On the difference between sgmhistory.com and sg history

Sgmhistory.com is, to be honest, kind of baffling. In fact, I’m not even sure why it’s up and accessible to anyone other than the owners at all. It really looks more like a prototype or a shell waiting to be filled out and expanded - like a good idea that stumbled on the starting blocks. There’s a strangely hodgepodge feel to the content that is there. The Hinsons, the Freemans, the Chestnut Grove Quartet and the Bishops. That’s it. Uhm, ok. I assume these must have been random test cases or stuff that was already lying around in a drawer somewhere and not any serious comment on the best first place to start talking about sg history. Anyway, as far as I can tell, everything that’s currently there went up in a burst of activity between October 17-20. Since then, nothing’s been touched that I saw. That said, a couple of general things struck me about it:First, it’s a really good idea, as I noted yesterday. Clicking through the pages I just kept thinking of all kinds of neat things that could be done. Second, the site is rather bizarrely conceptualized, structured categorically around group formations (duets, trios, quartets, mixed groups, etc), distinct from artists (they have their own category). That is, the thing is conceived more like a news site (local news, national, international, lifestyle, etc), which makes sense if you’re the Unthanks and are used to thinking categorically in the context of sogospelnews.com. But it’s not at all optimal for the kinds of content suggested by “an on-going encyclopedia of southern gospel music history.” When I think of history sites, I think of, well … an encyclopedic arrangement of data with emphasis on searchability and quick navigation through layered sets of content: Cathedrals to Younce to Family to daughter Lisa to husband Ernie to SSQ … that kinda thing. It’s logical and desirable to feature a group or an artist on the main page as the site does, but that featured content should not subordinate the real value of an encyclopedic archive of the individual blocks of information that comprise a history.

The site is more interesting for what it suggests than anything it does. Take this page, for instance, on the Hinsons. I’ll leave aside for the moment the design issues (the sidebar of group stats and facts shouldn’t push the main text down out of sight) and instead focus on how rife with unrealized possibility this page is: see each of those names under the personnel list? Those ought to be links to pop-up bios: mug shot, brief biographical info (birth, death, relationship to any other major sg figure[s], songs popularized by the artists, and awards s/he won), and all that information should be crosslisted and hyperlinked with relevant intersections of other information. A teensy bit of that is there already. Awards, for instance, are broken out below the personnel list (though they would more logically be integrated into the kind of bio I’ve just described … long lists like that are best either dealt with more sophisticatedly or put on their own page so they don’t clutter things up so much). But just from this brief example, you can probably how much time, research, and general labor, to say nothing of money, would have to go into creating a thorough historical record and truly encyclopedic archive for just one group like the Hinsons. Imagine the Cathedrals or the Kingsmen, with their decades long roster of personnel. For example, if the Cathedrals were an author who wrote for three or four decades as prolifically as the Cats sang, it would likely take nearly a decade of uninterrupted research, compilation, and writing to come up with an authoritative Cathedral biography and history, complete with memorabilia, relevant personal correspondence and other documents, interviews with anyone and everyone connected with the group in some way, and on and on.

I’ve emailed Deon Unthank, James Hales, and David Bruce Murray (the listed contributors), asking them what the future of the site entails, how the choices were made for what is there, and what resources are or will be devoted to populating the site with content. Stay tuned. In the meantime, consider this an object lesson about at least two things: 1) SG is woefully under-historicized. In addition to James Goff, Jr., John Crenshaw is, as far as I can tell, the best general historian of sg (I should also add Bob Terrel’s book The Music Men to the list of good histories … hat tip, DA). In fact Crenshaw wrote a regular history column for sogospelnews for about two years before moving his column to the Grand Old Gospel Reunion. I’ve written before about the dearth of serious published histories of sg (as opposed to vanity press books or sloppy appreciations of which there are many), and this is just one more exhibit in that dispiriting case. 2) No. 1 is true in large part because it takes a lot of time and even more money to do history and archival work (on or off line) right. What would really be fascinating is a sg history site that included old photographs and sound clips, personal accounts, and that kind of thing. But imagine the scope of the project. It’s not something that happens between October 17-20. And three guys writing stuff in their spare time for a website, no matter how well intentioned, isn’t going to do it either. A real, substantive, searching, and useful history of sg will take a collaboration of trained historians, musicologists (whether trained or avocational), industry people and money … lots and lots and lots of money from within and beyond the industry (wealthy individuals and foundations). And that doesn’t even include committed volunteers and the thousands of ordinary fans in whose possession a trove of artifacts and stories exist waiting to be tapped. So who would like to be the person to set up the Southern Gospel Music Historical Archive, raise a coupla hundred thousand dollars in seed money, and get this project underway?

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