Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel / Edition 1

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Comprehensive and richly illustrated, Close Harmony traces the development of the music known as southern gospel from its antebellum origins to its twentieth-century emergence as a vibrant musical industry driven by the world of radio, television, recordings, and concert promotions.

Marked by smooth, tight harmonies and a lyrical focus on the message of Christian salvation, southern gospel—particularly the white gospel quartet tradition—had its roots in nineteenth-century shape-note singing. The spread of white gospel music is intricately connected to the people who based their livelihoods on it, and Close Harmony is filled with the stories of artists and groups such as Frank Stamps, the Chuck Wagon Gang, the Blackwood Brothers, the Rangers, the Swanee River Boys, the Statesmen, and the Oak Ridge Boys. The book also explores changing relations between black and white artists and shows how, following the civil rights movement, white gospel was influenced by black gospel, bluegrass, rock, metal, and, later, rap.

With Christian music sales topping the $600 million mark at the close of the twentieth century, Close Harmony explores the history of an important and influential segment of the thriving gospel industry.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
I am so happy that someone has written a book on the history of southern gospel music. I am especially glad that it was James R. Goff Jr. This is a wonderful book, and it really covers everything. (Dolly Parton)

It's good to finally have a good resource book of the music and people that we all dearly love. (Bill Gaither)

Dolly Parton
I am so happy that someone has written a book on the history of southern gospel music. I am especially glad that it was James R. Goff Jr. This is a wonderful book, and it really covers everything.
Bill Gaither
It's good to finally have a good resource book of the music and people that we all dearly love.
Singing News
[Goff] has given us the first balanced and comprehensive history of Southern Gospel Music. . . . This book is truly remarkable for a number of reasons. Foremost, Goff manages to strike a perfect balance among his roles as historian, teacher, and Southern Gospel Music fan. . . . Most importantly, Goff is a Southern Gospel fan, and his passion for and love of music and the people who create it permeates every page of Close Harmony.
Library Journal
Goff (history, Appalachian State Univ.) spreads the word of white gospel music in this well-researched social history. Starting with the music's 19th-century evangelical roots, he charts the emergence of shape-note musical notation, which gained popularity through singing schools and songbooks. He then unearths gospel pioneers and religious entrepreneurs such as James David Vaughan, Virgil Stamps, and Jesse Baxter, who furthered the music through singing schools, monthly publications, songbook companies, radio stations, record labels, and such quartets as the Speer Family and the Lefevres. The author continues with the post-World War II commercialization of Southern gospel with television, gospel songwriters such as Lee Roy Abernathy, concerts, and professional groups such as the Blackwood Brothers, the Chuck Wagon Gang, and the Statesmen. Lastly, he charts the rise in the 1970s of the more secularized, popularized contemporary gospel of the Imperials and the subsequent reemergence of the conservative evangelical quartets. Basing his history on more than 60 interviews and dozens of other sources, Goff delivers a well-written account that engages despite its somewhat specialized focus. Recommended for gospel fans, social historians, and music libraries in the South. Dave Szatmary, Univ. of Washington, Seattle Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807826812
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 3/25/2002
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

James R. Goff Jr. is professor of history at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. He also serves as the chief historical consultant for the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and is a regular columnist for Singing News magazine.

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Read an Excerpt

Close Harmony

A History of Southern Gospel
By James R. Goff Jr.

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2002 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8078-5346-7


On a warm spring evening in 1997, thirty-eight individuals were inducted as the initial class of the Southern Gospel Music Association's Hall of Fame. For many, this black-tie affair was the symbol of a life-long dream come true. Though all had been honored before in a variety of settings, never had they been honored in such a distinct way-and never had southern gospel been showcased more clearly as a specific musical art form. One industry veteran referred to the evening as a night that "topped any and everything I have ever attended." Reflecting on the two short years since the organization's founding and the imminent construction of a museum and Hall of Fame complex, he editorialized: "The SGMA membership has grown to over 10,000, making the SGMA the largest Gospel Music organization in the world. Anybody see the hand of God at work here?"

