On May 21, 2012, we published Then Sings My Soul: The Culture of Southern Gospel Music. Author Douglas Harrison, an associate professor of English at Florida Gulf Coast University, answered our questions about his new book.
Q: What distinguishes southern gospel music from other forms of gospel music?
Harrison: It depends on what aspect of the music you emphasize. Stylistically, southern gospel is actually fairly eclectic and freely absorbs a lot of adjacent styles (country, pop, black gospel, even jazz and some elements of orchestrations from classical music), but southern gospel is most well known for close harmony, sung in small ensembles (usually threes or fours).
Historically, this style of singing grew out of the shape-note gospel music movement that flourished in post-Civil War Appalachia. The seven-shape notational method used to teach and sing this music, distinct from the earlier four-note method used in Sacred Harp singing, was the core of a broad-based recreational culture involving singing schools and community (or “convention”) singings popular among working-class and poor whites throughout the South and Midwest well into the twentieth century (convention singing still persists today in small pockets).
Culturally, southern gospel expresses the fervent piety of the fundamentalist evangelical worldview. So whereas other forms of gospel and Christian music (generally speaking of course, there are no absolutes here) tend to be more about praising and glorifying the divine, you get a lot of songs in southern gospel about the blood of Calvary, the suffering of the cross, the saints’ struggles here below, and the ultimate triumph of a blood-bought church on high.
Q: Who are the most prominent performers in southern gospel?
Harrison: By far, Bill Gaither – as the impresario and namesake of the Gaither Homecoming Friends musical roadshow that he and his wife have led for the past twenty years – is the industry’s worldwide ambassador. If anyone who has only a passing familiarity with southern gospel knows of a performer’s name or music, they’re probably from the Homecoming Friends show. Beyond Gaither, the most popular performers are almost entirely male quartets (Triumphant, Kingdom Heirs, Legacy 5, for instance), mixed gender foursomes (for example, The Perrys, The Hoppers, The McKameys) and trios (Greater Vision, Karen Peck and New River, The Booth Brothers, among them).
Q: Do these performers reach their audience via traditional music business methods like touring, radio airplay, and CD & download sales?
Harrison: Yes and no. I mean, southern gospel relies on radio and retail in a very conventional way, and southern gospel performers tour nationally. So in this sense, yes, southern gospel relies on traditional music-business approaches. But the southern gospel scene looks very different than, say, a Sugarland or Rascal Flatts tour in terms of economics. In the first place, southern gospel today is not at all a moneymaker on the order of country music or rock or pop or even more contemporary forms of Christian music.
My research indicates that more than half of southern gospel’s performers make
less than $25,000 annually from southern gospel music, and only a sliver makes
more than $50,000 annually from gospel. And with a few exceptions, most of those southern gospel performers who do make a comfortable living have some of the heaviest touring schedules of almost any commercial performers out there (it’s not uncommon for a nationally touring act in southern gospel to work 250 or more dates a year, compared to, say, something more in the range of 50-75 for your average country music star).
And, more significantly, for many of its participants, southern gospel isn’t only or even primarily business. It’s a ministry. Consequently there’s this great tension within the southern gospel world between its aspirations to be a form of ministerial outreach and its
practical function as a brand of commercial Christian entertainment. So, both among performers and fans, a good deal of energy is expended in simultaneously foregrounding the ministerial aspects of the gospel in song, while also making sure there’s enough money to make payroll this week and keep fuel in the bus and bankroll the next recording project and so forth.
Q: All musical genres seem to have their ups and downs in the marketplace. Has there been a particularly successful period for southern gospel music and what led to its ascendance?
Harrison: Absolutely. Broadly considered, the southern gospel golden age ran from roughly the 1930s through the early 1970s. By this I mean the music was in a sustained expansionary mode during these years, creatively and commercially. The early emergence of mass-market modern southern gospel in pre-WWII years was driven by the rise of the radio of course, and those years were crucial in acclimating mostly rural, very pious evangelicals to the idea of sacred song as not just a component of congregational worship or religious experience, but also as a brandable form of commercialized entertainment before there were records or cassettes or CDs, there were southern gospel songbooks and fan magazines that sold by the hundred-thousands in the South and Midwest.
The really big boom occurred after 1945, when evangelical whites (either geographically from the South or culturally southern, or both) started moving northward and westward, taking with them their tastes in religious music and backing up their musical preferences with the purchasing power that came with being part of a newly affluent middle class. During this time, improvements in national infrastructure (most notably, the interstate
highway system) and advances in communication technology (both television and mass-market record albums) allowed performers to cultivate and maintain a truly national market and fan base for southern gospel so that the descriptor “southern” in southern gospel became more of a cultural signifier than a geographic locator for the music.
