Tony Cummings talked to MILDRED RAINEY about her five decades of Christian music ministry
It's worship time at Keswick - not the larger event in Cumbria but the Keswick held annually at Portstewart in Northern Ireland. A slim, elderly lady with short grey hair is singing the Rend Collective song "Build Your Kingdom" in a pitch perfect voice and the throng is uniting in worship around her. The worship leader in question is Mildred Rainey and though many in the Keswick gathering may not know it, this singer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter has been a seminal figure in the development of Christian music in Northern Ireland. The mother of Kathryn Scott (nee Rainey), who is recognised throughout the worshipping Church for her song "Hungry", Mildred and husband Roy have through the decades ministered tirelessly. I was privileged recently to talk to 70 year old Mildred about her five-decade involvement in music ministry.
She began by filling in some early details. "I was born in 1944 in Portadown, Co Armagh. It's a provincial town - fairly big; more of a market town back then. I'm the eldest of four. There were three girls then my brother was the youngest. It's exactly the same order as our own family: we've got the three girls and then Mark."
Mildred's parents were churchgoers. She recalled, "We went to a local
Presbyterian church. It was just something you always did. You got
dressed up, you went to church; you sat there, you didn't move. It was
part of the culture then; very different now. I would have been about
nine when daddy became a Christian, but I didn't become a Christian
until I was 19. Roy and I were married in 1967; it would maybe have
been a year after we were married - '68 or so - when The Troubles
really started again. Back then, during childhood, we weren't
conscious of any religious divide. We had good Catholic friends."
Mildred clearly remembered how she became a Christian. "We'd had a change of minister in our church who was very evangelistic in his preaching. Up until that time I felt worried in myself. I would have prayed and asked God to forgive me, but there was never that assurance of knowing that I'd 'done it right'. In the back of my head it was almost, 'What happens if you come to the end and you discover that you're not going to Heaven?' - because I couldn't put a time and a date on it. In the evangelistic teaching, there were so many people who were able to say, 'Yes, on (whatever date it was) I gave my heart to the Lord.' I could never do that typical testimony thing: this happened at this place on this date, and so on. At a midweek Bible study the minister's wife was running, someone asked that very question - a question I would have loved to have asked but was almost afraid to ask - was it possible to be a Christian and not put a date on it? She very wisely said, 'If you have any doubts at all, why don't you just make tonight the night? Then you will know for sure that you have asked the Lord to be your Saviour and forgive you.' It's the one thing he's desperate to answer with a yes. That was the ninth of July 1963, and I just went home that night, knelt down at my bedside and asked the Lord to forgive me, to be my Saviour, to come into my life - handed it over to him. Although I didn't feel anything - it wasn't one of those Damascus Road things - I knew from then on that I would at least have a date that I can hang it on whenever any doubts came along."
Even as a child Mildred was showing considerable musical gifts. She recalled, "When I was six years old I was desperate to learn to play piano. Looking back on it now, it must have been quite a sacrifice for them, but they bought me a new piano for my sixth birthday. The story goes I was singing before I was talking; my mum remembers there was some hymn-singing on the radio, something I knew, and I sang along with it perfect pitch. Music was the one thing that I was good at. I went through the grades and got my teaching diplomas in my mid-teens. Especially after I became a Christian, you were then asked to sing in church situations; and it's something I've done ever since."
Once Mildred began singing around the churches, she recognized the need to learn to play guitar rather than rely on "rather dubious" church pianos. "I thought, I've got to know the instrument is in tune and play it at the speed I want, so I learned to play guitar to accompany myself. I played church organ in a few churches as well."
Mildred met Roy Rainey at the 21st birthday party of a girl they both knew. "She was in a choir we were both aware of," Mildred explained. "That was 12th January 1964. We were married in September '67. Roy was a sign-writer. His father was a painter/decorator, would have painted banners - a very talented artist. Roy was involved in that as well; he didn't do the banners, but he would have done the signs on shops, vans - all the stuff that's done on computers nowadays. That was done freehand, so both of them very talented. I was asked to sing: there was a wee recording studio out in the countryside, Radio Lifeline, who were producing radio programmes and sending them out."
Mildred continued, "Just after Roy and I met - back in '64, '65 - I was asked to sing some stuff for them. Then when they realised I could also play I got involved in doing accompaniment work. Around this time Roy became interested in the recording side of things." Eventually Mildred and Roy's work with the Radio Lifeline led to Mildred recording an album. 'Happiness' was produced by Eric Black (who also had some albums released on Shalom Records) and featured a mixture of old hymns (Fanny Crosby's "Moments Of Blessing" and Isaac Watts' "When I Survey") mixed with Southern gospel songs such as Mosie Lister's "My Jesus Knows" and an Ira Stamphill song which gave the album its title, "Happiness Is The Lord".