Early in the nation's history, gospel music emerged as a central part of the expression of American culture. Practically speaking, it provided a foundation for other styles of music that came to enrich the life of its citizens. More important, it built a bulwark upon which a developing nation and its people could assemble a religious identity. At least since the first few decades of the nineteenth century, Americans have been among the world's most religious people. And even before the rural revivals of the early 1800s turned the cultural landscape of the nation into a bastion of evangelicalism, Americans were comfortable with the tenets of the Judeo-Christian heritage and understood the majority of their values within those boundaries. In that context, gospel music helped mold the culture through which the collective hopes, dreams, and beliefs of most Americans found expression.

Few books have examined the American gospel music tradition. One can search library shelves and find a significant number of works on the evolution and importance of most forms of classical and popular music. On the popular side, a number of impressive efforts have chronicled the rise of blues, jazz, rock 'n' roll, and country music. In recent years, a sizable number of similar works on the role of black gospel have even appeared. Yet almost ignored is the parallel treatment of the white gospel tradition.

An exception has been the charting of the rather limited role of the Sacred Harp songbooks and the rural singing conventions that flourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Almost nothing exists on the more important and popular seven-note tradition of shape notes. For more than a century, these seven-note shapes formed the core of a booming songbook industry, located primarily in the South and drawing its strength from the rural and small-town, working class-rooted evangelical churches. Generations of rural southerners learned to sing by these shapes and ultimately identified with a style of music popularized by songwriters who promoted this musical method.

The songbook industry itself provided the spark that, when coupled with the growth of radio and phonograph recordings, forged the success of the white gospel music industry in the South. Developing alongside the black gospel music industry, which was rooted more in the urban centers of both the South and North, the white industry has suffered from a lack of academic attention. Always dwarfed by larger segments of the traditionally white music industry, gospel nonetheless played a primary role in establishing the dominant styles of popular music in America. A few scholarly efforts have come as parallels to a predominant interest in country and folk/bluegrass music. More specialized treatments have most often remained unpublished doctoral dissertations. A handful of efforts have focused specifically on the shape-note tradition with little emphasis on the professional gospel music industry that grew out of that tradition. The result has been a gospel music heritage evaluated almost exclusively by fans and industry insiders.

It is an indictment of American history that black and white gospel developed as separate-and parallel-traditions. A sense of injustice no doubt led many scholars to investigate first the considerable accomplishments of black gospel songwriters and artists. Another reason is perhaps because, though gospel music generated a greater volume of sales among the larger white population, in segregated America, gospel music provided only a small component of the overall musical market for white America while it played a much larger role in the black community. For whatever reason, when the mainstream media and Americans generally outside the tight-knit world of Christian song initially came into contact with the music-and gospel quartets in particular-they came to associate that music with black Americans only. A typical newspaper article from the mid-1990s gave substantial treatment to the subject of gospel music, dividing the genre into traditional and contemporary categories. However, white gospel artists were referred to solely in the contemporary category, which dates back only to the last three decades, and, even then, no southern gospel artist received mention.

Gospel music in America should be understood in a couple of different contexts. The largest context is singing songs with religious lyrical content. This tradition dates back to the Puritans, borrowed heavily from early European hymn singing, and is associated most commonly with the development of nineteenth-century mainline Protestant worship. Within the world of gospel music, the late nineteenth century offered a new variety of sounds and lyrics-so varied that churchmen agonized over the growing divide between hymns and gospel singing. Hymns became associated with congregational singing in Sunday worship services; gospel singing, with a more vibrant (and often controversial) singing of religious lyrics to popular tunes. In the broadest sense, then, gospel singing served as a wellspring of worship within the American music tradition-honoring neither color line nor stylistic limitation.

More limited in scope is the gospel music industry. If we focus only on the ties that developed economically-and stylistically, inasmuch as style dictated the parameters of a given market-a clearer picture comes into view. By the early part of the twentieth century, two separate gospel music industries had developed. Ironically, given the strength of segregation in the nation's northern cities as well as in the South, these industries-drawn along racial lines-crossed paths much more often than is commonly acknowledged. Yet, there was little mixing of audiences until the 1960s, when racial barriers were challenged by the civil rights movement and new approaches to musical style were also more actively encouraged. As contemporary gospel began to emerge, the racial barriers that had defined the previous three generations of American gospel music became blurred, though by then stylistic differences-related to race but only marginally-had dictated separate paths for many individuals associated with the industry.

