From a life scarred by repeated tragedies emerged an anthem of hope known by millions the world over. Mary J. Murphy went to meet songwriter MARIJOHN WILKIN.

Marijohn Wilkin
Marijohn Wilkin

The composer of one of the best selling gospel songs of all time Marijohn. now in her mid 60s, is alive and well and living in Nashville. Tennessee. She lives in a condominium on Music Row. Just around the corner from her office which houses Buckhorn Music, named after her son. On a warm breezy southern afternoon, with dog Misty on her lap. she talked about one of the most moving nights in her life.

"One Day At A Time' was number one in Ireland then and I was over in a club in Belfast. Irish country star Gloria began to sing it and I will never ever forget the way people stood up, joined hands and sang along with her. She hadn't introduced me to the audience yet. so I just sat back overwhelmed by what was going on around me. The incredible atmosphere was a truly unforgettable experience."

No one but no one. would swap places with Marijohn Wilkin if they knew how deep she had to sink before personal unhappiness finally forced that song out of the darkest corners of her subconscious.

An only child, she grew up in a little town in Texas, the daughter of a relatively prosperous baker. Ernest Melson and his wife Karla Owens. Mrs Melson once remarked that Marijohn was "born grown up". She wasn't allowed to mingle with other children, was treated as a small-town mini adult and was expected to be a model child. Little wonder that she sought solace in music and found it in the piano.

Her father died when she was 13 "and from that day on my mother and I almost reversed roles, literally at the expense of my own personal happiness.

Daddy made me promise to get a college education and not grow up illiterate like him." A month after he died she graduated from high school and enrolled as an honours student in Baylor College. "My mother worked as a matron in one of the college dorms, so again. 1 was different from the others, having my mother with me."

The expense of Baylor, her growing feelings of alienation and falling grades due to unhappiness necessitated a move, so she went on to college in Abilene, Texas. There, Marijohn began to thrive. She was accepted as the first and only female member of the renowned Hardin Simmons Cowboy Band. They travelled all over America and she sang at Franklin D Roosevelt's third inauguration.

While at college she met, fell in love with, and eventually married Bedford Russell from Dallas. "I don't like to talk about that time in my life because my husband was killed during the Second World War." One of the many cruel ironies of her life was the fact that Bedford was killed accidentally by British bullets when they attacked the Italian submarine on which her husband and other prisoners were being transported.

Marijohn drew the threads of her life around her and moved to Lowington, New Mexico, where she then taught school. "I met a man there and married him on the rebound. We had a son. Buck, who was horn ten years to the day my Daddy died."

Buck was just two weeks old when Marijohn was struck down by phlebitis and bed-bound for a year. When she recovered she moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma with her son and was divorced shortly after.

"I took it as a personal failure and now had a child as well as a mother to support. In Tulsa, my great friend Anita Dugger made life bearable. It was then I also met and married Art Wilkin."

By the time young Buck was eight years of age "he was a mean guitar player", explained his proud Mom. "Red Foley of the Ozark Mountain Jubilee programme heard him and wanted him. So we all moved to Springfield, Missouri, where the Jubilee was based. Buck was introduced each night by an older woman - 12-year-old Miss Brenda Lee! Meanwhile, Marijohn found work in a piano bar and sang backing vocals to make money.

"You know, it's a funny thing, but I never thought about it until you asked me now. No, I never set out to be a songwriter. It just kinda happened and I guess I went along with it. I'd moved up to Nashville and was working as a song plugger with Jim Denny's Cedarwood publishing company."

Her first song was recorded by Red Roley, and slowly but surely the writing gathered momentum and she began to have hit after hit. Waterloo was one of her smashes. Unfortunately, success and crazy hours too often take their toll in the music industry. Marijohn started drinking too much and became desperately unhappy. In despair she twice attempted suicide.