Conference post-mortem

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 MTSU Center for Popular Music have obviously thought a lot about and worked hard to cultivate relationships with local practitioners of the cultural and artistic traditions in the Middle TN area and wherever else convention singing has a presence. And it was the great good fortune of all the assembled scholars at the conference to benefit from those preexisting relationships and all the work that went into them.

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 …

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  1. quartet-man wrote:

    I enjoyed reading this and think you have some great ideas.

  2. Shawn wrote:

    Hello! It was good to finally meet you this weekend and I enjoyed your presentation. If you’re interested, you should attend the Stamps-Baxter School of Music in July at Trevecca Nazarene University. Tracey plays every evening for the “group singing,” with about 250 students. Also, ftr, Ben Speer used to host a shape-note seminar at NQC (about 10 years ago), that did some convention singing demonstrations. It would be great to be brought back. Thanks again for your insight!

    Shawn Degenhart

  3. Philo wrote:

    Hi Ave,perhaps a look at how many of Gaither’s convention songs video, which includeda commentary by Don Butler et al, were sold compared to other Gaither projects of that time would give an indication of its popularity.

  4. Philo wrote:

    Re: the above post,for all you lazy laymen out there who can’t be bothered looking it up’praxis’ is the process of putting theory into practice…..i think. Lol

  5. Revpaul wrote:

    We need to know a great deal more about this. What an interesting article! Just a couple of weeks ago PBS (I think) did a really good hour-long documentary on this very subject.

  6. Revpaul wrote:

    A little more on the PBS documentary — the title was “Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp”.

    PBS says, “it is the first feature documentary about Sacred Harp singing, a haunting form of a cappella, shape note hymn singing with deep roots in the American south. Shape note singing has survived over 200 years tucked away from notice in the rural deep south, where in old country churches, singers break open ‘The Sacred Harp’, a 160 year old shape note hymnal which has preserved these fiercely beautiful songs which are some of the oldest in America. The film offers a glimpse into the lives of this ‘Lost Tonal Tribe’ whose history is a story of both rebellion and tradition. The filmmakers, Matt and Erica Hinton spent 7 years documenting this yet largely unknown art form.”

  7. Dwight wrote:

    Thanks for a great article. I was lucky enough to attend a few of these conventions in the mid 70’s. I was in my mid teens at the time and it wasn’t very popular with people my age. The numbers were already declining and the participants were older. It was great to hear those convention “piano players” and to see people like Otis Deaton (”Give the World a Smile”) lead the “class singining.” It would be great to keep this convention music going. Thanks again Doug.

  8. Shawn wrote:

    Actually, Sacred Harp singing is quite different from this conference’s subject of “convention singing.” Sacred Harp singing represents the 4-shape, shape-note tradition and only a few tunebooks are still used (no new Sacred Harp material is being written). Convention singing employs the seven-shape method and each book published features new songs in that style. Publishers (there are currently five still in operation) have been publishing books featuring new songs since the late 1800’s, early 1900’s. Musically, the songs are quite different as well. Sacred Harp has a very distinct sound–frequent minor modes and open chords abound whereas in convention music, most songs are in major keys and employ a much broader variety of harmonies.

  9. Revpaul wrote:

    Re #8 Shawn,
    Thanks for the distinctions you have made. We all need to learn a lot more about this.

  10. Al Locke wrote:

    Here is a list of active 7 note singing schools. Some are better than others.

  11. cynical one wrote:

    I’m afraid the very reason there is very few convention songbooks being printed is because of what’s been stated here. No one cares.

    Very few of these singing schools still exist; very few young people are trying to learn this lost art form; very few older people are singing this style any longer, except for nostalgia — and then maybe only one or two songs.

    Public schools don’t even teach traditional music skills. Somewhere around 20% (or more) of the churches in America have abandoned their hymnals.

    We may as well ask for gospel polka.

  12. Norm Graham wrote:

    #11 “We may as well ask for gospel polka.”

    Ask and you shall receive. At least, this CD has one gospel song.

    John Gora & Gorale have released an extremely diverse CD in “Bulletproof Polkas.” Includes traditional polkas like “Hay Stack” to the contemporary like “Karma Chameleon” to the gospel “I Surrender All Polka.”

