J. M. Henson was a major contributor to the development of southern gospel music. In 1921 he and a group of other musicians and businessmen formed the Southern Music Plate Company of Atlanta. Henson and his partners engaged in a wide range of activities to meet the needs of the flourishing field of gospel music in Georgia and other parts of the country. They published music theory books and songbooks featuring the seven-shape notational system, a staple of vintage southern gospel music. They formed quartets to travel around the country conducting singing conventions, presenting concerts, and selling their songbooks. And they organized a school in which they taught music theory, sight-reading, ear training, voice culture, harmony, composition, and the methods of teaching and conducting music. Henson eventually became sole owner of the firm.
James Melvin Henson was born in Gordon County on August 23, 1887, and was educated in the local public schools. In 1910 he graduated from Eagle’s Normal Musical Institute of Clanton, Alabama, where he studied all the elements of gospel music that he later taught in his own school. He soon became a prolific songwriter. In 1937 a gospel-music trade magazine reported that he had penned more than 2,000 compositions. An acquaintance said that Henson “writes a song as easy as writing a letter.” It was not unusual for him to write two songs in one day.
Henson found inspiration for his songs in the people and events he encountered in his daily life. An incident he observed while on a train trip led to a song titled “Will Your Next Stop Be in Heaven?” Among his best-known compositions is “Watching You,” a longtime favorite at revival meetings. The song was inspired by one revival service in particular that Henson attended. The revival leader told a group of young boys whose unruly conduct had been the source of trouble at previous services, “We’re expecting order here and you had better be careful, because there’s an all-seeing eye watching you tonight.” That eye belonged to the county sheriff, who was at the meeting by invitation. Henson, reflecting on the parallel between the sheriff and the Lord, wrote a song in which the “all-seeing eye” is God’s.
Henson sold his music business in 1961 but remained with the new owners in an advisory capacity until his retirement in 1967. He died on April 22, 1972. One of his contemporaries described Henson as “the only person in America, and probably in the world, that could write the words and music to a song, set the type, make the plate, print and bind the book, play the music on piano or organ, and sing the song.”