Later Mildred was to write her own material but back then new songs were found by the simple expediency of buying some of the Southern gospel songbooks which began to find their way to the UK. Mildred remembered, "There was a whole series of Inspiration books - volume one, two, three, right through to volume eight or something. You scoured the Christian bookshop. There was only one Christian bookshop in Portadown: you would have been in and out of there all the time, and as soon as you saw a new book you were absolutely thrilled to bits."
Mildred began singing at the Filey Week (an annual event held each September at Butlins holiday camp in Filey, North Yorkshire, offering "the then unique blend of holiday fun and good Bible teaching"). There they met the team from Echo recording studio in Eastbourne (which was to become ICC). Mildred and Roy were in Eastbourne for three years during which time Roy became more and more involved in recording crusades and radio programmes for the internationally renowned evangelist Dick Saunders.
Remembered Mildred, "When we went to Eastbourne, we met Betty Lou Mills and her husband Russell. Betty Lou was the first person I'd ever met who wrote music. To me that was, 'My goodness! They write their own songs!' It was when we were with Dick Saunders, during his Way To Life crusades. Twice every week - Tuesday and Friday - was a youth evening, and I couldn't find any songs that said what I wanted to say in the way that I wanted to say it. I remember in desperation thinking, 'Surely I should be able to write something'. That's basically where the songwriting started."
Working with Dick Saunders while trying to raise a young family in a caravan as the crusade entourage moved around England, Scotland and Northern Ireland was far from easy. Said Mildred, "Roy would be doing the live sound and recording - the messages would have been edited down for the Dick Saunders radio programmes. Roy did all of that. The children were tiny: we joined Dick in 1976, and that's when Kathryn would have been about two and our second girl Ruthie was just a baby. Janet came along two years later; the year we left, 1982, Mark was born. My thing was to get the kids to sleep before I came on to sing. If I didn't, very often Roy was sitting in the recording van with a child on each knee. Because it's what you did, you did it: it wasn't a big deal, it was just normal - normal family life for us."
Mildred and Roy amazingly also found time to record albums which were sold at the Dick Saunders crusades alongside the evangelist's cassettes and videos. 'Just For You' was issued in 1977. Around this period Roy started a record label/charity, Olivet, and Mildred Rainey cassettes 'Great New Country' (1980), 'New Horizons' (1981) and 'Hymns I Love' (1982) were released. Speaking about the latter Mildred commented, "There were hymns that I loved to sing - well known hymns, but hymns that meant something to me as well."
Then, after five years of faithful service, the Dick Saunders era came to a close for the Raineys. Explained Mildred, "There wasn't any crisis or anything, we just knew God was saying, 'This era is coming to an end'. It was the year Mark was born; in fact, he was born in Portsmouth. He wasn't due to be born until we got back to Northern Ireland, but he decided otherwise. There were a couple who we had got to know the year that we left. They were at Belfast Bible College, in their last year, and during that time they were having to work alongside various churches and so on as part of their training. Stanley Crooks came to Roy once a week to learn some basics of recording, editing, making radio programmes. When we were due to be heading out for the crusades, Roy asked him had they anything planned; he said, 'No, we haven't'. 'Would you like to come with us? You can help me.' They were delighted to do that. As it got nearer the time and we began to really feel that God was calling us out of Way To Life, Stanley was able to step in and do what Roy had been doing. His wife, May, was a soloist, so the Lord had it so planned that we were stepping out of Way To Life as Stan and May were stepping in. It was incredible the way the Lord directed that one."
While still with Dick Saunders Roy had an unexpected phone call from one of the founder members of Mary McKee & The Genesis, Ian Bartholomew. Roy was asked whether he would record the new album for the country-styled group. It was a risky request for everyone concerned. Mary McKee & The Genesis were at the time probably the best-selling Christian music act in the UK with their Nashville-recorded album even making the mainstream album chart in Northern Ireland. Up until that time Roy had only operated an eight track recording desk so he set out in faith to buy a 16 track desk. In a house seven miles outside Portadown, in a country area called the Birches, Roy took one of the outbuildings, soundproofed it and turned it into what Mildred called "a wee studio." After the Mary McKee & The Genesis album, a stream of other artists from all over Northern Ireland began beating a path to the Rainey's door. There were no other gospel artists in Northern Ireland of the status of Mary McKee & The Genesis but there was a flourishing grassroots scene. Roy was soon recording acts like the Woodvale Gospel Singers, Chuck Ebron, The Harvesters, Ivor And Alice, Pat Woods and dozens more. But it was an in-house Rainey project 'Born To Die' which proved to be possibly Olivet's biggest success.
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