    Maybe if they had recorded a Gaither- written song, they would have been invited to the next Homecoming.

  13. Al Locke wrote:

    Wow, Chicken Little is here!! The sky IS falling!

  14. Shawn wrote:

    One thing that our very own blogger pointed out–singing conventioners are their own best friends and worst enemies. I certainly don’t think convention singing is a lost art form–it’s the people’s music and will continue to be so. However, I think the older models of the singing convention may need to be re-evaluated so that it does not implode on itself, but begins a rebirth and becomes a thriving entity once more (within the parameters of our time and technology).

  15. RF wrote:

    I think you hit on am important issue that most don’t understand. In these days of “No Child Left Behind,” as hideous as it is, one thing was left behind. Music Education. Of course, it didn’t start with Dubya, but it’s been de-emphasized for at least the last 10 years as we emphasize reading and writing and math skills. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when the Bush people started empahsizing using the standardized test and started “punishing” schools who did not meet certain standards, the music book was thrown out the window.

    When I went to school (eons ago for you who are wondering), I got enough secondary education to not only get a college degree, but three. I still had time within that curriculum to learn to play 4 instruments and read and write music. These days, they can’t fit it in and even if they could, there wouldn’t be time–gotta prepare for the test so we don’t get put on probation, you know.

    The result is the general public, and more importantly, youngsters not knowing what good music is. Oh sure, taste is one thing, but knowing what is quality and what is trash is not subjective. Consequently, look at modern popular music. It’s a mess with hardly anthing resembling a melody on the charts.

    The same could be said for Christian music. We now don’t use hymnals and sing from a screen on the wall. They usually are choruses that have the same verse sung over and over in unison. Choirs hardly exist in churches. In rural areas, poeple, many who learned to play in school when taking music, have a hard time finding anyone who can play a piano. Organ players don’t exist either. It’s not important anymore. That’s the challenge we face.

    Used to be on the second Sunday of every month there was a county singing convention in my area. The churches were packed and the singing was,if not wonderful, at least was robust and people had fun. I recently learned that they still had the “convention,” so I attended. Twenty souls had shown up and they sang praise choruses. I left halfway through. The piano player was probably 70 and the singers probably averaged that. At 50-something, I was the youngster.

    It’s dying folks and we can only blame outselves.

  16. fasolamatt wrote:

    #8 Shawn: “No new Sacred Harp material is being written”. FALSE. The 2006 edition of the “blue book” (B.F. White Original Sacred Harp) has about 14 new tunes, including 5 from contemporary composers like Stanley Smith and David Lee. There’s a new book out called “Georgian Harmony” that represents recent work by Raymond Hamrick. The Missouri Harmony’s newest edition, in 2005, features 36 tunes by contemporary composers like Dan Brittain, Judy Hauff, John Bayer, Ted Johnson, and Hal Kunkel.


    Here’s Raymond Hamrick leading at the inaugural Georgian Harmony singing near Macon:

    Here are more than 30 Minnesotans sightreading from the same book in my living room in St Paul:

  17. Shawn wrote:

    I stand corrected regarding new Sacred Harp material being written. However, compare 14 new tunes from an edition 2 years ago to 5 songbooks published each year, each containing approximately 90 new songs and I think my point is still valid…there are a lot more new seven-shape convention songs still being written compared to the older Sacred Harp tradition.
    Thanks for the correction!

  18. Stephen Shearon wrote:

    Glad to see a supportive virtual community here interested in sg matters and, in particular, discussing the “Farther Along” conference. As one of the organizers, I’d like to comment on a few things, in no particular order.

    I’ll start by seconding fasolamatt’s comments: there are indeed new tunes being written for the Fasola community, within its standard stylistic parameters, and some have been included in the most recent edition of the tunebook. Some of them, furthermore, are quite nice. But in case anyone’s becoming confused, the new tunes do not displace, by and large, the established tunes. New editions of “The Original Sacred Harp,” for example, usually are changed only “around the edges.” Quite different from the “new book” tradition.