At first glance, gospel music is still just gospel song-music centered on a Christian theme. As a result, the important differences among the gospel performances of Tennessee Ernie Ford, Elvis Presley, Mahalia Jackson, and James Blackwood might not be recognized. But, for those within the industry, a clear distinction exists. Ford and Presley sang gospel songs but were not gospel singers. Jackson was a gospel singer firmly within the black gospel genre. Blackwood, on the other hand, achieved his reputation as a gospel singer in the tradition of the white gospel quartets.

Gospel as a separate musical art form emerged primarily in the South and, as one music historian has argued, stands alongside jazz, blues, and country music as "the fourth great genre of grass roots music" and "the fourth major type of southern music." Others have characterized the intimate connection between the region and its music by noting that "southern religious life ... affected both the nature of songs and the manner in which they were performed." Yet, of the four, only gospel-specifically southern gospel-identified itself with the region by name. This has been a recent phenomenon, one that emerged within the white gospel industry in order to designate the older styles of music from the growing contemporary Christian music that, in the 1960s and 1970s, borrowed heavily from sounds associated with the radio strains of rock 'n' roll and pop.

But there is much more to the self-conscious designation of "southern" gospel than a concern for traditional music. More powerful is the degree to which the music has come to identify itself with a marketplace that mirrors the growth of conservative evangelical Christianity. As a result, recent advocates of southern gospel have argued that the real distinction in their music is a concern for theologically correct lyrics and for performers who maintain some semblance of a Christian lifestyle. Though this concern has not always been a primary factor within the industry, it is consistent with the roots of a gospel music tradition whose mission was identified first and foremost as serving the evangelical churches of rural America. Over the last three decades of the twentieth century, America seemed to become more conservative-particularly on issues related to the nation's social policies. Religious conservatives grew in political power, or at least grew more visible via traditional media outlets, and gained much more prominence in the nation's political and social discourse. The growing voice of the nation's social conservatives dovetailed nicely with the aims and aspirations of most southern gospel singers.

Many scholars who have studied gospel music have noted stark differences in the attributes of white and black gospel. The result of this observation has oftentimes been to suppose mistakenly that one simply emerged from the other and, in the case of white gospel, that it is simply a pale imitation. Consequently, many authors have fought a senseless battle over which came first and who influenced whom without a full recognition of the integrated nature of southern life, particularly during the formative years of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. White and black southerners lived, worked, and worshiped together even though custom and economic status often sanctioned the firm foundation of white supremacy. Even after segregation laws took effect in the late years of the nineteenth century, southerners of both races continued to influence one another on an almost daily basis.

Ironically, the area of life most divided in 1900 was religious life-segregation by custom rather than by any particular detail of a state's Jim Crow package. In part to experience fully one of the few areas where they had total control, blacks in the decades after the Civil War flocked to churches and denominations that were operated and controlled within the black community. A by-product was an increased separation in the performance of and preference for gospel music. The timing was pivotal, for the late decades of the nineteenth century would be the crucial decades in the development of the shape-note songbook publishing business and also in the formation of early quartet styling. Black and white singers would still listen, learn, and consciously borrow from each other, but segregation in general would mean that their audiences and the confines of their market would be separate for at least the first six decades of the twentieth century.

Religious affiliation has made an important impact on the southern gospel music industry. By far the strongest denominational ties are to independent Baptists and to the Holiness and Pentecostal organizations that dotted the landscape early in the twentieth century and have enjoyed phenomenal growth ever since. Gauging the impact of denominations is not an easy or exact science. Nevertheless, any analysis of the denominational background of successful artists as well as the churches that have provided the strongest support for the industry since its inception makes such a conclusion inevitable. Many writers have speculated that the Holiness-Pentecostal connection flourished because of an increased openness in worship style that allowed the innovative, often upbeat, performance of commercial gospel music. The influence of these religious groups has also contained a biracial dynamic. Both independent Baptists and Holiness-Pentecostals have survived as strong organizations within white and black communities in the South.

