Words & Music: Wilkin B. Bacon, 1943
Wilkin B. Bacon (1908-1981) was a rising star in the early gospel music recording industry before turning to full-time preaching in the Churches of Christ, and remained an influential song leader and teacher in Oklahoma, Texas, and the surrounding states. He has always been an interesting figure to me, not least because he represents an important part of the history of my home state, Oklahoma. Though my family were pioneer settlers, arriving well before statehood, Bacon's family was there considerably earlier!
In the less politically correct days of the early 20th century, Wilkin Bacon was sometimes called by the stage name "Chief" Bacon (not to be confused with his colorful contemporary, Chief Bacon Rind of Oklahoma's Osage Nation). Wilkin Bacon was not related, as far as I can tell, to any family of chiefs; but the Bacon families are well known among the Choctaws of southeast Oklahoma and are also found in the original Choctaw lands in northern Mississippi. Wilkin's father was Colton Bacon (b. 1882?), who is listed in the 1885 census of the Choctaw Nation. The family lived in what was then Wade County (today divided between LeFlore and Pushmataha counties). The census lists Colton Bacon, his father Reuben Bacon (b. 1845), and grandfather (presumably) Thomas Bacon, age 75, all of mixed Choctaw heritage. Colton's mother, Cornelia, was full Choctaw.(1885 Census) Thomas Bacon would have been 20 years old at the time of the Trail of Tears, when the U.S. government forced the Five Tribes off their lands in the southeast and sent them on a forced march to eastern Oklahoma.
Wilkin Bacon appears in official records for the first time in the 1910 U.S. Census. The family lived in LeFlore County, probably in or near Talihina where they are listed in the 1930 census, and very likely where the Bacon family was listed in 1885. Talihina is located in a valley between the picturesque Kiamichi Mountains to the south and Winding Stair Mountains to the north, just east of the prominent Buffalo Mountain. Wilkin's mother, Josephine, passed away sometime before he was 12 years old, and the 1920 census shows that his father had remarried to Minnie A. Bohanan. Wilkin had an older brother Richard (b. 1906), a half-sister Luvina Thompson (b. 1897), and a younger brother Thomas (b. 1911).
On 23 May 1931, Wilkin Bacon married the love of his life, Mary Sue Painter, a schoolteacher from the town of Albion just down the road from Talihina. They were together 50 years, until parted by death. Sister Bacon passed from this life just a month ago, on 20 July 2011, at the age of 103.(Obituary)
I have not discovered the religious background of the Bacon family, but Wilkin was baptized into Christ in 1937 at Sherman, Texas by Burton Coffman.(Finley, 35) He had begun singing in quartets and attending singing schools in his youth, and by this time was well on his way to a professional career. His first major success was as the baritone in the Lone Star Quartet, first heard on station KWFT in Wichita Falls, Texas. The quartet was sponsored by the influential Stamps-Baxter Music company of Dallas, Texas, which placed quartets with radio stations and in live performances throughout the south to promote their songbooks. The Lone Star Quartet became known outside of Texas through an extended engagement on station WPTF in Raleigh, North Carolina.(Slaughter)
An undated advertisement card from station KRLD in Dallas pictures Wilkin Bacon in the "Frank Stamps Quartet," along with Walter Rippetoe and Bob Bacon. In keeping with the emerging commercial Southern Gospel tradition, they performed with a piano player, listed as Mrs. Stamps.(This and That) The names and personnel of these quartets are confusing because of the ad hoc nature of live performances and the fact that the Stamps-Baxter company managed numerous quartets, any of which might use a variation on the well-recognized name. The "Frank Stamps Quartet" in the KRLD photograph, for example, has Rippetoe and Robert Bacon, who sang with Virgil Stamps in the "Stamps Old Original Quartet" on KRLD in the late 1930s. Wilkin Bacon also sang with Frank Stamps in a quartet called the "Frank Stamps All-Stars," but with Roy Wheeler, Lawrence Ivey, and Eiland Davis. By the end of the 1940s the Stamps company (now distinct from the original Stamps-Baxter company) sponsored more than 40 quartets across the country, many of which used some variation on the company name.(Goff, 122) Even the picture of the Lone Star Quartet that accompanies gospel musician Frank Slaughter's reminiscences about Wilkin Bacon (and others) does not appear to include Wilkin Bacon!(Slaughter)
According to one source, Bacon became increasingly conflicted within himself during this period of commercial success. His singing career demanded a great deal of travel, which kept him from his family and from the fellowship of a local congregation. He desired to do more for His Lord. "Can He depend on you?" was written in 1943 and may be a direct result of this crisis.(McFarland) By 1945 Bacon had left the Stamps organization to work for full time for the church as a preacher and song leader.(Finley, 35) The southern gospel star Henry Slaughter, recently inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, praised Bacon's work with the Lone Star Quartet and remembered distinctly that Wilkin "returned to Texas and became a minister of the gospel."(Slaughter) His decision did not go unnoticed!
