Why southern gospel music matters

No, I’m not still on spring break. In fact, it feels like spring break created more work than before I left. But whether it did or not, the upshot is it’ll be a bit longer before I can return con mucho gusto, as Mrs. Rayfield would have said in Spanish class.

Until then, I’ll share an article (.pdf) I recently published in The Journal of Religion and American Culture about southern gospel and evangelical religious experience. It’s an academic article in an academic journal, so reader beware. The professional expectations for these sorts of publications require a certain approach, method, and style that can seem offputting and a bit obtuse to the uninitiated.

The thrust of my argument is this:

As southern gospel comes into clearer scholarly view, evangelicalism and the function of evangelical artistic culture emerge in their true relation to one another. Music transforms words and ordinary speech into a form of vernacular poetry, a melodic lyricisim that makes the experience of insufficiency and powerlessness, of psychospiritual neediness, acceptable to express in an absolutist religious culture that has very few meaningful ways of dealing with negative feelings in the lives of the redeemed. Unlike so much of evangelical discourse and artistic culture, which denies the authenticity of negative feelings by describing them as manifestations of sin or evidence of the forces of darkness, southern gospel makes the uneven contours of spiritual life a necessary precondition for the unfolding of divine power.


There’s more; much more.

One of the reasons I’m posting the article (in addition to buying myself some more time away from regular posting) is to say thanks to all the loyal readers who’ve responded to the many first drafts of my thoughts on southern gospel here, at avfl (regular readers will be able to see several places where I’ve repurposed various blog posts into passages for the article, including part of that passage above). Even, and especially, at your most antagonist, you help sharpen my thinking, and I’m grateful for your giving me an audience and sharing your thoughts. I’ve said all this in the footnote credits of the article. But it bears repeating again. So … enjoy it or not, or ignore it. I trust you’ll not be, as you never are, bashful to say one way or the other.

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  1. Howland Sharpe wrote:

    One toke over the line sweet jesus.

  2. Mark Forester wrote:

    I read the whole thing……now my head hurts from all the big words.

    I found it to be a great piece.

  3. Aaron Swain wrote:

    Great article, and an interesting read.

  4. LW wrote:

    Freedom of speech is always practiced here to it limits and then some. I have to say I don’t always agree with the “rantings” of some, but it is their right to do so. It often just seems a place to find a good fight for no other reason than to do just that, fight. But I guess maybe thats what makes life interesting to some.

  5. Mike McIlwain wrote:

    It’s getting late now, and I’ve got to get up very early tomorrow for a breakfast elder’s meeting. I like what I’ve read so far and will get around to finishing it. I’m glad to see a movement arising that is interesting in exploring the history and culture of white gospel music. (I use the term “White Gospel” not to be racist, but because I hate the term Southern Gospel. The term Southern Gospel is too confining and does not accurately describe what this great music is all about.

  6. Realistic wrote:

    With all due respect, shouldn’t an academic journal article refer to an artist’s official name, rather than a slang substitute? Unless you were trying to make a specific point, using “Crabbs” rather than “Crabb Family” in this context is just about as grating to the ear as using “Tennessee University” to describe the college in Knoxville.

  7. RC wrote:

    Haha. Wow. Such an elaborate description of such a primitive genre.

  8. Bubba wrote:

    Doug said,
    “Unlike so much of evangelical discourse and artistic culture, which denies the authenticity of negative feelings by describing them as manifestations of sin or evidence of the forces of darkness, southern gospel makes the uneven contours of spiritual life a necessary precondition for the unfolding of divine power.”

    And rightly so! Being an academic you may have wanted to refrain from Bible thumping but, John 15:20-27 says you will suffer, Romans 8:17 says you must suffer.

    R.C. Sproul on page 143 of his book “Reason to Believe” says.

    “We are called to courage in the midst of suffering. But our courage is not dialectical. Jesus does not come to us like some kind of existential Good Humor man who says, “Wrap up your troubles in an old kit bag and smile, smile, smile.” He says, “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). If we can accept that truth, then we can rejoice in tribulation even if we do not fully understand it.”

    Southern Gospel Music, for the most part, is corporate rejoicing in tribulation and looking forward to future glorification.

  9. gina wrote:

    I agree with “Realistic” on the nomenclature issues. Also, it would give the article more influence, IMO, if the names of specified artists were correctly spelled. “Sherry” Easter? Peg McKamey “Beane”? The words to “God on the Mountain” aren’t exactly as I remember them but I’m unsure of the published version.
    All in all, an interesting read! Thanks for sharing with us.

  10. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    Is this article beyond further editing?

    If not, I would toss in Johnny Cash along with the reference to Elvis Presley in the opening paragraphs. Jerry Lee Lewis, arguably, is another performer who was denied a Southern Gospel career…and it was Sam Phillips who was the gatekeeper in all three instances.

  11. Howland Sharpe wrote:

    And what about Trent Lott?

  12. Janet Burrus wrote:

    I understand what you were trying to accomplish with your thesis, but all I kept thinking was, “It’s a God-thing.” Would your target audience get your point if, say for example, they were AT a concert? Somehow, I doubt that the subtleties of the experience would be grasped, even with preemptive coaching. To me, it reduces the ministry to clinical examination, which seems a trifle cold. I applaud your effort, though. All I know is that the first time I heard “He Will Hide Me” by the Perrys, I cried, because it said how I was feeling at the time. THAT is a gift from God, which is as foolishness to those that don’t believe it. (Hey, Paul said it, not me!) Blessings to you!

  13. crazyjoe wrote:

    ….you almost lost me a few times with all the big words and extended sentences….overall a worthy piece….although you had me at “Why Southern Gospel Musice Matters”……

  14. Videoguy wrote:

    For the SG history buffs:


    (Nashville, Arkansas - not TN.)

  15. Phil Gilliam wrote:

    I thought it was written very well. I would love to meet you in person sometime. I have been on the site quite a few times and enjoy your perspectives, very similiar to mine. You are light years ahead of most in this genre.

  16. C.W. G. wrote:

    I enjoyed the article and it gave me some material for opening our programs in a few weeks. Well done!

  17. Neal Bounds wrote:

    Not to nitpick, but “God on the Mountain” was around in the 1970s. The Songmasters, Debbie Talley’s first group, before she married Roger, recorded it.

  18. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    Thanks for posting that link!

    Of course, now, I’m going to have to plan a trip up to Winston-Salem.

  19. philo wrote:

    I firmly believe the appeal of sg is in the music, the lyrical content certainly completes the package. However,besides the Oaks perhaps, where else are you going to hear that high tenor,low bass and fantastic beat and rhythm? Just think Roy Tremble,Jim Murray James Sego to name a few were out there because they loved the music earned a living and generally simply enjoyed entertaining folks. Hardly because of some high spiritual calling todays holy rollers seem to possess.Lets bring back a bit of honesty stick to the music and let the preachers do what they’re paid to do. Enough said methinks.

  20. CVH wrote:

    Well it took a week to get time to read it after I printed it out so I’m a little late to the party but, very well done. You probably could have expanded on several sections of the piece but as an academic introduction to those unfamiliar with the genre it should serve as a solid basis for further inquiry.

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