The Aunt Blabby and Uncle Alf syndrome
I’ve been intending to write a post for a few days now about how disappointingly typical it is of southern gospel that no one seems terribly surprised to imagine entire swaths of a major label’s archive being destroyed, lost, or - at the very least - mismanaged and neglected. But then one of our favorite readers, CVH, wrote in with this comment, so now you can just read what he says about it:
Personally I think a lot of the underlying reasons for these types of issues is the fundamental difference in mindset between most Christian (southern gospel) labels and most secular labels. There are always exceptions to every rule and surely new product is almost always produced and manufactured to high specs.
But the difference in back-catalog product between Christian labels and secular ones is appalling. Lost masters at a secular label? Almost never. Cobbled-together compilation albums from various sources, not compressed or EQ’d or mastered for consistency? It wouldn’t happen on a secular label. But in Christian music (mostly southern gospel) it seems to be a game…how bad a piece of crap can we put out and still get 10 or 12 bucks for? And Aunt Blabby and Uncle Alf are right there with their fistful of dollars. Of course, until southern gospel music fans demand better they won’t get it. But I’m not holding my breath for that day to come.
I’d only add that these sorts of cultural problems aren’t the sole provenance of Aunt Blabby and Uncle Alf. The problem reaches up into the professional societies and associations that work to preserve the tradition’s history and ensure a lasting cultural legacy. This isn’t exactly the same point CVH was making, but it’s related enough that I’ll spool it out a bit here.
There is something of a museum culture in sg, and these efforts do a good job of narrating the rise of the genre and celebrating its successes and greatness through museums, exhibitions, and other curatorial work that preserves some representative artifacts and ephemera from the music’s major eras. But they do less well in cultivating an archive of primary material that supports not just public exhibitions but also educational and academic enterprises, which are key to understanding a cultural tradition like sg as more than a nostalgic knot of names and glass-encased guitars.
This requires - among other things – working with labels, executors of estates, and other legal custodians of recordings and music rights to ensure a reliable and comprehensive sound archive survives the vicissitudes of the music market. But it also means thinking about the historical record of gospel music as a cultural tradition in the broadest sense. Upon the death of an American author of the status and stature equivalent to say, George Younce’s in sg, a university library or other professional-grade archival institution would almost certainly work with the deceased’s estate to preserve and catalog relevant material from his life that informs our understanding of his work and the art he helped create. Not just his cowboy boots (though those might very well be of interest, too; I made some money one summer in graduate school unpacking the boxed-up library of a famous, dead American poet whose literary estate was bequeathed to the university where I studied, and among the items marked for cataloging were his bronzed baby shoes and a death mask). But also, say, lead sheets from Cathedrals studio sessions, or bookkeeping records that would give an historian or anthropologist a sense of the southern gospel market, or correspondence that would shed light on how the industry works or an artist thinks, works, and believes.
Plenty of groups and individuals spend a lot of time, energy, and money collecting artifacts - primary material and ephemera - related to sg. But these efforts are widely dispersed and disjointed - ranging from hobbyists to private entities like the SGMA – and lack a comprehensive vision or sufficient resources to work on a broad scale.
What’s needed is an alliance of current industry leaders (to bring clout and cash to the table), museums and curators (to attract a ticket-buying public), and professional archivists and researchers to help identify, acquire, and probably maintain a growing body of material (a place like MTSU’s Center for Popular music comes to mind). Such an alliance may not be able to prevent, say, the destruction master tapes like we’ve been discussing (along these lines, I remember overhearing in Nashville a few years ago some people talking about the Hinson masters sitting in boxes in a warehouse across town, having been sold to someone who apparently had little interest in them … now there’s an archive worth going after). B
But rightly organized, a truly collaborative archival effort would make it easier to identify neglected, overlooked, forgotten, or languishing music whose market value has plummeted but that might nevertheless find a new life in something like a Southern Gospel Legacy Project. SGLP … get it? .. hehe … not a bad acronym, no?