It is only fitting that James Roberts' passing, at the age of 89, will be marked today
in Lexington by song and jubilation. In fact, the songs of jubilation will be those the
native Kentuckian penned himself.
The songs — Man of Galilee and When God Dips The Pen of His Love In My Heart
— are now long-loved gospel standards that have been sung by millions.
And, judging from his family story, his lengthy resume and impressive discography, Mr. Roberts
had a hand in most of the important musical movements that ran through Kentucky
during the first half of the last century.
Mr. Roberts began singing with his famous daddy when he was only 10. His father,
Fiddlin' Doc Roberts, was a bluesy artist and considered one of the fathers of
American fiddle music. He was certainly among the state's premier old-time musicians
and among the first to extensively record the music of the region. (His papers are
archived at Berea College.)
The young Roberts was among the eldest of Doc's 12 children. As a teen, he moved on
to work and record with Asa Martin until 1938, recording Knoxville Girl,
Give My Love to Nell and The Little Box of Pine on the 7:29. (His is the
high childlike voice on some extant works, as many recordings were done before his voice changed.)
Mr. Roberts' first wife was Martha Carson, often referred to now as either "The First
Lady of Gospel Music" or "The Rockin' Queen of Happy Spirituals." Carson and her sisters
had performed folk and gospel music as The Sunshine Girls before her marriage. Later, touring
as James and Martha Carson, the "Barn Dance Sweethearts," the couple worked out of Atlanta
radio station WSB.
Mr. Roberts and his wife treated World War II-era audiences to their sterling guitar
and mandolin duos. During that time, Mr. Roberts wrote many of their classics,
including He Will Set Your Fields on Fire and When He Heard My Plea.
The couple's recordings on the White Church and Capitol labels, around 1950, are considered
their signature and finest work.
After 11 years together, Martha left her husband and went on to greater fame, writing
the sentimental standard Satisfied, the first gospel tune to cross over to
country and pop charts. It was even recorded by Elvis Presley.
Alene Roberts, Mr. Roberts' cousin, says he "loved Martha until the day he died."
He married twice more. He was an ordained minister who never forgot why and to whom
he sang. His singing voice began to fail him in the last few years, something he
A vibrant man for a very long time, he ventured in his late 70s to take
a high school equivalency test, something he had neglected to obtain when he was
a younger man. He passed with flying colors.
Visitation was at 1:30 p.m., Saturday, June 23 at Kerr Brothers Funeral Home on Harrodsburg Road.
The funeral was to be at 2:30 p.m.
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