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Southern Cultures 10.1 (2004) 102-103

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Close Harmony. A History of Southern Gospel, by James R. Goff Jr. University of North Carolina Press, 2002. 416 pp. Cloth $45.00; paper, $24.95

Every now and then my good friend Rodney and I will launch into "Jubilee (jubilee), Jubilee (jubilee). You're invited to this gospel jubilee" in two-part harmony and wind up in a fit of laughter at the memory. If you grew up in the South, you're probably like us and can hear the tune and picture in your mind the Florida Boys singing that refrain on Sunday mornings to open the popular Gospel Singing Jubilee, a syndicated television program that ran for more than two decades beginning in 1964. If you didn't grow up in the South or somehow missed the Jubilee experience, you'll learn about that and much more in James R. Goff Jr.'s wonderful new book Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel.

Close Harmony is different from most history books because Goff puts so much of his own personal experience in the book. Some might consider this a problem, but for me it makes Goff's history of southern gospel come alive. Interspersed between the chapters are personal accounts based on some of the interviews and encounters that fed his own understanding of southern gospel. In his introduction, Goff explains the reasoning behind his inclusion of these personal accounts, asserting that "they offer insight beyond the realm of names, dates, and events. . . . Throughout the book, I have tried to convey an understanding of the world of Southern gospel—with an eye toward objectivity but also with the empathy that can only come from having lived for some time within the family."

There's no doubt that Goff feels a deep affinity for southern gospel music and that he was steeped in the tradition from an early age. In one passage, for example, he recalls childhood memories of seeing trophies in his grandparents' home that "The Harmony Trio"—comprised of two uncles and an aunt—had won in singing contests. "We all heard them sing on Sundays at church," he reminisces, "but we knew that other people heard them as well. That's where the trophies [End Page 102] came from . . . from places like Benson, North Carolina, where an annual singing affair drew groups from all over the state and a few from out of state."

Like Goff, I too have strong personal connections to southern gospel. I grew up in Benson, North Carolina, and am currently working on a documentary film about the singing convention that Goff refers to. Many times since I began that project, I have longed for a resource that would help me better understand the history and development of the southern gospel tradition, and, therefore, better understand the Benson Sing. Thanks to Jim Goff, I finally have that resource.

Close Harmony traces the development of the white southern gospel tradition from its humble beginnings in rural singing schools and shape-note music (whose advocates firmly believed that their method would bring musical ability to the common man) through its evolution into a professional, multi-million dollar industry with TV shows and recording contracts. Along the way, we learn how shape-note music publishers established an ever-growing body of gospel songs—songs outside the hymn tradition of the churches—and simultaneously developed the quartet movement, which contributed to the eventual decline of their influence. This transition solidified southern gospel's movement toward professionalism and gave birth to the modern gospel music industry.

For true fans of southern gospel, Close Harmony is filled with interesting anecdotes and stories about the individuals and groups who made it all happen—people such as Thomas Dorsey, Fanny Crosby, James Vaughan, Frank Stamps, the Chuck Wagon Gang, the Blackwood Brothers, the Statesmen, the Oak Ridge Boys, and Bill Gaither. However, even those with little or no previous exposure to southern gospel will appreciate this book as a comprehensive overview of the genre as well as an aid to our understanding of...