The Reverend Andrew Jenkins of Atlanta was a leading composer of songs popular among southern gospel singers. He has been credited with more than 800 compositions, of which more than two-thirds are sacred songs. Jenkins’s best-known gospel song is “God Put a Rainbow in the Cloud” (1931), which has been recorded by numerous singers, including Mahalia Jackson.
Jenkins was born on November 26, 1885, in Jenkinsburg, about thirty miles south of Atlanta. In his infancy a medical error left him with only partial vision. Too blind to function in public schools but not sufficiently impaired to qualify for the state’s school for the blind, Jenkins had to rely on his own resources to obtain an education. Later in life, another accident rendered him totally blind.
Jenkins discovered at an early age that he could play by ear almost any musical instrument he could get his hands on. “I never took a lesson,” he once said. “It’s a God gift.”
Licensed to preach at the age of twenty, Jenkins moved to Atlanta, where he supplemented his income as a preacher by selling newspapers on the street. In 1919, after his first wife died, Jenkins married Jane Walden Eskew, a young widow and ordained minister who had three musically talented children—two daughters, Irene and Mary Lee, and a son, T. P. With this marriage a family gospel music act was born.
Five months after Atlanta’s radio station WSB first began broadcasting in 1922, the Jenkins family presented their first program over the air. They were among the first gospel music groups to be heard on any radio station. For the next ten years they were a regular feature on WSB. Their repertoire included not only gospel music but also folk, popular, and light classical fare. Radio exposure created a demand for Jenkins’s sermons and the family’s music. They performed concerts and conducted revivals around the state, and Jenkins served as pastor of several churches. In 1924 the family began a recording career that lasted into the 1930s and introduced their music to thousands of households across the country.
Although Jenkins is best known as a composer of gospel music, his secular songs have also enjoyed considerable popularity through the years and have been frequently recorded by country music artists. His specialty was event songs, or news ballads. Folk music scholars have studied these extensively, because many of them have entered folk tradition. His best-known event songs include “The Death of Floyd Collins” (an account of a cave exploration tragedy), “The Wreck of the Royal Palm” (inspired by a two-train collision at Rockmart, Georgia), “The Fate of Frank Dupre” (the story of an Atlanta robbery/murder), and “Ben Dewberry’s Final Run” (based on the death of Atlanta resident Ben Dewberry in a 1908 train wreck).