A little Goodman in all of us
What on earth more is there to say about the Goodman fracas that hasn’t already been said, and said and SAID? Not much, probably. But as I’ve watched this thread unfold with anthropological fascination, a few things (ok, more than a few) do come to mind that I’ll offer by way of summing up and moving on.
To begin at the beginning: those Goodmans know how to scratch each other’s eyes out for sure. And with no little amount of help from outside. I’m a rank amateur in the ways of the Goodman mafia and their family dynamics (except for secondhand stories about turkey bones slicked clean and Vestal double-parking outside TJ Maxx in her red Benz, darlin’), so I can’t speak to the long history of turf wars and sibling rivalries that seem to have as much or more to do with what’s going on today than Rick Goodman’s unapologetic merchandizing of his parents’ memory and music.
But clearly, Rick Goodman – both by virtue of his relationship with Vestal and Howard at the end of their lives and his place in the Goodman empire, such as it is, today – is understandably a lightning rod that collects all the dispersed energy associated with the Goodmans. An outsider like me always wonders if there isn’t more going on … like, does Rick get the family’s dander up so much because he sells the legacy so hard, or because, maybe, he continues to hold up rerelease of some of the old Goodmans music that some of the heirs may think is worth a lot of money.
But no matter. At this late stage in the life cycle of commercial southern gospel, it’s not at all clear whether someone like Rick Goodman and the Vestal & Friends enterprise is symptom or disease. Or both. Certainly the Goodman family took the flea-market approach to gospel music (selling anything to which value could be imputed by the right salesman and bought by the right fan) to a new level. As one commenter pointed out, in this regard, Rick is only doing now what he was raised to do and saw modeled in one form or another by his parents and other Goodmans of their generation. We can’t be THAT shocked.
The Goodmans, that is, were always shamelessly famous stunt pullers. Whether it was on stage – showing up in a limo or wearing outrageous outfits or entering the auditorium from the rear and singing “Hallelujah Thine the Glory,” or ending a song such as “Eastern Sky” like a harmonized pig call – or off stage: Vestal and Howard selling their autographed wing chairs or the family taking out an ad in the Singing News to denounce the GMA’s support of “night club acts in Las Vegas” to position the family as really and truly “Good.” The ad, dated September 21, 1971, would make Sister Bertha Better Than You feel hypocritical (hat tip, DA):
It seems that you [the GMA] have decided to promote and condone the more hippie oriented crowd, and night club acts, other than the gospel music.
To me, and the rest of the Goodmans, and many other groups that are not as bold to take the stand that we dare to take promoting and condoning this type of entertainment is not “Good News.”
In view of all these things, we are asking for the return of 600.00 for Life Time Memberships.
Even for 1971, hopelessly – or maybe, as commenter Scott suggests here, intentionally – naïve phrases like “the more hippie oriented crowd,” the self-congratulatory observation about the boldness and courage they demonstrated in placing the ad, the petulant demand for their 600 bucks back say as much about the Goodmans and a certain (perhaps willful) blindness they had about how they appeared to a wider world as it does reflect the values that they no doubt believed in entirely. How else could people smart enough, savvy enough about the ways of the world, to help engineer the Happy Goodmans’ explosive success in the 60s and 70s get themselves tangled up with self-evident hucksters like the Bakers in the 80s if not at least in part by self-delusion?
Of course we loved them for these stunts, for their audacity and outsized personality – both individually and collectively. But the long half-life of the controversy over the Goodmans low-brow style – “authentically” uncultivated or carefully manicured artlessness? – suggests that they stirred up more than just an appreciation for unadorned proclamations in southern gospel song of the “Good News.”
My hunch is several related issues and problems that largely remain submerged in southern gospel most of the time surfaced and received a particularly powerful articulation in the Goodmans music and success. It’s over simple to reduce it to ministry/monestry, but it’s certainly hard not to see the Rick Goodman brouhaha as a dramatization of this age-old debate: is an iPod full of Goodmans music worth roughly the same price as a “seed” in the Vestal and Friends prayer partnership? What’s the difference between charging $15 for a ticket to see Vestal and Howard sing old songs on stage with Johnny Minick and charging $100 for a chance to feel part of the Howard and Vestal “legacy”?
I think the average person sees quite a good deal of difference, that in one case you’re paying for religious art (or the chance to glimpse it in a few wonderful moments), and in the other you’re paying to keep a creatively lazy son of the not-so-rich-and-famous in the lifestyle to which he is accustomed. But if you grew up in a world where it was hard to tell where the art ended and the show, the production, the manufactured image of “the Happy Goodmans” began, it’s easy to imagine you might have a hard time making the distinction that those of us not named Goodman (or those of us who don’t wish we were named Goodman) have no trouble discerning.
