Then Sings My Soul
The Culture of Southern Gospel Music
By DOUGLAS HARRISON
University of Illinois Press
Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
Introduction A Native Informant's Report from the Field
In July 2000, New York Times writer R. W. Apple Jr. went to Nashville to write about his experience there in a travel piece for the newspaper. For the scholar of culture, the report is perhaps most interesting for a moment of acute discomfort Apple had while attending a performance at the Grand Ole Opry. He and his travel companion, he wrote, "realized what aliens we were in this culture when the crowd lustily cheered an explicitly sexist, rabidly homophobic, stunningly anti-government ditty called 'We Want America Back.'" Apple was hearing what was at the time a chart-topping song performed by the Steeles, a southern gospel family who made a name for themselves in the late 1990s as quasi-sociopolitical singing activists. The group popularized other songs besides "We Want America Back," but it was this jeremiad set to music—about reclaiming a once godly nation from the destructive grip of sin—that landed the Steeles on the Opry stage. Released in 1996, the song capitalized on widespread conservative Christian displeasure over the country's perceived turn toward godless impunity during the Clinton years.
Apple's description of the song was not factually inaccurate, but in his inimitably arch way, he succumbed to the trap of intentionally outrageous rhetoric from the Christian Right. As Susan Harding has shown, this rhetoric operates by seizing on criticism from half-comprehending critics like Apple and treating it as an attack from unbelieving outsiders bent on destroying Christianity. A few weeks after Apple's column appeared in print, I was at the National Quartet Convention (NQC) in Louisville, Kentucky. During one of the packed-out evening concerts that anchor the event, Jeff Steele, the family patriarch, took the stage and proudly cited criticism of the group and their song in the Times, which is a galvanizing symbol of East Coast atheism to American fundamentalists, as evidence that the forces of darkness were attacking the advancing army of Christian righteousness in a battle for the soul of the country. The crowd—in this case, upwards of twenty thousand, roughly five times the capacity of the Opry—cheered lustily.
Apple might be forgiven the lapse, for he made a mistake common to many humanist intellectuals and academics: treating conservative evangelical values and culture as a curious artifact from some socially recalcitrant land that time forgot. Southern gospel is arguably "America's most enduring yet obscure musical subculture," but it is a part of America—evangelical, fiercely fundamentalist, intensely pietistic, intellectually literal minded—in which many academics are at best visiting scholars, at worst intellectual tourists of the R. W. Apple variety. To complicate things even more, for at least eighty years in both the academic and the popular imagination, gospel singing has always already been "the favored term for what workingclass black congregations [do]," often to the exclusion of white traditions. When nonblack gospel has been the primary focus of scholarly attention, it has typically emphasized gospel first of northern, urban extraction long associated with hymns of the so-called Sunday-school movement in the mid–nineteenth century, and later the evangelistic music typified by Ira Sankey, who was Dwight Moody's music director during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and Homer Rodeheaver, Billy Sunday's music man from 1910 to 1930. Southern sacred music has both shaped and been shaped by these phases of white gospel's broader development (as well as the later white gospel music of the Billy Graham era). Nevertheless, sustained scholarly attention has come late and infrequently to professional white gospel music with a southern accent.
The term southern gospel was not used to describe this music until the 1970s and did not gain widespread use until the 1980s. Before then the music was simply known to its practitioners and fans as gospel, a "vague and inadequate" term that has historically encompassed a wide and shifting range of sacred music within Anglo-European and African American Protestantism in North America. In its broadest sense, today's "southern gospel" includes a variety of musical expressions constituting the Protestant evangelical musical universe of the South. Southern gospel in its modern, professional form—the primary focus of this book—descends from a broad-based, post–Civil War recreational culture built around singing schools and community (or "convention") singings popular among poor and working-class whites throughout the South and Midwest. This more participatory style of music gave birth to today's professional southern gospel music industry, even as the singing school movement and singing conventions were displaced from the dominant position in southern gospel by ascendant modes of professionalized music making beginning in the 1930s.
