Monestry schmonestry, you ignorant jealous-hearted backbiters

I’ve been doing a lot of reading and research lately on the emergence and diversification of southern gospel and of the many things I’ve stumbled across, this excerpt from Lee Roy Abernathy’s 1948 how-to book on the quartet bidness is worth reprinting here:

Should gospel quartets charge? They most certainly should, and they really ought to charge more than they do. They have spent a lifetime learning to sing for you … Does your ministry preach for nothing? … does anyone do anything for nothing … Does the painter paint for nothing? … does anyone do anything for nothing? … No! Neither should the Gospel Quartet man. If you are on of the those tightfisted cheap, chronic gripers that wouldn’t give a dime to see ANYTHING … you shouldn’t be allowed to go to church, or to have singers in your community. The general public has in recent years become educated to the fact that GOSPEL QUARTETS ARE THE REASON FOR THEIR SINGING BEING THE BEST IT HAS EVER BEEN. Only a few ignorant, jealous-hearted backbiters are keeping Gospel music back. However, it is going forward now at the most terrific rate it has in years.

In Charles Wolf, “Gospel Goes Uptown: White Gospel Music, 1945-1955.” Folk Music and Modern Sound. U of Mississippi P, 1982. 97-98.

I love the first-take, no-edit quality to all this, the spittle-spewing sputter of his doubleovered outrage: “tightfisted” AND “cheap,” unless we missed the point, the haranguing taunt of that recurring question, “does anyone do anything for nothing?” And to imagine, this was what he was like when gospel music was “going forward at the most terrific rate it has in years.” But mostly I like this for putting the lie to the good-ole-days misperception that gospel music is getting more worldly and has lost some original and pure focus that it enjoyed in its heyday. If there was a heyday, ever, it was Abernathy’s 40s and 50s, and/but as almost every good historian of southern gospel will tell you, there were always from the first multiple strands of ordinary human self-interest and other threads of less-than-sacred motivation weaved into gospel music.

But the pull of the good-ole-days thinking is strong. Even Charles Wolfe, the dean of Opry historians and general soothsayer about music in the south, falls victim to the blandishments of imagining that “a music that was once an expression of religious belief” became “a business” in the 1950s. Except that it always had a concern with business from the first. Southern gospel emerged as a cross-denominational phenomenon in the late 19th and early 20th centuries not because (or at least not solely because) this wonderful music had the power to unite people who would otherwise form a new denomination over how hard the church pews should be, but because, as Edwards Ayers notes, songbook “publishers [like the now-sainted J.D. Vaughn] strove to please a diverse audience” in an effort to sell more books, thus “they combined songs with divergent theological emphases.” The lesson here - or least one of many - is that beauty and spiritual force survive and thrive amongst the tares and thorns of everyday human affairs. That and, I really would like to have hung out with Lee Roy Abernathy for a while.

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  1. judi wrote:

    Since I’ve been ask to gear up for a local church’s upcoming “stewardship emphasis” with its tepid reliance on “estimates of giving” I’m tempted to borrow that line of Abernathy’s: “If you are one of the those tightfisted cheap, chronic gripers that wouldn’t give a dime to see ANYTHING … you shouldn’t be allowed to go to church…” I love it! You’re right; plain speaking is a rare find in religious money circles (except for the TV evangelists) these days. : )

  2. John Crenshaw wrote:

    Lee Roy Abernathy’s “IT” book is one of the treasures in my collection. It’s filled with great comments such as the one you shared with us, avery.

    That guy was one of a kind, and did so much to further the cause of gospel music. We need more men like Lee Roy.

  3. jill wrote:

    Totally agree. I don’t know why people think that gospel singers should be “poor”. I once had a friend that thought that the reason they should sing for free was because they are “called” of God, yet, he would pay $60 to go hear a country western singer. I am fortunate that I was raised in a ministers/christian home and I was raised that you take care of Gods people weather it is ministers, singers, or the little lady in the church that can’t make ends meet. If anything, I think gospel singers should be paid more ,simply because of who and what they are singing about.

  4. FormerDJ wrote:

    It is amazing to me how many people still today have the mindset that “God will take care of His singers, so we don’t have to.”

    I attended Liberty University and one thing that was drilled in our heads there was Dr. Falwell’s saying, “If it’s Christian, it ought to be better.” I agree completely, but until fans are willing to fork over a little money to see something, we’ll be stuck with second rate, high school stage, fake plant, mixing board behind the bass player concerts. I’m not saying that every concert has to be a Gaither-like affair, but wouldn’t more high quality concerts be a nice thing?

  5. Daniel Britt wrote:

    Here, here!

  6. RF wrote:

    Abernathy was a card and one of those people that needs to be around all the time. Unfortunately, they broke the mold.

    My Dad sung in a gospel quartet for many years and always shied away from taking money because he was “doing the Lord’s work.” In the late 50’s, the group began to hit on some hard times and started to look at their expenses. They were spending over $2,000 a year (remember this was the 50’s when gas was $0.20 a gallon and the average wage was really, really low) for travel. They decided that the Lord didn’t intend them to go broke serving Him.

    At first churches looked down their nose at them, but it was then that the free music ended as far as his group was concerned. They didn’t make much profit and if they did, they put it back into the group, but at least they broke even.

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