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The Birdwell Brothers

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Birdwell Brothers Quartet-Gospel 1990

The Birdwell Brothers grew up with music.  In fact, one grandfather, two uncles, two aunts, and their father and mother were accomplished singers. 
George Washington and Lottie Burnett Birdwell were the parents of twelve children; eleven sons and one daughter.  All twelve were reared on a farm in the Bethany Community near Marhaville, Louisiana.  Preston, who went by the nickname Dick, was the eldest, followed by sister Mertie, and brothers Luther, Tilman, Hoyt, Raymond, Harvey, Odell, Herman, Vernon, Wilmer, and Harold.  All could harmonize, however, not all the brothers were members of the quartet. Dick sang bass, Hoyt high tenor, and Harvey sang soprano. 
Singing was a big part of everyday life in the Birdwell famly. Many a night after their father worked in the field and their mother worked in the home, each parent would take a child and begin to sing to put the children to sleep. Father and Mother would often sing while they worked in the fields.  On Sunday afternoons to entertain themselves, many young people in the community would come over to sing for several hours. 
For a long time, their only performances were at church services and old time singing conventions. WWII broke up the group for a few years, but they were soon singing together again.  The Birdwell's started performing in public in the mid-1940s.  They sang on radio stations in Natchitoches, Many, and Mansfield, and in the 1950s, began singing at funerals.
The Birdwells learned the fundamentals of song writing and note singing at singing schools, and organized the practice sessions. If a performance was taped, Harvey would listen to it several times because he wanted to get the songs just right and would sing them again.
The quartet performed over much of Louisiana and East Texas. Once they were scheduled to perform at two different funerals at the same time.  The boys split and picked up members from the congregation to sing the songs and fulfill their obligatins. the Birdwell Brothers Quartet made their greatest contribution by comforting many families in their moments of greatest and deepest grief by singing at over six hundred funerals over six decades. They once sang 11 funerals in eight days. 
All the brothers belonged to the Jennings Chapel Congregational Methodist Churches.  The only recordings of Birdwell's songs have been in these churches, some at festivals.  They never made an official album, though one was planned before Harvey's death in 1992. 
The Birdwells were happy to support the development of the Rebel State Commemorative Area, which began in 1962 and they performed at numerous memorial services there.  At Rebel, the boys were on the same billing as Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe, and Jimmie Davis.
Perhaps their greatest performance was during the 1984 World's Fair in New Orleans.  They performed three, forty five minute programs everyday for seven days.  They were not to repeat a song in a day's time and were not to use books.  The four were Harvey, who raised cattle and for many years served on the Natchitoches Parish School Board; Hoyt, a school bus driver for many years, sang high tenor.  Vernon, a retired school teacher, sang tenor, and Raymon, retired from the Louisiana Highway Department, sang bass. Pianist, Augusta "Gusty" Webb Kilgore, joined the group in 1960; for several years she taught school in the Natchitoches Parish School System.
When Dick passed away in 1978, his brother Raymond sang bass, and Vernon came in as low tenor.  When Harvery died in 1992, Raymond's son George sang low tenor. Raymond passed away in 1999 and Hoyt in 2000.  Until Harvey's death in the 1992, the Birdwell Brothers Quartet performed at every NSU/Natchitoches Folk Festival and also participated in the Lousisana Folk Festival in Monroe, Louisiana. 
In recognition of their contribution to gospel singing in North Louisiana, the Birdwells were inducted into NSU's Hall of Master Folk Artists.

 Louisiana Gospel Music
By Betty Vilar

“There’s no doubt that being selected to represent Louisiana Gospel Music at the Louisiana World’s Fair was the high point of our careers,” said Harvey Birdwell, lead singer and spokesman for the Birdwell Brothers’ Quartet.

According to information obtained from Dr. Don Hatley of Northwestern State University (NSU), Gusty Kilgore, pianist, and Harvey plus three other Birdwells made up the quartet.  Hoyt, a school bus driver for many years, sang high tenor; Vernon, a retired school teacher, sings tenor;  Raymond, retired from the Louisiana Highway Department, sang bass.  Harvey raised cattle and for many years served on the Natchitoches Parish School Board.  Gusty joined the group in 1960; for several years she taught school in the Natchitoches Parish School System.    

The Birdwells started performing in public in the mid-1940’s.  They sang on radio stations in Natchitoches, Many, and Mansfield.  Besides singing on radio broadcasts, the brothers performed at old time singing conventions, and, in the 1950s, began singing at funerals.

At one time Harvey had commented that “Gospel singing has changed over the years.  The old-time singing convention has faded.  Now, we do a lot of special event performances.  The songs have changed too.  In the old days we were asked to sing ‘There’s a Little Pine Log Cabin’.  We still do that, but today a song like ‘There’ll Be No One to Welcome Me Home’ is requested.”

As with most traditional performers, the Birdwells learned to sing at home.  “In the evening Daddy would sit out on the porch after supper, and he would start singing.  Then, we would join in.  There were eight of us boys.  Mama would finish washing and drying the dishes, and then she would come out.  We did this nearly every night,” one Birdwell brother recalled.

There were other influences too.  At singing schools, the Birdwells learned the fundamentals of song writing and note singing.  Later, Jimmie Davis was especially influential on Harvey, both as a musician and as a personal friend.  The group, as a whole, paid particular attention to the work of the John Daniels Quartet out of Nashville, Tennessee, and the Blackwoods Brothers.

Besides their pride in being selected for the Louisiana Exposition, the Birdwells were happy to support the development of the Rebel Park Commemorative Area.  The Birdwells participated in the Louisiana Folklife Festival and in the Natchitoches-NSU Folk Festival.  In recognition of their contribution to gospel singing in North Louisiana, the Birdwells were inducted into NSU’s Hall of Master Folk Artists in 1990. 

“We were fortunate to grow up in a singing family and in a section of the country where gospel music is loved and respected,” concluded Harvey.  “Whether at a festival or helping console a bereaved family at a funeral, we love to perform for the public and to share our songs.”

Updated November 28, 2016 By NSU-Natchitoches Louisiana Folklife Center Staff