Some thoughts on history

A few days ago I solicited definitions of southern gospel in fifty words or less. Partly I did so out of curiosity at the results (more on that in a bit). And partly I did it as a way to kill time while I tried to figure out what I thought about how to define sg. After mulling it over and digging around a bit, I’m starting to come to the conclusion that it’s easier to say what sg isn’t than what it is. The problem is not new. Any time you try to nail down what defines a movement or a genre or a field of anything that evolved out of other things, definitional precision gets tricky.Historians often deal with this difficulty by treating a subject taxonomically. Thus James Goff in his fine Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel defines sg inductively. Rather than stating outright what it is or might be considered, he describes the evolution of the genre incrementally, through its historical development. There is much to recommend in this method, not least of all that it allows for a much more sophisticated treatment of a subject than something like my hamfisted challenge to define sg in 50 words or less (though of course I wasn’t and am not interested in writing a history of sg either). In the case of Goff’s study, in place of any concise statement about sg’s precise nature, you’ll find terms like “borrowed” and “associated with” and “close ties” etc, terms that signal Goff’s underlying assumption: sg is stylistically and historically coherent, yet porous at all its borders so that it shapes and is shaped by musical styles and traditions adjacent to it. Or as he writes in the Preface: “It has borrowed from and contributed to the larger musical culture of America.” Obviously, I’m drawn to this sort of formulation, not least of all because it closely tracks my own sense of sg as less a Thing than an elastic network of musicians who work along a continuum of styles rooted in American hymnody and folk traditions and reliant on contemporary church music and secular musical genres for creative infusions. What I like about this kind of definition is that it emphasizes the open-ended quality of a musical tradition that cultivates close ties with other musical genres (praise and worship music, bluegrass, CCM, country, especially) in order to remain responsive to present needs of its practitioners and listeners.

What I don’t like about the inductive approach is its failure to say anything meaningful about the sound itself. In fact, this is my chief complaint about Goff’s book. It does not attend fully enough to the aspects of the musical sounds made by the people and groups whose movements, innovations, developments, and general history he so ably captures. I readily empathize with the plight of anyone undertaking the kind of study Goff does because it’s difficult to talk about musical sounds and tonal qualities of musical traditions (and the way those sounds open onto issues of faith, culture, theology and style) without falling into a deeply insular or alienating rhetoric of music specialists (theoreticians, composers, arrangers, and so on). Still, without some sustained effort to talk about the music itself -why it is, for instance, that anyone familiar with sg would immediately recognize the first two or three bars of “Hide Thou Me” as quintessentially sg - without such an effort, sg history risks looking and feeling like a collection of marketing innovations, technological advances brought to bear on old ways of singing, and fortuitous marriages and other personal alliances (and it goes without saying that I don’t think one must be a musicologist to do some of the kind of close listening to and careful exposition of music that musicologists are trained to do). Indeed, by treating sg history as the story of a musical tradition’s evolution into an industry, Goff gives the impression that sg history is primarily the struggle and failure of several generations of southern gospel musicians and performers to become economically self-sufficient. This kind of thing inevitably happens when you treat a subject chronologically, as of course historians do, and my interest in non-linear aspects of sg is symptomatic of why I didn’t become a historian. Which is all a longwinded way of saying that precise definitions, like traditional histories, must superimpose a somewhat artificial narrative onto the thing it would describe.

But enough from me. What about those definitions I solicited? Some of the definitions readers sent in did an admirable job of trying to be both musically specific (speak to the sound of sg) and capture its historical development. Others of you just had a little fun. Let’s go the tape:

From MI:
Southern Gospel Music is a blend of many different types of gospel music that originated in the southern U.S. First of all, Southern Gospel music is comprised of the quartets (and trios) that arose from the singing convention styles of the Vaughn and Stamps-Baxter tradition. Secondly, it also comprises a certain element of country style singing. Groups such as the Rambos and Hinsons fit this category. (At the same time, they did employ certain elements of the first category). Some of the Hinsons early recordings made use of arrangements of convention songs by Adger M. Pace and other convention song writers. Lastly, Southern Gospel is noted for its family harmonies. Groups such as the ones mentioned above as well as the Blackwood Brothers, Happy Goodmans, and the Booth Brothers all contribute to this element even though they all sounded very different from each other.

