James R. Goff, Jr. Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. 394 pages. ISBN: 0807853461. Reviewed by Stephen A. Marini, for the Journal of Southern Religion.
James R. Goff's Close Harmony is a pioneering and provocative study of twentieth-century southern white gospel quartet singing. It stands in a long line of distinguished University of North Carolina Press publications on southern religion and music, from George Pullen Jackson's White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands (1933) to Phillip F. Gura and James F. Bollman's America's Instrument: The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century (1999). While Goff's treatment is sometimes uneven and crosses over into advocacy in its concluding sections, Close Harmony provides the first sustained historical account of white southern gospel music. It raises as many questions about southern religion and music as it answers, and thereby constitutes the point of departure for future interpretation of this important form of popular religious culture.
|"Goff interprets white southern gospel's golden age from World War I to 1970 as a process of gospel artists' gradual liberation from a series of controlling industry interests."|
Goff begins with a section on traditional shape note singing schools of the postbellum rural South that were the seedbeds of southern gospel. After the Civil War these local communities of sacred music making were deeply divided by the advent of gospel hymns, a new genre of Sunday school and revival songs with emotional religious lyrics and Victorian musical styles. While George Pullen Jackson, Buell Cobb, John Bealle, and others have traced the resistance of the singing school minority to gospel hymns, their embrace by most rural singers is a vitally important yet virtually unknown episode. Goff excels in supplying this missing narrative, showing how the extended family of Joseph Funk, Shenandoah Valley publisher of the popular antebellum tune book Harmonia Sacra, played a key role in this transformation of southern popular sacred music. Between 1870 and 1900 Funk's grandson Aldine Kieffer and grandnephew A. J. Showalter developed rival conglomerates of magazines, schools, and music publications that flooded the rural South with itinerant singing school instructors who organized large regional seven-shape singing conventions where local male quartets demonstrated the latest gospel hymns.
The next generation of shape note entrepreneurs, led by James D. Vaughan and Virgil O. Stamps, followed the Kieffer and Showalter formula, but in 1910 Vaughan became the first producer to commission touring quartets to promote his magazines, schools, and gospel hymn collections. Stamps, a valued Vaughan employee, broke away in 1924 to form his own company with Jesse Randall Baxter. Permanently locating in Dallas in 1929, Stamps-Baxter became the most important influence in white gospel through the 1930s, featuring touring quartets who sang new gospel songs by young writers like Albert E. Brumley, composer of "I'll Fly Away."
Goff interprets white southern gospel's golden age from World War I to 1970 as a process of gospel artists' gradual liberation from a series of controlling industry interests. During the 1920s and 1930s radio broke the grip of shape note publishers over rising new quartets like The Chuck Wagon Gang and The Blackwood Brothers. After World War II the popularity of recordings, a flourishing gospel concert circuit, and a resurgence of Pentecostal musical influence introduced a more impassioned and rhythmically driven gospel style epitomized by The Statesmen and The Oak Ridge Boys. Television provided still more independence for groups like The Happy Goodmans and The Lewis Family, as well as songwriters and agents who increasingly served such individual acts rather than publishers or record companies. Goff's chapters on this period present his interpretation in more cursory fashion than earlier sections, and devote considerable space to vignettes of major quartets and family acts.
Close Harmony concludes with Goff's account of white gospel's struggle to compete with the booming contemporary Christian music style since the 1970s. In his view the Gospel Music Association, the industry's leading organization of artists, agents, and producers, pushed gospel music too far in the direction of country and pop in order to capture more market share, thereby alienating its conservative core constituency. He cites Bill Gaither's Homecoming series of television programs and new southern gospel groups engaged in explicit music ministries as rallying points for musical traditionalists in the 1980s and 1990s. By 1995 these forces had organized the Southern Gospel Music Association; four years later they inaugurated the long-delayed Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame at Dollywood.
In his final pages Goff reflects on the present and future of white southern gospel, stating that "the typical southern gospel fan represent[s] the backbone of middle-aged, mainstream evangelical America" (286) and opining that its future remains bright because "it [speaks] to the faith of those who both embrace its message and welcome its joyous presentation" (287). These sanguine claims follow from Close Harmony's presentation of white gospel as the most authentic musical expression of twentieth-century southern evangelicalism. Goff's evidence and arguments for this assertion, however, are not fully persuasive. While there can be little doubt that gospel hymns have been enormously popular among southern evangelicals over the past century, it is also true that gospel hymns were originally a northern genre and that they also enjoyed huge success there in revivals, hymn sings, radio broadcasts, and recordings. The question naturally arises, what exactly is southern about southern gospel?
