
- Roxanne Regina Reed, Preaching and Piety: The Politics of Women’s Voice in African-American Gospel Music with Special Attention to Gospel Music Pioneer Lucie E. Campbell (2003)