Critics of country music and scholars of southern culture occasionally make incursions into this territory. But for the most part, these forays are typically conducted on the way to somewhere else. Southern gospel was what Elvis Presley really wanted to sing. Its biggest names have performed at the White House, have sung live on the Today show, and regularly appear on American evangelicalism's most influential stages—among them Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church, Pat Robertson's 700 Club, the Trinity Broadcast Network, the First Baptist Church of Atlanta, and national gatherings of the Southern Baptist Convention. In 2004 the genre's most successful impresario, Bill Gaither, and his Homecoming Friends concert tour outranked Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, and Rod Stewart for ticket sales worldwide. Nonetheless, despite these facts, southern gospel remains largely unexamined by scholars and critics of culture. Until recently, the only sustained treatments of the subject were nonacademic and, as James Goff says, "sketchy at best and ... lacked a broad perspective." Indeed, it was not until the 2002 publication of Goff's own Close Harmony that a comprehensive scholarly history of the genre existed.
Then Sings My Soul provides the first book-length critical engagement of modern, professional southern gospel music and culture. In the chapters that follow, I propose a fundamental realignment of the scholarly approach to contemporary southern gospel's historical emergence and to the scholarly understanding of the music's function as a modern cultural phenomenon. At its heart, this study argues that the interaction of lyrics, music, and religious experience in southern gospel functions as a way for evangelicals to cultivate the social tools and emotional intelligence necessary for modern living. Through southern gospel, evangelicals develop the capacity to think and act as modern pluralists or situational relativists when necessary, while retaining their identification with antimodern religious traditions that notionally believe in timeless, unchanging absolutes. Southern gospel is typically treated as emblematic of a single "rhetoric"—one that serves to "devalue the earthly lives of believers" and shift their focus to a heavenly afterlife as compensation for hardships in this world. In contrast, I propose southern gospel to be best understood as a network of interconnected rhetorics and signifying practices. Evangelicals use this music not to diminish experience in this world but to understand better Protestant theological doctrines and to create meaning from the vicissitudes of conservative Christian life.
This aspect of the music's cultural function emerged from the shaping pressures of the Reconstruction-era South. There, the music took on its modern form and was infused with an abiding concern for tensions between orthodox doctrine and unorthodox experience. Though partisans often locate the music's origins in the early twentieth century, the shaping forces that define modern southern gospel actually originated at least a generation earlier, as I show. In the decades after the Civil War, community singing schools and all-day singings flourished across the South and Midwest due in large part to the popularity of shape-note music education, which taught people to read music by associating a unique shape with each note on the do-re-mi musical scale. This shape (or shaped) notation music, distinct from the earlier four-note method used in Sacred Harp singing, became a distinguishing trait of southern evangelical music in the nineteenth century. Fierce battles between the so-called round heads (those promoting the use of traditional notation) and square toes (shape-note advocates) over music pedagogy became a proxy fight for larger cultural divides that were opening up between subsistence farmers and their descendants from the pious, rural countryside and the rapidly industrializing, educationally advanced, and increasingly ecumenical urban centers of America.
An entire culture of social distinction and aesthetic accomplishment proliferated around the seven-shape notational system in the final decades of the nineteenth century. Mastering the music and its unique theoretical system became an accessible way for southerners to assert aesthetic mastery over their world. For people whose identity was rapidly fragmenting after the Civil War and whose agrarian ways of life were increasingly being displaced by emergent industrialism, reestablishing a coherent sense of self through unique indigenous forms of popular culture was particularly important. The cultural innovations of southern shape-note music helped offset the encroachments of modernity, even as the sentimental and nostalgic lyrical content of the music preserved traditional religious ideals and memorialized earlier modes of pious pastoralism. In effect, the form of white gospel that became identified with the postbellum South anticipated a type of popular culture that Michael Kammen identifies in the interwar years of the twentieth century and describes as "nostalgic modernism"—what Stuart Patterson calls the "juxtaposition of the past and present in order to construct meaningful narratives about shifting cultural identities."