A thorough take, for sure, but the definition maybe assumes too much knowledge on the reader’s part (what are “family harmonies” and “convention styles,” for instance) for it to be useful to a general audience. Then there’s this.

From DD:
Southern gospel: (noun) a loosely thrown together genre of music primarily, but not wholly, consisting of musicians and vocalists who under the guise of ministry attempt to become the musical superstar they have failed to become at the country/pop level

Funny as this, there is some psychological truth here. But back to the serious stuff:

From RF:
Southern Gospel is an American genre that includes country-like melodies set to Biblically inspired lyrics and sung with accompaniment usually consisting of piano or stringed instruments. At times recorded music is included and the vocals usually feature harmony and solos featuring the high and low registers.

Though “Biblically inspired” could describe a lot of Christian music, this definition is on to something with its attention to lyrical content. Goff notes, for instance, how many contemporary advocates of sg consider sg’s lyrical content (conservative evangelical) to be its defining feature. Nevertheless, the vagaries in RF’s take are problematic, as they were in the first example: surely, for example, there are other genres of music that use piano and stringed instruments (I think, for example, there’s a Mozart mass with biblical lyrics and an accompaniment of piano and strings).

From JR:
First, I reject any style by any group as defining the genre.
1. The vocals are predominant over the instruments.
2. The lyrics are meant to be heard and understood.
3. The lyrics tell a story.
4. The percussion TENDS to be simplistic but this is
not a requirement for the genre.
5. The song is not driven primarily by the beat and
music but by the lyrics.
6. The chord structure TENDS to be simple but this is
not a requirement for the genre.
7. The lyrics are usually directly Bible referenced.
8. When lyrics are life related, there is usually a bridge,
rise or tag that directly addresses the Biblical tie.

Again, terms like “biblical reference” and “biblical tie” seem a titch vague for the theologically explicit quality of most sg lyrics. Nevertheless, the emphasis on tendency and trends is a smart move, sense it recognizes a certain essence to sg that pervades the music but defies specificity. My main beef is with No. 5. The “classic quartet” music that almost everyone points to as the most recognizable representative of sg was, it seems to me, more times than not exactly all about rhythm (”Happy Rhythm”) and the music. Think the Statesmen with their savvy use of rhythmic and musical innovations, integrating elements of dance and theater into their acts. Or think of the Doves and their, uhm .. enthusiastic emphasis on vocal idiosyncrasy and on-stage drama. Indeed, four-part harmony is in many ways all about the music, since its hook is the unique sounds of four voices doing very unconventional things together (going really high, descending very low, ending on staggered resolutions, singing fa-so-las rather than words, etc). It’s not that there is no religious or ministerial component to this kind of performance; it’s just that J.D. calling out “sing it again Bill” on “I’ve Been Redeemed” to a screaming crowd of thousands is difficult to describe as a primarily about lyrics. People patronize the music because of its Christian focus, but they come back time and again because the music is entertaining.

From DA:
SGM is a lively form of music that incorporates a dash of blues, a smidgen of country-western, a splash of jazz and large dose of early rock & roll enveloped in harmonies ranging from simplistic to complex with a Christian-based message.

Here’s the “and the kitchen sink” model of definition, which of course has its merits.

From NG:
Southern Gospel Music is music originally based on four-part harmony singing –somewhat similar to barbershop singing –developed in the US South in the 1920s but expanded today to include trios and soloists. It is performed by overwhelmingly white evangelical Christians mainly from the US South, many of whom consider their performances ministry rather than entertainment. The themes of almost all songs are limited to being born again, the blood of Christ and the joys awaiting in Heaven.

The attention to race and geography is important, and too often overlooked. Goff rightly makes a big deal in his book about the racial and socio-economic origins of the music and the way those factors remain defining aspects of sg’s generic distinction even still. Plus, NG bears down on the theological specificity of sg lyrics.

Thanks to all who submitted definitions. I didn’t solicit them to use them as piƱatas. In fact when I asked for contributions I wasn’t even really sure what I was looking for. By focusing on the local problem of defining sg, I’ve tried to show the way that what sg “is” depends on what you’re looking for, who you ask, and what values underwrite your affection for the music.

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