Bacon preached in Arlington, Texas; Fort Smith, Arkansas; Corsicana, Texas; Dallas, Texas; and Duncan, Oklahoma. His last full-time preaching work before retiring was back home in Talihina, Oklahoma.(Finley, 37) He also led singing for meetings, and taught in the West Texas Music Normal with Lloyd O. Sanderson, Paul H. Epps, Texas Stevens, and Palmer Wheeler.(Gospel Guardian) Though his professional performing days were over, he still sometimes sang with the Gospel Hour Quartet on the International Gospel Hour hosted by Vernon E. Howard.(Howard)
Bacon is reported to have written between eight and ten songs.(Finley, 37) A copyright registration by Brentwood-Benson Music of Nashville shows the following titles:
"Can he depend on you?"
"He's looking for someone like you"
"I am happy with Him now"
"Just above the shadows" with Robert E. Bacon
"The sweetest consolation" with R. H. Cunningham.(U.S. Copyright Office)
A search of WorldCat.org also reveals the song "My loved ones wait" in Gospel Bells (Dallas: Stamps-Baxter, 1947), and a 1940s recording of "Can He depend on you" by the popular Blackwood Brothers Quartet. This seems to have been his one great success as a songwriter, and is certainly a worthy one.
"Can He depend on you?" is plain in it language, and the music is pretty but without pretension. The entire weight of the song, and the reason it has lasted, is in the haunting power of its message. One can only wonder to what extent this derived from the spiritual struggle the author was engaged in at the time of writing; it would not be the first time that a fine hymn emerged from such a crisis.
The three stanzas are neatly arranged around the crucifixion, resurrection, and second coming of Jesus Christ. It is the gospel in brief: "that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures."(1 Corinthians 15:3-4) In reflecting on these elements of the gospel, Bacon turns to the impact each should have on a Christian's sense of duty and gratitude, and on our sense of urgency in the work of the kingdom.
Jesus the Savior came down from above,
Came to bring mercy and love;
"Crucify Him," the mob scornfully cried,
So He on Calvary died.
While on the cross He prayed, "Father, forgive,
For they know not what they do;"
For us He died that for Him we might live,
Can He depend on you?
Here the focus is on the atoning death of Christ and His longsuffering mercy. One of the great characteristics of God is His patience and mercy. I cannot think of a better summary of this theme than what is found in the 86th Psalm, verse 15--"But thou, O Lord, art a God full of compassion, and gracious, longsuffering, and plenteous in mercy and truth." (The stately language of the King James Version is necessary for such poetry!) The verse is full of beautiful words--"compassion," "gracious," "longsuffering," "mercy," "truth"--and all of these are "plenteous!"
It was this longsuffering mercy, compassion, and grace that caused God to set a plan in motion to redeem a world that had turned its back on Him. It is this mercy, compassion, and grace that is behind the famous passage found in John 3:16. "For God so loved the world--" (How much did He love us? Here is how much: just read on.) "that He gave His only begotten Son--" (We could stop here, and understand as much as we ever will about the depth of God's mercy. But the verse continues--He gave, to what purpose?) "that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life."
We have spoken of God's mercy toward the world as a whole, but we are the personal, individual recipients of this mercy as well:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person--though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die--but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.(Romans 5:6-8)Paul understood this longsuffering of Christ to be personal in his own case: "But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display His perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in Him for eternal life."(1 Timothy 1:16)
Wilkin Bacon calls this mercy to mind, then turns to a specific conclusion we must draw--"for us He died, that for Him we might live." This is expressed many times in the letters of the apostles:
"Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him."(Romans 6:8)But now, as the the old saying goes, Brother Wilkin is about to leave off preaching and start meddling.
"He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again."(2 Corinthians 5:15)
"For if we died with Him, we shall also live with Him."(2 Timothy 2:11)
"[Jesus] Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness--by whose stripes you were healed."(1 Peter 2:24)
Can He depend on you,
His blessed will to do?
Will you be crowned with the faithful and true?
Can He depend on you?