Though I trace professional southern gospel forward from its postbellum roots in songbook publishing, shape-note music schools, and singing conventions, this book is not a comprehensive study of these phenomena or their musical and cultural development. I am primarily interested in the southern shape-note tradition for what it has contributed to the gestalt of professional southern gospel today. "Southern gospel," in its widest sense, encompasses the professional side of the music as well as the world of convention singings, singing schools, and a carefully cultivated corpus of "convention songs" that are still being written today in the (mostly) old-time way. This less professionalized subculture of convention singing defines southern gospel music for many people, and it deserves much more scholarly attention than it has yet received. But for most people today, and for my purposes in the pages that follow, "southern gospel" denotes an overlapping, commercialized national network of musical products, professionals, and their fans, commonly referred to as "the industry." Many of the people associated with this industry claim traditional founders in the southern singing schools and white quartet traditions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, while embracing a dizzying variety of musical styles and sounds that share few common formal features. For this reason, my definition of "southern gospel" de-emphasizes the definitional value of musical style in favor of an emphasis on patterns of cultural experience and affiliation. Today, southern gospel is most powerfully defined by common historical, economic, social, and cultural connections among professionals and fans to a constellation of corporate and professional organizations that anchor the creation, consumption, and commemoration of the music. These organizations include the Southern Gospel Music Association, Singing News magazine, the National Quartet Convention, the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and the Gaither Homecoming Friends phenomenon, as well as a cluster of record and distribution labels. Here and throughout, I use the term southern gospel to indicate the music and culture of those people who choose to associate themselves with this tradition and these entities in some fashion.
Contemporary southern gospel retains the dualistic quality inherent in all forms of nostalgic modernism, layering the music with strata of psychosocial complexity. A song such as "Lord Build Me a Cabin in the Corner of Gloryland" might initially seem to be mainly about reinforcing orthodox evangelical diminutions of this life: "I don't care for the fine mansions on earth's sinkin' sand," the first verse declares, in favor of even the most modest home in heaven. Here, it would seem, is another boilerplate ditty from Apple's culturally alien hinterlands. Considered in the psychosocial milieu of the 1950s and 1960s, however, when the Blackwood Brothers quartet popularized the song, the lyrics mount a subtler defense of pan-southern aesthetics and ways of life that were being exported, but also attenuated, by the great postwar migration of white southerners to northern, midwestern, and southwestern states. In the context of suburban tract homes replacing the modern homestead for transplanted southerners, music that evokes the homesteader's cabin—a powerful symbol of agrarian ways of life and their rapidly receding values—calls into being a nostalgic home to return to in the imagination. At the same time, the song implicitly comments on midcentury class conflicts, asserting the superiority of southern values and rural aesthetics over those of the secularist consumer culture represented by "fine mansions." Though they were part of the growing American middle class typically assumed to be striving for a mansion of their own in this life, deracinated suburban southerners distinguished themselves from the worldly acquisitiveness of the petit bourgeois by aligning themselves with religious music that set them apart. Though living in the world, they are not, as the writer of Acts describes it, of the world: all the faithful Christian really wants is a cabin in the corner of Gloryland.
This sentiment is not conveyed mournfully, or with bitterness, not even bittersweetness, at least not in the Blackwoods' rendition from 1965. The song is arranged in a midtempo style. The vocalists sing in homophonic harmony, with musical phrases anchored mainly on the downbeat, creating a feeling of uniformity and reverence befitting an address to the divine. Behind and around the vocalists, the piano soars and sails, lilts and rolls, weaving in and out of the vocals in pirouettes of arpeggiated runs and ornamental fills that often threaten to upstage the singers. The effect is a respectful playfulness, both commemorating a rural evangelical ethos of rustic piety and flashily celebrating the vernacular music culture of southern gospel that descends from that rusticity.
This song captures the way southern gospel symbolically reunites a coalition of evangelical strivers affiliated with southern Protestantism in the Calvinist tradition—and continues to do so. Beyond the everyday world of southern gospel itself, nowhere is the ongoing psychodynamic value of the music more evident than in literary works that draw imaginative energy from this music. I draw on key texts from this subset of American literature in the chapters to come, but I note here that these works amplify a set of concerns that often remain largely hidden but are deeply embedded in the music's psychosocial DNA. In 2007, just a few miles down the road from the university where I work in Southwest Florida, a small community theater staged Four Part Thunder, an original play by a playwright from southern Illinois about an East Coast pop-music critic who finds common ground with her estranged grandfather only after learning that he used to be a quartet man back in southern gospel's midcentury heyday. The music's unique sound and history have an emulsifying effect on intergenerational differences. In the play's depiction, southern gospel exerts a unifying force upon family bonds that are portrayed as under pressure from the depersonalizing forces of late-capitalist American life. In this light, southern gospel's seemingly conventional restatement of what David Fillingim calls fundamentalism's "message of world rejection" reveals itself as scaffolding for a much more complex reconceptualization of postmodern evangelical identities in flux.
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