One answer might be musical style, but Close Harmony unfortunately lacks sufficient treatment of this essential aspect of southern gospel. Goff does offer hints of a case to be made for distinctively southern performance practice or compositional style. We learn, for example, that the original Vaughan Quartet created "an enduring trademark for male gospel quartets" in 1912 by transposing the gospel hymn alto part from baritone to first tenor (116), that the Weatherfords "became one of the smoothest-sounding gospel quartets of all time" by adding a female alto in the 1940s (202), and that Lee Roy Abernathy and Thomas Mosie Lister introduced "gospel boogie" shortly after World War II (214-216). But Goff's musical sense of southern gospel is essentially static, and he gives no attention to such crucial issues as the origins of the southern gospel sound in traditional singing school vocalization, the introduction of instrumental accompaniment, and the melodic, rhythmic, and textual differences between the postbellum gospel hymns of Ira D. Sankey and P. P. Bliss and the gospel songs of Albert E. Brumley's generation.
Another response might be a religious one, arguing that southern gospel was the identifying musical expression of a distinctively southern pattern of evangelical religious development in the twentieth century. Goff notes the close alliance of gospel music with "Baptists and Pentecostals," but he does not pursue the most telling implications of this observation. The Southern Baptist Convention swept through the rural south after the Civil War, bearing gospel hymns as the hallmark of its musical evangelism. A generation later, the Holiness and Pentecostal movements followed a similar path, carrying their "sanctified" style of gospel music through southern Methodism. By 1930, this Baptist-Pentecostal incursion had in effect become southern popular religion, providing an enduring market for the developing gospel music industry. With the explosion of the Bicentennial Revival in the 1970s, the Baptist-Pentecostal trajectory became national, propelling southern gospel music to still greater heights of popularity. While Goff mentions these changing patterns in southern evangelicalism, he leaves unaddressed the fundamental question of whether they might have been the shaping forces of southern gospel music.
In the end, the gospel music industry itself is Goff's best explanation of what is southern about southern gospel. By his own account religion, entertainment, and commerce coexisted in the gospel hymn singing conventions of the postbellum South. When gospel hymn publishers introduced quartets into this context, the distinction between religious expression and entertainment blurred still further. As the Southern Baptist and Pentecostal movements refashioned popular religion, southern gospel became a sacred music product that edified as well as entertained, and it also turned a handsome profit. The publishing, educational, and performing conglomerates of Kieffer, Showalter, Vaughan, and Stamps-Baxter had no northern parallel – this seems to be the crucial factor – and they competed in a market less unobstructed by secular music alternatives than in the North. After decades of slow gestation, aided by radio, the phonograph, and television and boosted by a massive national revival, the gospel music industry quickly matured into a religious entertainment colossus during the 1970s.
Close Harmony is a triumphalist tale of humble origins, remarkable pioneers, and unimaginable success until its final chapters, which tell a quite different story of the industry's spiritual declension and stylistic abandonment of its own classic musical form. Goff portrays the quartet tradition as the true, and truly southern, voice of gospel music. In his view, gospel's most faithful followers have been betrayed in recent decades by the worldly corruption of commercialization. Now they have rallied, in "close harmony" with genuine southern gospel artists, to form an authentic fellowship as well as a hall of fame, something certainly unique in the history of Christian sacred music.
This peroration, however, does not ring quite true on at least two counts. Goff's own profile of loyal southern gospel fans suggests that the genre has been largely left behind by the new generation of evangelicals who prefer contemporary Christian music and other non-traditional forms of gospel. More importantly, if southern gospel invented itself by creating the gospel music industry, as Goff's narrative contends, then his test of religious authenticity cannot be appropriate to evaluating its products. The market is as the market does, whether it sells gospel music or widgets. The chastening and apparently unintended final message of this important but uneven book is caveat emptor, or in words of far higher authority, "as ye sow, so shall ye reap."
Stephen A. Marini, Elisabeth Luce Professor of Christian Studies, Wellesley College
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