Reviewed by Randall J. Stephens (Department of History, University of Florida)
Published on H-South (August, 2002)
More or Less than Conquerors: The Rise of Southern Gospel
More or Less than Conquerors: The Rise of Southern Gospel
The Blackwood Brothers, The Speer Family, Bill Gaither Trio, The Singing Americans, The Happy Goodman Family ... These southern gospel groups aren't exactly household names, unless of course, your household consists of conservative white evangelical Christians. In the latter years of the twentieth century, southern gospel and its newer counterpart, contemporary Christian music, gained throngs of fans. Today, gospel holds a large share of the music market, individually outselling jazz, classical, Latin, new age, and metal. Southern gospel has few listeners outside the evangelical community, but its loyal fan-base more than makes up for that fact. Devotees spend millions of dollars every year on CDs, fanzines, concert tickets, and memorabilia. The message draws them in. The music speaks directly to the conservatism of white evangelicals and offers comfort in the midst of a culture from which many feel alienated.
For a variety of reasons, musicologists and U.S. historians have been slow to note the importance of white gospel music. John T. McGreevy recently argued that because historians' primary narratives for analyzing modern America have been either political (the triumph of a liberal, activist government) or organizational (the bureaucratization of American life), religion remained epiphenomenal. More importantly, most historians are completely unfamiliar with evangelical subcultures and remain largely uninterested. Scholars like George Marsden, Mark Noll, Joel Carpenter, and Nathan Hatch, who've best grappled with fundamentalism and evangelicalism, have roots within these movements. This is not to argue some kind of predetermination for what historians can and can't write about, but intimate knowledge of one's subject matter has helped in this case. James R. Goff, whose history of southern gospel is unparalleled, grew up listening to southern gospel quartets and became an avid fan and amateur performer himself. As both an academic historian and a southern gospel enthusiast, Goff brings considerable insight to his subject.
In Close Harmony Goff traces southern gospel from its primitive roots in the nineteenth-century shape-note tradition and camp meeting chorus music to its development into a professionalized industry. The transition is a fascinating one. It is similar to the change Ernst Troeltsch noted as sects become churches. As Goff indicates, the very nature of southern gospel as a popular and malleable art form facilitated the transformation. Stylistically, southern gospel borrowed freely from popular folk music and diverged from the more structured mainline denominational hymnody. Its very openness allowed for innovations and modifications that made it unlike much sacred music. It is little wonder then that unencumbered holiness adherents and later pentecostals became the most productive gospel writers and performers. Goff skillfully shows that gospel's earliest promoters--including James Vaughan from Tennessee, Virgil Stamps from Texas, and Virginia-born A. J. Showalter--deftly used periodicals, traveling quartets, and mass advertising to literally sell the genre. These gospel songwriters were incredibly prolific and driven. Some authored thousands of songs and as a collective they sold millions of songbooks to an eager evangelical public.
Until World War II gospel publishing houses ruled the burgeoning business. They paid the quartets, struck record deals with performers, and used any means necessary to promote southern gospel. All mediums, as it turned out, could advance the cause. Conservative Christians throughout the twentieth century were seldom conservative with regard to technology. Pragmatic to the core, they used whatever they could to win converts. (Hence, in the 1990's the pentecostal Trinity Broadcasting Network would rhapsodize over the wonders that their "Devil Bustin' Satellite" would accomplish.) With the advent of radio and television, publishing house agents encouraged gospel acts to develop their own shows. And they did so with great success. Goff contends that radio, television, and the record industry made southern gospel into the modern entertainment business it is today.
Along with growth came considerable changes. Increasingly popular groups such as The Rangers Quartet, The Statesmen, and The Blackwood Brothers began to negotiate tours and recording deals through promoters and agents unaffiliated with publishing houses. White gospel performers became something like celebrities, supported by concert ticket sales and albums bought by dedicated followers. The participatory aspect of gospel suffered as a result. Communal singing conventions waned and rural singing schools, which used a practical means of gospel music instruction similar to a normal school, all but disappeared in the postwar years. Not all welcomed the changes. Some southern gospel stalwarts lamented the shift in emphasis, but they were in the minority. A greater rift occurred, Goff points out, when after the 1960s artists incorporated rock and other contemporary styles in their repertoire. Older fans were offended at the liberties taken. One commented, "I love Gospel music but not from the hippie, long hair, worldly groups you see today" (p. 270). But as they had before, musicians made a strong case for relevance. Newer groups reasoned that gospel had always been an adaptable genre. One industry insider remarked that gospel takes "any style of music, be it classical, jazz, rhythm and blues, rock, country, or pop ... and we couch the lyrics of Good News" (p. 269).
Goff is at his best when examining these and other tensions. In some of the most fascinating sections of the book he deals with the conservative politics and cultural outlook of the genre's followers. Southern gospel developed amidst the rise of modern premillennialism (a pessimistic view of the end times). Fans, songwriters, and performers reflected this sentiment and often felt at odds with American culture. For them gospel music was a refuge against a rising tide of social evils and cultural degeneration. The emergence of the Christian right in the latter part of the twentieth century went hand-in-hand with southern gospel music. Songs took the form of Jeremiads. Popular tunes demanded "We've Got to Get America Back to God" and resonated with beleaguered evangelicals who viewed the United States as a new Sodom where gay rights, secularization, and pro-choice views dominated.
Close Harmony could have benefited from a more detailed analysis of these tensions. Some important questions remain unanswered. Did evangelicals' political and cultural views change significantly from the 1930s to the 1990s? Similarly, one would have liked to see more on the interplay between tradition and innovation. How was it that performers and fans of southern gospel were so comfortable with the forms of contemporary culture while so opposed to its content? For example, in the 1970s The Imperials became the first racially integrated, widely known southern gospel act. They incorporated newer musical styles and altered their dress and performance to suit the times. In a genre so obsessed with tradition, they were progressives. But one of their most popular songs, "Oh Buddha," was a tirade against liberal pluralism: "No it won't be old Buddha/That's sitting on the throne/And it won't be old Mohammed/That's calling us home./And it won't be Hare Krishna/That plays that trumpet tune/And we're going to see the Son/Not Reverend Moon." Was it just an old message wrapped in new clothes?
Similar to Bill Malone's Country Music, USA, Goff's study is encyclopedic. Yet like Malone's book it suffers somewhat from a lack of interpretation. Goff is so thorough with the details--listing the scores of quartets, writers, shape-note schools, and conventions--that criticism tends to lag. Overall, though, this does not detract from Goff's path-breaking work. His copious endnotes and thoughtful narrative shed light on a topic that until now has remained unknown. Future works on southern gospel will surely use Close Harmony as a starting point.
. John T. McGreevy, "Faith and Morals in the United States, 1865-Present," Reviews in American History 26, no. 1 (1998): 241, 242.
. Ernst Troeltsch, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1931).
. Bill C. Malone, Country Music, U.S.A. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985).
Randall J. Stephens. Review of Goff, James R., Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel.
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