The chorus of this song turns from what Christ did, to what we do in grateful response. Paul makes the same kind of transition midway through the letter to the Ephesians; having established the grand theme of God's eternal plan for our redemption, he then turns to the question of how we ought to live our lives in view of that truth: "I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called."(Ephesians 4:1) A similar structure is found in the letter to the Colossians: "If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God."(Colossians 3:1) The first letter of Peter has a similar statement at the beginning of the fourth chapter: "Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God."(v.1-2) In Peter's second letter, following a stern discussion of the coming end of time, he concludes, "Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness?"(2 Peter 3:11)
Our response to Christ's gift, then, is a life of holiness, but there is more to holiness than simply being free from impurity. The tabernacle, temple, and all the vessels and utensils necessary to Old Testament worship are a great example of this; they were "holy" in the sense of being pure, set apart, and made according to God's will, and they were also "holy" in the sense of being dedicated to use in God's service. We are also instruments in God's house:
Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the Master of the house, ready for every good work.(2 Timothy 2:20-21)Christians must be holy "vessels" in God's service, not because of any merit of our own, but because, "we have this treasure in jars of clay."(2 Corinthians 4:7) God has no "plan B" for spreading His message of mercy.
For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?"(Romans 10:13-14)It was God's choice, in His infinite wisdom, to use saved sinners to save other sinners. All through the book of Acts we see this happening; despite all the miraculous events that take place, in the end there is a preacher, there is a message, and there is a hearer who responds. Even Paul, who was called to repentance by a miraculous vision of Jesus Himself, had to hear the rest of God's plan of salvation from a mere mortal, Ananias: "And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on His name."(Acts 22:16)
There is also a crown mentioned in this chorus, waiting for us at the end of our earthly service. Some other songs about heaven speak rather lightly of crowns, as though they will be fashion statements; but the New Testament imagery used here is that of the laurel wreath granted to the winner of an athletic competition. Like the medals given in the modern Olympics, it is not the intrinsic value of the object that matters, it is the accomplishment it represents. The aged apostle Paul, knowing he was near his end, looked forward to this crowning:
"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing."(2 Timothy 4:7-8)Stanza 2:
He from the grave on the third day arose,
Missions of man to disclose;
Go preach the gospel, all who will may hear,
Through Him be free from all fear.
Bid them believe, to repent and obey,
Walk in the newness of life;
Keep the light glowing to show them the way,
Leading from sin and strife.
The second great point of the gospel is "that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures."(1 Corinthians 15:4) Paul explains further,
And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. . . . If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a Man has come also the resurrection of the dead.(1 Corinthians 15:14,19-21)His physical resurrection is paralleled in our resurrection from a spiritually dead condition, to emerge from the "grave" of baptism in a new spiritual life:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.(Romans 6:3-5)Christ's resurrection is a promise, then, not only of a physical resurrection to eternal life in the future, but of a far more important resurrection from spiritual death to spiritual life, attained right here and now. This was the gospel to which Jesus appointed His followers, saying,
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."(Matthew 28:19-20)This was the gospel Peter preached at Pentecost, saying, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."(Acts 2:38) It is that same gospel people need today; the problems of this world have not changed, and neither has the answer to those problems.
Peter was privileged to preach the gospel the first time (Acts 2), and to preach it for the first time to the Gentiles (Acts 10). But it was the Lord's intention that every Christian be a proclaimer of the gospel, and that is what the early church did. When persecution disrupted the first congregation of the church at Jerusalem, "those who were scattered went about preaching the word."(Acts 8:4) Within a fairly short number of years, opponents of the gospel would call them, as did Paul's opponents in Thessalonica said of him, "these men who have turned the world upside down."(Acts 17:6) This description was on the right track, but had it the wrong way around: the early Christians were trying to turn the world right-side up, one person at a time.
Our world is just as mixed-up and upside-down in its thinking as it was back then. The things that are fleeting and superficial are foremost in people's attention, and the things that are eternal are an afterthought or given no thought at all. Our world needs turning right-side up too, and nothing short of the power of the gospel can do it. Can Christ depend on us to do what He clearly commanded, what the early Christians did in spite of prison and death?
He is preparing in heaven a home,
For all His faithful and own;
Are you preparing to stand by His side,
Or in that day be denied?
Have you told others the story of love,
Showing them what they should do?
These are the precepts that come from above,
Can He depend on you?
Not long before His crucifixion, as He faced the rising opposition of the religious leadership of His own nation, Jesus told the following parable:
What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, "Son, go and work in the vineyard today." And he answered, "I will not," but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, "I go, sir," but did not go.(Matthew 21:28-30)He then asked the application question, "Which of the two did the will of his father?" Obviously the first son was lacking in obedience and respect at first, but his actions proved his repentance. The second son answers prettily enough, but his actions are disobedient and call into question the sincerity of his original statement--did he ever intend to go, or was he lying all along?
This parable was applied, of course, to the Pharisees. They paid lip service to obedience to God but instead had created a religion more to their liking, the keeping of which they equated with righteousness. There is always a danger of this among God's people, that we will follow some, but not all, of the Lord's commands. As Jesus told the Pharisees in another rebuke, "These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others."(Matthew 23:23)
When it comes to sharing the gospel, have we tended to excuse ourselves somehow from obedience to this command? I am haunted by the words of God to Ezekiel, "If . . . you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand."(Ezekiel 33:8) God help us to be more diligent to spread the good news! And thank you, Brother Wilkin, for asking your question: "Can He depend on you?"