    Thank you, Doug, for calling the conference “a smash hit.” As far as I can tell, everyone involved feels that way. I would like to correct, however, what strikes me as a misperception. This was not a Middle Tennessee thing, nor was it “town and gown” in the strict sense; we were interacting with the national Doremi convention-singing community. That’s why there were well-known and beloved figures there from Texas, Arkansas, Florida, West Virginia, Louisiana, south Alabama, north Georgia, and East Tennessee (those are the ones that come to mind). They included those involved in governing or directing almost all of the important annual singing schools from Corsicana, Texas, to Kenna, West Virginia. Cultivating those relationships has involved driving (not flying!) to all those places, observing, recording, taking photos, and doing interviews. In case that sounds like work, well, perhaps it was, but it was also immensely enjoyable.

    It was indeed very special to have the practitioners (an unfortunate term, but I can’t think of a better one) there talking, singing, and playing about what they do. While I guess it might not have worked, I don’t think that possibility ever crossed my mind. Those people were there because they were thrilled that scholars, including university professors, were taking seriously the things they do and love deeply. After all, an important part of what they do is music education and promoting musical literacy (i.e., teaching people to read music notation), so at the very least they would like to be recognized and appreciated for it by those in the educational establishment. Plus, it suggested to them that maybe, just maybe, what they do will not die. That’s a pretty strong motivator.

    That WAS a great singing–all one-hour-and-a-half of it (in other words, it was brief). It was a great feeling to stand in front of that crowd as leader and rip into “I’ll Fly Away” with awesome piano accompaniment right behind me. The pianists–mostly Sue Gray, Tracey Phillips, and Nelson Bailey–did a great job.

    I’ll second Doug’s recommendation that you go to a singing convention. You’ll find most of them (or, at least, many of them) listed at (Thanks to Al Locke for providing the link to Doremi singing schools.)

    I’ll also second Doug’s comments about the tradition’s insularity: its effects are both positive and negative, but currently the negative effects win; it’s killing the tradition. About a year ago, I presented a paper on the annual Fasola and Doremi singing schools at the annual meeting of the Society for American Music. Many sitting in that session were there in anticipation of the Sacred Harp singing to follow. Of course, it was obvious from my findings that the Doremi singing schools are significantly more numerous, organized, and highly developed than the Fasola schools. The most telling question afterwards was, “Why haven’t we heard about this?” I and others will continue talking about it.

    Great ideas, Doug. Tuesday morning I forwarded a link to this blog to all five publishers, as well as Tracey Phillips and her mother Eloise, also an excellent pianist and teacher.

    As for the future of the tradition, I’ll make a simple comment (because to address this properly would require extended discussion): having lived through much of the Fasola revival, I see a similar future for Doremi convention singing. Once people outside that insular world, especially in the universities and urban artistic communities, learn that this tradition exists, is diminishing, contains an incredibly rich repertoire of songs (at least one of which almost everyone has heard), involves invigorating singing with wonderful people and jaw-droppingly awesome piano playing, they will flock to it. The tradition, in that event, will change (as has Sacred Harp), but continue. That’s my guess anyway.

    FWIW, I’m on the faculty of the MTSU School of Music. The Center for Popular Music (CPM) is a separate entity within the university. Charles K. Wolfe, who did quite a bit of research on southern gospel, helped found CPM (established 1985, I think) and motivated the director, Paul Wells, to build a substantial collection of sg-related items. So, for them, this conference was the culmination of 20-plus years of collecting. The success of the conference, furthermore, rested to a great extent on the efforts of the CPM staff, who did an excellent job.

  19. Al Locke wrote:

    The “professional” side of SG came out of convention singing. I was there for a part of it.
    My hat is off to Bill Gaither because whether he intented or not packaged convention singing into a marketable format with the Homecoming Video series.
    Also, what many classically train musicians may not know, the shape note music used and taught does not violate any theory of “round note” music. Same lines and spaces, time signature, etc. are used

  20. fasolamatt wrote:

    Also FWIW, I own ten copies of “Great Inspirational Songs” and we routinely draw a living room full of folks who are nominally fasola singers for AWESOME seven shape gospel potlucks here in St Paul, MN.