The difference between these two types of people hints at a problem no one wants to confront but everyone fears, suspects, or knows is out there: that a lot of people get into southern gospel, cloak themselves in the mantle of religious ministry and Christian commitment, and charge people to see them do this … because this way of life comes easier to them than bucking 2×4s at a saw mill, or teaching school or driving an OTR truck, or rebuilding brakes down at Woodfords Amoco or roofing houses or doing taxes or selling insurance or any number of other jobs that might be available to the typical sg singer if he wasn’t singing. This doesn’t make them a fraud necessarily, but it probably makes them something other than the longsuffering saint that the fulltime singer is often made out (or makes himself out) to be. And the truth is, a lot of the people who clamor the loudest about their calling to proclaim the gospel in song for Christ do so as a way of rationalizing their own less than ministerial reasons for preferring sg to whatever form of heavy lifting they’d have to be doing if they weren’t singing.
What I’m driving at here is that southern gospel music has always been in some respects a means of socioeconomic advancement, mobility, and validation for usually rural, typically southern white evangelicals who would face otherwise options for self-actualization in their adult lives that seem far less actualizing than singing gospel music in front of mostly adoring crowds. Goff makes this point more or less, if I recall rightly, in his book Close Harmony: one reason that singing religious music as one’s sole or primary means of support developed into a profession of its own was because it revalued a purely spiritual, aesthetic, or recreational exercise (singing gospel songs with family or church friends) into a professional artistic culture among a people whose other skills and abilities (mining, farming, and other forms of hard manual labor) were treated by the wider world as a sign of the artless and unexceptional, or at best ordinary. There’s nothing wrong with honest work, of course, but there’s nothing especially glamorous about it either if the smell of diesel fumes is what gets you up in the morning.
For many people, the world is vastly different today than it was for the Goodmans of the 50s. And for a lot of other people, not so different. The things about southern gospel that seem rank with small-timerism to me, or are obviously bogus hucksterism to you, might to someone else seem like the only way out of a dismal dead-end of unskilled labor, the hamster-wheel of go-nowhere jobs, or an average life of unremarkable ordinariness.
At least this is the way I understand the origins of the flea-marketeerism of southern gospel. I don’t like it. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make sense to me. And I’m afraid it’s going to be with us for the duration. Just as for every Beverly Sills (the majestic operatic soprano who never sang a note after her retirement from the Metropolitan Opera because, she said, she wanted to remember her voice as it was, when it was good), there’s a Pavoritti, blundering his ill-considered way through a late-in-life duet with the Spice Girls and showboating one too many encores of “O Sole Mio” with the Three Tenors – so too for every George Younce there is a perpetually limited supply of Vestal’s hankies for sale, or used sunglasses autographed by Dottie Rambo available on ebay.
Postscript: A note from Tanya Goodman Sykes:
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I have resisted responding to this thread for quite a while. Only after assumptions were made that I HAD commented, did I decide jump into the fray. Whatever comments I have, I stand behind and sign my name.
I daresay that most of us, and by us I mean humankind that extends far beyond those of us who cast our lot with traveling bands of singers and musicians, are part of a family that is at best a motley crew. A random sampling of our dna pools reveals a mixture of salt of the earth grannies, uncles who drink too much, worthless brothers-in-law, hucksters, hard workers, Sunday School teachers, doctors and dock workers, you name it, we’ve got it. Do I agree with everything my family was or is or does or represents? Certainly not, and I’m not just referring to public life. We all know that on any given day we are convinced that certain of our family members MUST have been switched at the hospital, they cannot possibly be the flesh of our flesh. Do I love my family? Absolutely! I pray for them, encourage them and from time to time mutter under my breath that I must be the only sane person I know.
In the nearly 48 years I’ve been around, I’ve also come to know that little change is wrought in people’s character by our rebuke, whether gentle or harsh, well meaning or mean-spirited. That is work best done by someone with a much higher authority than you or me. Still, there seems to be a dark side to all of us that revels in casting about hoping to dredge up some flaw in someone else in order to push back our own creeping dread that we ourselves are flawed beyond redemption. I’m sure some of the comments made here are well meaning and come from a pure heart, some are merely thinly veiled professional jealousy. I confess, I’ve read some of these threads and nodded along smugly. God forgive me…
In the last year or so of my life, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time asking God to fix what is broken in me. Be careful what you wish for; it’s tedious work. On a good day it causes me to look at the world around me differently, with a little more compassion. Lest you think I’m waxing self righteous, remember I did say a LITTLE more compassion. My advice to us all? Pick your prophet, Bradford or Urban, and try to remember their words “but for the grace of God, there go I.”