About the music:
It is hard to gauge Wilkin Bacon's ability as a songwriter without a larger sample to examine; I have never seen any of his other songs. "Can He depend on you?" is quite well-written, and judged against other songs in its style is at least equal to many of the songs written by better-known writers such as Tillit S. Teddlie and Albert E. Brumley.
The music for the stanza is in a straightforward AABA form with eight-measure phrases, common to the popular songs of the first part of the 20th century. The most notable melodic feature, of course, is the upward leap of a 6th in the phrase, "Can He DE-PEND on you?" This is the title of the song, the key idea of the text, and the melodic "hook" (the part of the song you would still remember after forgetting everything else). Achieving this kind of memorable moment is still the aim of popular songwriters today, because it increases recognition and retention, which boost sales. Wilkin Bacon turned these skills to the propogation of an urgently needed message in the church, then and now.
One thing to keep in mind about this song is that it was doubtless written for male quartet, in which case the soprano part would have been sung down an octave. It is effective in a congregational setting with mixed voices, but when sung as originally conceived, it is easier to observed the tight harmony between the lead and alto voices, and the effective use of contrary motion Bacon achieved.
One case in point illustrates a skillful bit of voice-leading that suggests Bacon was actually quite a good songwriter (or else exceptionally lucky). At the end of the tenth measure, going into the 11th measure (1st stanza text: "for-GIVE, FOR"), Bacon has written himself into a corner with the melody and harmony (assuming he conceived the melody first). The melody rises from A-flat to B-flat on the syllables "-GIVE" and "FOR," and the harmony changes from a D-flat tonic chord to an E-flat 7th chord (secondary dominant to the A-flat dominant on "do" in the 12th measure). If he uses root-position chords (root of chord in the bass), he will create parallel 5ths between the bass and soprano (D-flat bass/A-flat soprano, moving to E-flat bass/B-flat soprano).
Any freshman music student can tell you this is a no-no (why it is a no-no is another question!), but most could not solve it as neatly as Bacon does here. On the last 8th note of the 10th measure the bass slips up to an F, and the alto moves in parallel 3rds with the bass (which are okay) to an A-flat. The root position D-flat chord is now a 1st inversion D-flat chord. The motion into the next measure now has contrary motion between the soprano and bass, and the alto is in position to get to the G-natural in the next chord from a half-step above, a much more natural approach than moving up from F (which somewhat implies a whole-tone scale, D-flat/E-flat/F/G-natural). Whether Bacon thought this problem through, just had good instincts, or a bit of both, it is a nice bit of part-writing!
National Archives Records Administration. Dawes: Index to the Final Rolls of the Citizens and Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes, 1898-1914. http://ftp.us-census.org/pub/usgenweb/census/-na/5c-tribes/dawes-index/
1885 Census of the Choctaw Nation. Wade County. http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~choc1885/new_page_1.htm
"Mary Sue Bacon." Obituaries. Talihina Funeral Home. http://www.meaningfulfunerals.net/fh/obituaries/obituary.cfm?o_id=1218490&fh_id=13397
Finley, Gene C., editor. Our garden of song: a book of biography of song writers of the Church of Christ. West Monroe, La.: Howard Publishing, 1980.
Goff, James R. Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel. Durham, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Slaughter, Henry. "The Lone Star Quartet." I Remember... http://www.mybestyears.com/ARCHIVES/Slaughter/4-010108LoneStarQt.html
This and That Newsletter v.12, issue 595 (19 June 2008). http://www.oklahomahistory.net/newsletters/TT595.htm"
McFarland, Bill. "The Kind of Faithfulness God Wants from His People." Sermon at Water Mill Church of Christ (Springfield, Missouri), 18 September 2005. Transcript at http://www.watermillchurchofchrist.org/SermonText/91805%20The%20Kind%20of%20Faithfulness%20God%20Wants.htm
"News." Gospel Guardian v.3, n.6 (7 June 1951), pp. 13-14a. http://wordsfitlyspoken.org/gospel_guardian/v3/v3n6p13-14a.html
Howard, V. E. International Gospel Hour Broadcasts. http://www.vehoward.net/radio/gospelhourquartet.html
U.S. Copyright Office. Copyright registration by "Brentwood-Benson Music Publishing, Inc. d.b.a. Stamps-Baxter Music." and "Bridge Building Music, Inc." Document numbers V3432D859-V3432D899. Online version at Wikisource. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Glory_Special_%26_19618_other_titles