I finished exploring the shops and historic buildings that create the community known as Old Salem, but I had one more stop I wanted to make. Making my way to the northern edge of Old Salem, I paused in the shade of a tree to study my surroundings. Note: More about Old Salem can be found here: Old Salem Heritage Bridge.
The shade of the tree provided little relief as I stood looking at the sacred grounds of Salem’s God’s Acre – the name the Moravian community gives to their cemeteries. The piece of land covers forty acres and is the resting place of more the 6000 members of the Moravian church, with the first burial in 1771.
The Moravian cemeteries are unique in two ways. First, all of the stones are made of white marble and are the same size and shape. The reasoning for this is every member is equal in God’s eyes, so no marker should be larger or grander than others.
The second way the cemetery is unique in the way it is arranged. The cemetery is arranged in a “choir system,” which is the way the members of the congregation sat during worship. In death, they continue to rest in a symbolic congregation. In times of worship, the congregation is divided into groups according to age, sex, and marital status, with the Brothers and boys sitting on one side of the aisle and the Sisters and girls on the other. After death, members are buried as they sat during worship – infants, children, singles and married are each buried in their own sections, separated by their gender. When a member passes, he/she is buried in the next open grave site within their respective section of the cemetery.
Armed with a map and directions, I followed the pathway through the cemetery grounds toward the grave I sought. Under normal circumstances, I would have set off for the general area where the grave was located, treading across the grass in a direct line from the edge of the cemetery to the grave. But there was something about this sacred piece of land that called to me, demanding that I should not walk over and around the simple markers. Following the nagging feeling, I respectfully followed the pathway through the sacred grounds until I was close to the burial location before stepping onto the grass.
I was soon standing at the grave of a musician whose voice crooned the airwaves for many years. The stone – which was extremely hard to read in the brightness of the afternoon sun – reads: “Geo. Hamilton, IV / Musicianary / July 19, 1937 / Sept 17, 2014 / We will meet again.”
Hamilton was born July 19, 1937 in Winston-Salem, the son of George and Mary Hamilton, III. At the age of twelve, Hamilton began playing the guitar and in high school formed his first band. After graduating high school, Hamilton attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While in college, he recorded “A Rose and a Baby Ruth,” which was released in 1956 with Colonial Records. The song climbed to number six on the music charts and would be the first of a string of pop music hits for Hamilton. He would follow it with “Why Don’t They Understand” in 1958 and “The Teen Commandments,” which was recorded with Paul Anka and Johnny Nash.
In 1959, Hamilton moved his family to Nashville to concentrate on country music. The following year, Hamilton had his first country hit, “Before This Day Ends” and would also be invited to join the Grand Ole Opry. He had hits with “Three Steps to the Phone (Millions of Miles)” in 1961 and “If You Don’t Know I Ain’t Gonna Tell You” released in 1962. 1963 would be the year of Hamilton’s best-known hit – “Abilene.”
He followed the success of “Abilene” with the album Fort Worth, Dallas, or Houston. In addition to the title track, another single from the album was “Fair and Tender Ladies,” a traditional mountain ballad influenced by the the folk music he had heard growing up. Hamilton would continue to show the influence of traditional and folk music with the release of “Steel Rail Blues” and “Early Morning Rain,” both of which were penned by folk singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot. Many of his folk albums would continue to feature songs by Lightfoot, making Hamilton the artist who covered the most songs by the Canadian folk singer. Hamilton’s last major hit on country radio was 1970’s “She’s a Little Bit Country.”
1970 saw Hamilton turn his focus overseas, which caused him to earn the nickname The International Ambassador of Country Music. In 1973, he would become the first American country singer to host his own show on British television. George Hamilton IV ran for eight episodes from 1970 to 1971. George Hamilton IV and Other Folk was a half-hour variety show which aired from 1973 until 1976. Beginning in 1975, he hosted George Hamilton IV, a Canadian program that ran for six years.
The 1980s saw Hamilton touring the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom as a part of Billy Graham’s Ministry tours. This would be the start of gospel career, the genre he focused upon for the remainder of his life. In the 1990s, Hamilton would portray himself in the West End musical Patsy, where he narrated the life of Patsy Cline.
Hamilton had a heart attack on Saturday, September 13, 2014, and passed the following Wednesday at the age of seventy-seven. After a memorial service held at the Ryman Auditorium, his body was taken to Winston-Salem and buried in God’s Acre at Old Salem.
I finished paying my respects to the legend of country music and started making my way back toward the community of Old Salem. As I left the sacred grounds, a lyric from “Back to Denver” came to mind. “With nothin’ to bother my mind and nothin’ ahead but blue sky highway and time,” it was like he was encouraging me to enjoy my vacation and while humming the songs of George Hamilton IV, I continued to explore the history of Winston-Salem, North Carolina.