Notes 60.1 (2003) 136-137
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Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel. By James R. Goff Jr. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. [xiv; 394 p. ISBN 0-8078-2681-2. $45 (hbk.); ISBN 0-8078-5346-1. $24.95 (pbk.).] Illustrations, index.
The harmonized quartet style of singing gospel music, popular for a century in the American South, is the subject of this pioneering chronicle. Anyone who has sung or heard Baptist or Pentecostal music at the grass roots level in any part of the South during the twentieth century has encountered this music. When I undertook an ethnographic study of a Baptist church in Virginia's northern Blue Ridge, I heard amateur family singing groups operating in this very same tradition (see Jeff Todd Titon, Powerhouse for God: Speech, Chant, and Song in an Appalachian Baptist Church [Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988]). Academic culture is far more familiar with black gospel singing than its white counterpart. But white quartet singers are the subject of this welcome book, the first serious historical work on its topic.
Southern gospel music, as it came to be called in the latter twentieth century, is rooted in the gospel song movement of the late nineteenth. Fanny Crosby, Ira Sankey, and other song writers published lyrics that addressed salvation and the Christian life in language more personal than the words of the great eighteenth-century devotional hymn writers. To appreciate the difference clearly, contrast the homely gospel lyric "I want to walk and talk with Jesus" with the grand eighteenth-century hymn "Guide me, O thou great Jehovah." Gospel music differs from the older hymns in another important way, for gospel melodies tend to be lively and sound like the popular songs of the day—indeed, many lyrics are set to them for easy singability. Popularized in the late nineteenth-century urban revivals by evangelicals such as Dwight L. Moody (for whom Ira Sankey supplied music), this repertory gathered strength in the rural South during the early twentieth century with the institution of singing schools, gospel conventions, and influential gospel music publisher/entrepreneurs such as James Vaughan and Virgil Stamps. These publishers operated a mini-industry, publishing journals, sponsoring gospel quartets, and holding "normals" (schools) that trained teachers who traversed the rural South. These teachers in turn offered week-long sessions giving instruction in musical rudiments through shape notes (note heads in the shapes of diamonds, squares, and triangles as an aid to learning) to anyone who wanted to learn, and sold songbooks filled with gospel music in shape notes for homes, schools, and singing conventions. This music took place largely outside of the Baptist, Methodist, and Pentecostal churches' congregational hymn-singing, but it became so popular that publishers of church hymnals began to include gospel songs. The order of worship was also enlarged to accommodate quartets singing gospel songs prior to the sermon.
One fascinating activity that these publishers encouraged was amateur songwriting, though it is not discussed in the book under review. Drawing on the tradition of religious lyrics composed after dreams or visions, the publishers invited composers to mail in their devotional poems. Then, for a fee, the publishers would put them to music and return the musical arrangements to the authors. The best of these were included in the annual songbooks that fueled the singing schools and conventions and provided new repertoire for the quartets. In that way (and others) the entrepreneurs ensured a never-ending supply of songs.
The quartets spread their music through personal appearances in the first two decades of the twentieth century, but with the advent of radio and recordings, the quartets had new outlets for their work and, like some hillbilly musicians, they were able to earn a living this way, becoming fully professional and gaining local and regional [End Page 136] reputations. Black gospel music was also represented but did not gain great popularity in the black communities until the 1930s, and it did so without the publishing and singing-school industry to support it. Professional and serious amateur quartets continued to...