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Cleveland TN: Home of America’s Best-Loved Hymnal

The Church Hymnal, commonly referred to as the “Red Back” because of the color of its binding, is a timeless classic in Southern Gospel music. Developed and printed in 1951 by the Tennessee Music & Printing Company (now Pathway Press) in Cleveland, Tenn., it is known for being one of the best collections of gospel hymns in the world.


The 410 pages of the hymnal contain 429 selections, featuring standard hymns and traditional gospel songs, as well as Christmas and patriotic pieces. What sets it apart from other hymnals are the convention songs, some of the greatest quartet and convention songs from the 1930s and 1940s.


Each hymn is written in the seven-shape-note “doremi” format, a visual system that designates musical notes by shape and syllable. Shape notes are often associated with American sacred music, specifically with singing schools, musical conventions and community “singings.”


The book, and the songs within, have inspired generations and influenced many successful musicians across all musical genres. Chattanooga-born Cleavant Derricks, one of five black songwriters with songs included in the book, wrote Just a Little Talk with Jesus, When God Dips His Love in My Heart, and We’ll Soon Be Done with Troubles and Trials.


The Museum Center at 5ive Points, a regional history museum in Cleveland, Tenn., features a permanent exhibit about the Red Back hymnal and is an official location on the Tennessee Music Pathways trail, a program that promotes and preserves music events, locations and stories across the state.


The exhibit, The Red Back: America’s Best Loved Hymnal, explores the book’s history and continuing influence on Christian music. Visitors can listen to some of the most famous songs in the hymnal and recorded commentary by local gospel musicians. A hands-on shape note activity station helps explain shape note music, and a fully functioning linotype machine and proofing press display the amount of time and effort that went in to publishing a book like the Red Back in 1951. For more information, visit www.museumcenter.org.



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