So the Farther Along Conference was a smash hit, as far as I could tell. Which isn’t nothing. I’ve heard colleagues of mine talk about these kinds of town-and-gown things before, and most of the stories have ranged from amusing to bemusing, but only because it was after the fact. Merging scholars (insert tired old ivory tower joke here) and the ordinary parts of the world those scholars study is a risky proposition. The people engaged in the living of their lives rightfully often bristle at what feels like the fish-bowl treatment they get from scholars. And scholars often (again) rightfully get frustrated with the resistance that meets their efforts to think seriously about the broader effects and meanings of everyday activities, like the singing convention for example.
But it was clear that this conference was by and large not that kind of encounter. The people at the
So some thoughts on convention singing and singing-convention culture, after a weekend intensely immersed in it (and btw, if you haven’t ever been, or haven’t been in a while, to a convention singing, find one … one of the highlights of the weekend was getting to sing convention tunes with first-rate accompaniment right out of that old Church Hymnal).
First, for all its significance in the cultural and artistic history of southern gospel music, convention singing is an extraordinarily insular world. I talked to someone who’s been in the southern gospel industry for decades and who grew up on sg, and he confessed to having no clue “this whole world” of convention singing existed. Like many people, he thought convention singing referred to all-day or all-night sings of the sort made famous by Wally Fowler at the Ryman back in the 50s.
This insularity is both the best and worst thing going for convention singing. Best, insofar as singing-convention devotees are diehards. Worst, insofar as insular cultures have a hard time acknowledging their own obsolescence over time. The most interesting (and awkward, and frustrating) moments of the weekend’s conference were when convention-singing diehards responded to legitimate questions about the future of the singing convention tradition by launching into jeremiads about the failure of contemporary culture to embrace the glories of shaped-note singing.
It hardly matters if they’re right or not (I don’t think they are, ftr, but they do have a point about music education woefully deteriorating in the last 50 years in America). The reality is, the world has moved on, and if the singing-convention hopes to survive in any relevant shape or form, much less arrest the free-fall the tradition has been in for some time now, it will have to adjust to meet the changed circumstances of contemporary life.
Another way to say this: as a form of ministry and/or mass-mode of evangelical religious experience, convention singing is more or less dead (in the convention singing heyday, a single publisher might move close to a quarter million units of songbook product a year; now, it’s down to more like 5,000). But as a cultural tradition with a strong nostalgic half-life and a viable tool for music education, it has a great future. Or could have.
Sitting in my hideously uncomfortable plastic folding chair for hours at a stretch this weekend, I jotted down these possibilities. I’m sure there are others.
1. The nostalgia-o-matic southern gospel recording industry would absolutely eat up convention singing if it were packaged right. Here I’m thinking of consciously retro-styled songbooks that, if well done and positioned rightly, might clean up by capitalizing on the obvious interest that exists for convention music in sg (if you like the Perrys or Cumberland Quartet singing “When We Hear Him Say,” which was all over 104.9 when I was in my rental car this weekend, you like convention singing).
2. Better yet: A boutique publishing house that specialized in either A)these consciously retro-styled songbooks or B)bringing out only new convention style songs aimed at a mass-market Christian music recording artists. Or both. There are, as we saw this weekend, several convention-singing publishers out there, but as we also saw, they’re mostly staffed by purists who do good, hard work but are also either unwilling or don’t know how to engage with the wider world of Christian entertainment in economically sustainable, culturally meaningful ways.
3. Companion DIY songbooks and accompaniment tapes. And after listening to a presentation on convention piano playing from Tracey Phillips (who is one of the most talented players walking the southern gospel planet), I’m convinced that a DVD/songbook kit that walked aspiring convention players through the basics of convention playing – simple licks, how to construct broken chords, passing tones and chords and the like – would sell. At least I’d buy it.
4. Software to teach homeschoolers and other interested students in music through the shaped-noted convention method. Virtual convention singings!
5. A centralized online clearinghouse for all things convention-singing. From singing convention locations to singing schools, products, publishers, players, and beyond. So many singing schools talked about getting people on their newsletter mailing lists this weekend (and they didn’t mean email). Seriously. One exhibitor was handing out cassette tapes!
6. An NQC connection. You’re telling me that with the run on nostalgia reunions at NQC, a convention-style singalong in the NQC main hall wouldn’t pack ‘em in? Sell the old red books at the door. Have gospel music’s favorite emcees each lead one or two songs and rotate the best players – who can actually play the style well – on and off the piano bench. It’d be splendid. Splendid, I telleth thee.
While I wait for the world to fall in line with my perfect vision of things, let me just say how grateful I was to meet so many wonderful people with similar intellectual and artistic interests. Publishers, players, scholars, and industry types, ordinary folks who love the music and took time to share thoughtful responses to my presentation and others’, and the conference organizers at MTSU. Thank you. It was the kind of energizing connection between theory and praxis that you leave most conferences longing for, but don’t ever get. And I’m grateful for the chance to participate. Now … about those butt-busting plastic folding chairs …Email this Post