Then Sings My Soul: The Culture of Southern Gospel Music by Douglas Harrison (review)
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Then Sings My Soul: The Culture of Southern Gospel Music. By Douglas Harrison. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012. Pp. 228. $80.00 cloth; $28.00 paper)

The University of Illinois recently published as part of its acclaimed "Music in American Life" series Douglas Harrison's Then Sings My Soul: The Culture of Southern Gospel Music. In its promotional [End Page 480] literature, the press declares that it is a work which engages in "reading between the lines of southern gospel music." Such an assertion hints that Harrison has somehow uncovered otherwise hidden meanings concealed within the genre. That the author utilizes literary and cultural-studies theory to go beyond the seeming transparency of the music is without doubt. Yet a more faithful endorsement might have referred to a conceptual device surprisingly missing from this occasionally dense narrative—that of reception theory.

Reception theory posits that readers of a text comprehend it through a particularly subjective filter. It implies that one's interpretation is informed preponderantly by her or his own cultural background and personal experiences. Harrison treats the whole of southern gospel as a text. Consequently, the reader of his book might find it helpful to remember that Then Sings My Soul represents an idiosyncratic perspective and not the final or absolute meaning of southern gospel. This is not to say that the book presents an insignificant viewpoint; on the contrary, Harrison's work suggests that autobiographical approaches to popular culture have the potential to resonate far beyond a solitary author. Therefore, rather than "reading between the lines" of southern gospel, it may be more precise to say that Harrison has provided a reading of his own journey, an intellectual and emotional passage that may echo the experiences of many others attached to the music.

In Then Sings My Soul, Harrison, an associate professor of English at Florida Gulf Coast University who maintains an independent website devoted to discussing southern gospel music, arguably is undertaking a conversation with himself (and if gauged by his extensive use of jargon and lengthy explanatory endnotes, fellow academics). The son of a Baptist preacher (he is from Missouri), the author is a gay man for whom southern gospel has an enormous appeal. He is attracted to the music despite its historically conservative character, particularly in regards to sexual orientation. It is from this starting point that he sets out to interpret the music and the culture that sustains it. In Harrison's hands much of the history of southern [End Page 481] gospel is described and certainly given a fresh presentation: Aldine Kieffer, not James Vaughan, for instance, is proposed as the "father" of southern gospel; "white" gospel, which places an emphasis on "solitary self-embattlement," is contrasted with the "black" gospel tendency to integrate struggling individuals into communities of fellow strugglers; "southern" as attached to "gospel" is explained as a relatively recent effort to distinguish traditional religious expression from contemporary Christian music; and finally, Cold War anxieties are offered as the driving force behind Bill and Gloria Gaither's ostalgic and highly lucrative "Homecoming Friends'" franchise. Between the lines of such fascinating interpretative nuggets, however, is a narrative that never strays far from its original impulse. Harrison is trying to make a case as to why he remains attached to the music.

Composed of an introduction, five chapters, an epilogue, and two appendixes that include song references and survey poll data, Then Sings My Soul provides an account that views southern gospel as an outlier battling against unremitting waves of modernity. Yet from the time of its post-Civil War inception, its identity as a penitent outsider has been complicated by the permeability of the evangelical and modern borders it polices; orthodoxy and heterodoxy traverse both openly and covertly across each. Accordingly, the key to the southern gospel dynamic has resided in its ability to maintain this duality. For Harrison, the tension between the two makes possible the capacity of the music to transcend its inherent conservatism. For the rest of us, it suggests that there might be a whole lot more to the music than has previously been considered. [End Page 482]