Q: How do Evangelical Christians utilize or relate to gospel music?
Harrison: At its heart, my argument is, as I say in the book, 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.” Gospel songs are particularly good at creating contexts in which people simultaneously align themselves with orthodox culture, while also feeling that the difficult truths of their unorthodox experience are validated and have a meaningful place in religious life. In other words, gospel has the ability to hold orthodox doctrine and unorthodox experience in workable balance for its participants. This is particularly important in a fundamentalist culture that officially treats negative feelings and experience as evidence of sin or encroachments of doubt planted in the heart by the forces of darkness.
Gospel equips its participants to hold contradictory propositions about themselves, their beliefs, and the world at large in productive tension in a way that you don’t as regularly find at church or Bible study or other more official parts of Christian culture. In the book, I put it this way: through gospel, “evangelicals develop the capacity to think and act as modern pluralists or situational relativists when necessary, while retaining their identification with anti-modern religious traditions.” So the implications of
gospel’s function in this regard are significant, not just for understanding gospel music but for understanding how fundamentalists acquire the tools to be in the post-modern world.
Q: What is the “gay-gospel paradox”?
Harrison: It’s my shorthand term for the reality that, as I say in the book, “the most
culturally fundamentalist sacred music in evangelicalism could hardly be said to exist without queers and their contributions as fans, songwriters, performers, producers, players, and industry executives.” Of course gay people have always been drawn to the creation and experience of religious art. But it’s a lot less complicated to sing Handel’s “Messiah” with a gay men’s chorus in Chicago or L.A. than it is to be a gay southern gospel singer or songwriter or player or even just a fan in Mount Pisgah, Tennessee, or Gore, Oklahoma, or the Ozarks of Missouri where I grew up.
In identifying and exploring the gay-gospel paradox, I’m interested in what attracts gay men to gospel music, as well as what this attraction – the conflict between evangelical orthodoxy and modern life – tells us more broadly about how religious authority is contested and regulated, both by individuals and communities.
Q: Who are the performers on the cover of the book?
Harrison: The cover photo was taken in 2009 at the National Quartet Convention during an afternoon showcase concert paying tribute to the famous Cathedral Quartet, which disbanded in 1999. The concert brought together several former members of the Cathedrals to sing some of the group’s most famous songs. The people singing in the cover image are (l-r), Scott Fowler (lead singer for Legacy 5), Mark Trammell (baritone for The Mark Trammell Quartet), Glenn Dustin (former bass singer for Legacy 5), and Danny Funderburke (a tenor singer who is for the most part retired now).
Though I think this was the first time this group of guys ever sang together professionally, they are all quartet pros who at this moment in this image come just about as close to perfectly conveying what southern gospel looks like when it’s good – enthralling, evocative, usually loud and sometimes a little outrageous – as any image I’ve ever seen.
Q: What is the most interesting thing that you learned while researching the book?
Harrison: I’ve been immersed in southern gospel in one form or another almost my entire life, so I know the contemporary landscape pretty well. But spending time researching the early roots of the music as a commercial enterprise in the late-nineteenth
century and early part of the twentieth century was particularly illuminating. I especially enjoyed discovering the editorial voices of the people who produced the shape-note songbooks that were so popular among southern gospel fans during those decades at the turn of the century. These songbook editors were a restless, ambitious, bright and spirited bunch of musically gifted autodidacts.
In the early days, these guys would get intensive crash courses in music theory from a traveling singing school teacher before themselves becoming singing school instructors (“professor” was the honorific for singing school masters, signifying the high regard in which religious music education was held, even though often these “professors” had little formal education at all). In addition to teaching music, they also wrote gospel songs, and many of them would go on to compile and publish their own songbooks and sell them to singing school students and Sunday Schools and singing conventions and the like.
One of my favorite discoveries in this line was from an 1892 songbook preface in which
the editor (and author of many songs) not only extols the virtues of gospel music in his book but also excoriates church choirs for their perfidious effects on church music and the progress of the soul more generally:
As a rule, church choirs are an abomination in the sight of the Lord. They are only efficient in the worship of God when they are used as leaders of the congregation. If those, and those only, are saved, who sing in the church choirs FOR THE GLORY OF GOD ALONE, the Lord will not have to build many additional mansions. They generally whisper, write notes, turn over the leaves in the song book, and play the fool generally. No extra charge for this discovery, for making it now.
I love this, both for its sassiness and for how it conveys the deep personal and
spiritual investments that gospel has always inspired among its partisans and
exponents, for whom the music has never been just a way to sing sacred songs, but
is also for them a way of life with consequences here and in the hereafter.