The Holiness-Pentecostal connection to southern gospel is particularly important because it is precisely that wing of the white Protestant world that has generally been overlooked and misunderstood by music historians. Convinced that white Protestants displayed little emotion in their services, writers have stereotyped black gospel as expressive while stereotyping white gospel as staid. The fact is that both white and black Christians affiliated with the Holiness-Pentecostal wing of Protestantism found much to shout about in their worship services and those emotions spilled logically over into their singing. The roots of gospel music are found in the rural churches that routinely failed to conform to the more sophisticated style of their urban counterparts. Students of black gospel music have noted that much of that rural character was transferred to urban areas as a result of the large number of black southerners migrating north in search of economic opportunity during the early decades of the twentieth century. The same migration story was true for whites who, disillusioned with the agricultural setbacks of the Depression years, remained tied to the southern, rural culture of their youth long after they found new homes outside the bounds of the traditional South.

The term "gospel music" first appeared in the late nineteenth century and was used specifically to refer to a more popular genre of songs than the hymns commonly sung in Sunday morning worship services. Likewise, the distinction emerged within black and white communities, spawning slightly different styles depending upon the experiences of performers and the tastes of the audiences that fueled their musical ambitions. In all instances, gospel singing borrowed freely from the musical innovations emanating from other areas of American music, from blues and country music, as well as from the older hymnody and spirituals of the past.

In both black and white communities, gospel singing became associated with the singing of new songs, thus eliminating elements of the new genre from any elevation to the spiritual status of hymns. The result was an important distinction between hymn singing, which focused on tradition, and gospel singing, which created by necessity an ongoing search for talent and artistic creation. The tie here also necessitated a market, an enduring market that would be large enough to sustain the livelihood of performers, publishers, and promoters.

A second distinction was one of degree. Gospel singing, unlike the singing of hymns in church on Sunday, required that some individuals choose the making and performing of gospel music as their primary occupation. This differentiated gospel performers in both white and black communities from two other groups that also sang gospel tunes: 1) secular singers, who invariably chose gospel songs already popular and thus familiar to the audience as a part of a larger repertoire,[20] and 2) church singers, who practiced their craft without benefit of pay and justified their singing as a part of using one's talent for God.

Recognizing southern gospel as a specific art form is important for several reasons. First of all, the music of southern gospel is the music of much of America. From the mid-nineteenth century on, a high percentage of Americans have been influenced from childhood by conservative Protestant Christianity. A vital subset of that influence was the church music-hymns and gospel songs-that became as much a part of Sunday worship as the preacher's sermon, Sunday school classes, and intercessory prayer. The overwhelming success of the Bill Gaither Homecoming video series attests to the impact of Sunday morning and evening services on many Americans. Though some songs might be known only to gospel music fans who immediately identify a particular song with a group from the past, the bulk of the tunes in the video presentations include older songs that resonate to a middle-aged audience in search of its roots.


Excerpted from Close Harmony by James R. Goff Jr. Copyright © 2002 by University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
Pt. I The Roots of a Musical Genre
Ch. 1 Gospel Music in the Nineteenth Century 14
Ch. 2 Shape Notes and a Musical Tradition 35
Pt. II The Birth of an Industry
Ch. 3 James David Vaughan, Pioneer 62
Ch. 4 Stamps-Baxter: A Texas Gospel Music Empire 81
Pt. III The Emergence of Professional Quartets
Ch. 5 Early Quartets: On the Road the First Time 111
Ch. 6 The Boom Years: Gospel Music Promoters and the All-Night Sings 157
Ch. 7 The Golden Age Challenge: Unconventional Groups and Songwriters 201
Pt. IV The World of Southern Gospel
Ch. 8 Quartets and the National Expansion of Gospel Music 223
Ch. 9 The Emergence of Southern Gospel 264
Conclusion 283
Notes 289
Index 379
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