  21. CLN wrote:

    I doubt NQC really wants anything convention-style or even related to it. I seriously doubt that many of southern gospel’s most popular singers these days can read music, much less sing the do re mi’s. I believe a singing convention-type of event, even though it would be WONDERFUL to have, would be met with extreme opposition by the leading folks in our industry. I’m all for a singing convention showcase at NQC, but the industry is so wrapped up in trying to make itself contemporary and eliminating difficult harmonies and such, that I doubt that such a concept will be realized.

  22. DB wrote:

    Re #21 CLN,
    I think you are spot on with your obvservations. Many (and I would guess at least 65%) of the singers in SG cannot read music very well…if at all. I can tell you that many young kids that have attended a singing school for 2 or 3 years can pick up a song written in shaped-notes and sight-sing it (with no accompaniment) without missing one or two notes…even though they have never seen the song before. How many of those in SG music do you really believe could do this?

  23. Robert wrote:

    There is a lot of convention singing and singing schools in the NE Alabama area. Especially around Sand Mtn. (where Vestal Goodman grew up). We have been booked in the area a lot in the last couple of years and those folks really have it going on. I heard several “thrown together” trios and quartets ages 7 to 70 who could sing some groups that have buses off the stage.

  24. Al Locke wrote:

    Sand Mountain Alabama was the center of the world for convention singings when I sang with Rosa Nell’s family in the 70’s. It was a throwback to the 40’s in TX.

  25. DanD wrote:

    #18….What singing school is in Kenna, WV?

  26. Carlos wrote:

    Sadly, I must disagree with Robert, I live on Sand Mountain and in Dekalb and Jackson Counties with only one small convention singing one Friday night each month with very sparse attendance. A few convention singing exist in Marshall County; however, Hospice needs to be notified. After five more years they want be needed.

  27. Stephen Shearon wrote:

    #25 — The West Virginia School of Gospel Music. Contact John Paul and Sue Boggess. Sue is the director. She’s also involved in the Tri-County School of Gospel Music, which takes place just down the road in Charleston.

  28. RF wrote:

    Interesting. I’ve lived in WV all my life only 70 miels from Charleston and never heard of it.

    Kind of like under my nose!


  29. Carmen wrote:

    Stephen…you are correct! I live here in Kenna, Wv and once a month Fisher Memorial Church has their singing convention where Sue Boggess attends. They amaze me with their talent.
    I have the schedule and July 30-Aug 3 is when the WV School of Gospel Music is

  30. Susan Jones wrote:

    AFL, thank you for your attendance and article. I thoroughly enjoyed it! Also, thanks to all for your responses. I love to talk music, especially convention-style music.
    I didn’t know anything about it until I went to the Stamps-Baxter school and I was thrilled with what I learned!
    Thanks for the info and interest on the WV school, as well. I’ve had the privilege of teaching there for the last few years and will be there again this year. It’s my annual fix! I’ve included my email on this hoping it will make it more convenient should anyone need more information on it.

  31. Carmen wrote:

    I gave you the last years date.
    Here is the date for 2008.
    July 28 - Aug. 1

    So sorry

  32. Music Chick wrote:

    I agree with almost every entry! HEY! Something we all agree on! As a Public School Choral Director and a SG artist, I can say that the lack of written music placed in people’s hands now is so discouraging. Even in my own church, when we sing a hymn and the words are on the screen, I still sing out of the hymnal. . .I guess trying to be an example to no avail. I say this even as a young person in my early 30s.

    It is also truly amazing how many SG artists do not read music, much less famous influences. Can you have a discussion with anyone about Bach, Wagner, Handel, John Rutter, hey, even Andrew Lloyd Webber (ugh)? Most probably not. And as for those little black dots on the page, or time signatures or key signature or any type of Solfege singing . . . forget it. That takes having the drive to become educated about what you do and too many people want the easy way out now-rote singing- Quote “OK, I’ll sing your part for you and you sing it back to me” end quote.
    I think more than just having a singing convention time at NQC, they ought to offer a class on reading this style of music. When Convention style singing dies, it will be a sad day not only for SG, but also for Music period.

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