Song Snapshots is a column featuring the stories behind new and classic Southern Gospel songs. In a special Memorial Day edition, here’s the story behind one of Southern Gospel’s all-time greatest songs, “Statue of Liberty.”
This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the Southern Gospel classic “Statue of Liberty.”
Its writer, Neil Enloe of the Couriers, still vividly recalls the occasion that inspired the song: “We were invited to sing for an afternoon and evening boat excursion on the Hudson River. The Assemblies of God young people from both New Jersey and New York were together and had a boat ride. There were 2,400 kids on this big excursion boat we were using, but the auditorium only seated about 400 people. So we had to have six little twenty-minute concerts to get everyone in. At the end of one concert, it would take five or ten minutes for the people to leave, and then that many minutes for the next crowd to get back in.”
“During a break between those concerts,” he continues, “Dave [Kyllonen] and I both stepped out on the deck to get some fresh air. By now, the sun had gone down, and the lights of New York were beautiful. We went back in and did another one, and came back out after that. And this time, we were leaning against the outer rail, just watching the kids hold hands, and all that.”
“All of a sudden, it got quiet. Everyone goes ‘ooh’ and ‘aah,’ and we thought, ‘What on earth’s going on?’”
They turned to see the Statue of Liberty. “Boy, there she was, right above us. Everything American in me rose up. But I have a greater citizenship, and so my heart turned to that, too.”
He turned to Dave Kyllonen and said, ‘You know, there’s a song in there somewhere!”
Dave said, “Yeah, sure! Remember, we sing Gospel Music. Where’s the Gospel in the Statue of Liberty?”
Enloe replied, “It’s in there.”
The song took him three months to write. He explains his painstaking writing and editing process this way: “I just don’t let lyrics flow. I am terribly, terribly critical of my own lyrics. I don’t want to say something that’s not quite right. So I worked, and worked, and worked, and I revised, revised, revised. If there’s any success at all I’ve had as a writer, it’s been in the revision process, because what comes off of my tongue doesn’t really fly most of the time. I have to write it down and look at it and say, ‘No, that’s not right. How can I say that better?”
After he had completed the song, he sang it at a Couriers concert, which, as he recalls, was in a Methodist church near Allentown, Pennsylvania. He sang it as a solo for three months, “because evolution will set in. I did not want it to lose its direction and its feel. So I did it for three months so Dave and Duane [Nicholson] would not know that song any other way.”
After those three months, they began singing it as a group. “It took us a month to lock it in vocally,” he remembers. “It’s just a very strenuous song. If you notice, the melody starts in the basement and ends in the attic. The range is so wide that it almost takes a group to do it justice, although Larnelle Harris did it well.”
Enloe can be humble and rather understated; he observes, “Anyway, we recorded it three times, four times, depending on what the grouping, and it doesn’t seem to want to go away, for some reason.”
Though songs that combine patriotic themes with a Christian message are now common to the point of commonplace, the concept was revolutionary at the time. “Statue of Liberty” was among the first of its kind, and still stands at the head of its class. It is one of those songs that has been often imitated but never surpassed.
The song immediately caught on like wildfire. In the 1970s, the Blackwood Brothers, Blue Ridge Quartet, Cathedrals, Heaven Bound, Jerry and the Goffs, the Kingsmen, London Parris and the Apostles, and the Speer Family recorded the song. The song has established itself as a classic with its consistent presence in the genre ever since. In the 1980s, the Cathedrals and Hoppers each recorded versions. The Dixie Echoes, Glen Payne, and the Gaither Homecoming Friends each recorded versions in the 1990s. In the 2000s, Anthony Burger, the Cumberland Quartet, Ivan Parker (with the Gaither Homecoming Friends), Liberty Quartet, the Mark Trammell Quartet, and Triumphant Quartet all have recorded the song.
Last year, on the Fourth of July, Couriers tenor Duane Nicholson revealed a little-known chapter in the song’s history:
Neil Enloe would not reveal this to anyone so I will, after all these years! He was approached by officials coordinating the festivities for the nation’s 200th Birthday that was televised nationally to millions of people to use his song “Statue of Liberty.” The only problem was that they wanted him to change the second verse. Neil kindly thanked them for the invitation but declined to do so. His remark was that God gave Him the idea for the song and the second verse was the main theme of the song. He refused to compromise!