Helping communities across the state connect their heritage arts and traditions to local development, education, and active citizenship
By Magaret Person
Tillery, Halifax County, NC
Halifax County native Margaret Person is widely considered one of the preeminent performers of traditional church hymns in the region. The singer and pianist has been intimately familiar with old meter hymns—such as those that appear in the National Baptist Hymn Book—since she was a child and could hear parishioners in the Tillery section of Halifax County singing them during outdoor services. “They were down by the riverside singing,” Person remembers. “You could hear those voices a long way off. When I was a child, we had to walk to church, and when we’d come around the curve, you could hear feet patting and hands clapping, but there wasn't a piano. Those old folks, they were serving the Lord.”
A largely self-taught pianist, Person remembers, “My mother and father taught us how to play those little songs like ‘Mama, Mama, Have You Heard?’ and ‘Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross.’” As a young musician, Person was asked to become the pianist at her family’s church.
“When I was 16 years old, our pastor asked my mother and father if I could play for the choir, and they gave me permission to do that…I took enough music to learn how to play those hymns in that hymnbook, and he said, ‘Don't worry about that other stuff. You just stick with those hymns." He was old, and by ‘other stuff,’ he was referring to contemporary music; he wasn't for that.”
Over time, Person traveled throughout Halifax County, playing for choirs at Piney Grove, Zion Hill, and Crowell’s Missionary Baptist Churches, and at First Baptist Church in Halifax. She also traveled to churches in Nash County, filling in for pianists as needed. During this period her skills grew even further.
Despite the fact that Person has been playing for over six decades, she still maintains a vigorous schedule that has her accompanying multiple choirs in the area. “Lord, I’m so tired when Monday morning comes,” she laughs.
Asked what draws her to traditional hymns, Person explains, “Just listen to the words. That is the most important part of a song—the words. They bring back memories about how God has done things for you. When I hear about choirs that only sing contemporary gospel, I think, Oh, Lord—they just don’t know what they’re missing.”