White gospel

A reader comments:

What’s up with “white gospel?” I’ve never heard SG referred to that way. Maybe that’s the way those brainy academics can diminish it.

A good point, and one I probably should have addressed already, since I’m bandying the term about so much lately.

I can see how someone long familiar with sg might see the phrase as an unnecessary term invented for the purposes of reproach. But really it’s meant as a way to let people unfamiliar not just with the genre but also with Christian music more broadly know that “southern gospel” doesn’t refer to some variety of black gospel. Academics are very accustomed to seeing scholarly writing about black gospel music, so much so that almost any use of the word “gospel” in relation to music usually is assumed to mean black music. Here’s a conversation I’ve had a schmillion times with a few variations in syntax and setting.


ME: I’m writing a book about southern gospel.

ROAITEAAC: Oh really! When I was in graduate school, The Clark Sisters sang at an event on campus … it was really great.


So, I can’t speak for those brainy academics my commenter mentions (and the stereotype of the sneering academic didn’t come from nowhere so I can’t swear “white gospel” has never been or will never be used deprecatingly), but for me the term is just a useful way to head off confusion.

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  1. NG wrote:

    The term “White Gospel” has been around for a while because, as noted, gospel music is considered by many folks to be black music. That’s especially the case with many secular fans who love black gospel because of its influences on popular music.

    I guess that’s why in Britain a few years ago they titled an album by various SGM artists (mainly the Blue Ridge Quartet) as White Gospel. See:

  2. RF wrote:

    I can still remember the stories that my father, who was in several quartets from the 40’s to the 70’s used to tell about how it took people not in the mountains to understand that gospel didn’t always mean “black gospel.” Back in the early days quartet music was different from gospel music which meant black gospel music. When Hovie and the Statesmen came on the scene, that all changed. I still remember him telling me about the first time they sang “Happy Rhythm” at a church. No applause, not a single “amen.” Nope, just silence. it was then and there, the leader of the group decided they’d better get out of there. As they were leaving, one of the deacons told them that they didn’t want any gospel music in their church. Of course, he meant black gospel.

    Today, if you go to iTunes or any site that sells MP3’s and search under gospel, you see mostly black groups. There is never a sg category and you’ll mostly find sg groups under “country gospel.” Maybe there will now be a category called “white gospel” for sg.

  3. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    Wouldn’t it make more sense to simply define “Southern Gospel” for those who don’t know what the term means rather than slapping a different vague name on it that doesn’t resonate with the fans?

  4. wanderer wrote:

    The term “White Gospel” is used the book The oak Ridge Boys Our Story put out in the late 80’s.

  5. Tom wrote:

    James Goff seems to suggest (Close Harmony, p. 274) that it wasn’t until sometime in the 1980s that the term “southern gospel” became the preferred label for this genre. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the term hadn’t been around for awhile prior to that–but Goff does imply that it was not necessarily the most common appellation for this style of music during earlier eras. (I take it that “quartet music” was a common designation in earlier times, although that didn’t encompass all the popular groups–e.g., the Speers and the LeFevres.) It’s also worth pointing out that Goff makes the same distinction between “white gospel” and “black gospel” that Doug makes, and apparently for similar reasons (pp. 2ff.). My familiarity with this genre goes back only to the late 1980s, so perhaps someone with more institutional history than I can correct or back me up on this (as the case may be).

    I don’t have a serious problem with the term “southern gospel” and I don’t have a better term to recommend. But it is also the case that this genre, although always (and still) very popular in the South, was not exclusively “southern.” The Blackwoods hit it big in Iowa, which is not in the South by any stretch of the term. Parts of southern Indiana could potentially be argued into being part of “the South”–but not Alexandria. So the term “southern gospel” has some inherent difficulties, just as the term “white gospel” would seem to exclude Teddy Huffam, Charles Johnson, Darrell Luster, and many more we could name.

    It’s also interesting to notice how the term “ccm” came into use–due to a magazine of that name. During the 1970s it was “Jesus Music,” but right at the time that the magazine Contemporary Christian Music began publishing near the end of the 1970s, there was a very rapid terminological shift from “Jesus Music” to “contemporary Christian music.”

    Whatever happened to “American gospel music”? That proposed terminological shift seems to have flopped . . . .

  6. JW wrote:

    Avery — I can identify with your frustration listed above. When I worked on my MM in Voice, I had to write a thesis, and my thesis dealt with incorporating bel canto vocal technique appropriately sylistically into southern gospel music…

    My supervisory committee immediatley made comments about the Clark Sisters, Ray Charles, The Blind Boys Of Alabama(however, they were on a gaither vid), and Richard Smallwood—and the head of the schools musicology dept. pointed me toward several helpful books containing vast information on black singers….spirituals….and preachers…

    It is a different genre, entirely….. Do you have a defenition that you could share with us?

    I do feel in some way–black gospel is a part of SG…however, it is also independent of it as well….I guess it depends on the type song…..I dont know, its a difficult thing to define.

  7. JW wrote:

    Perhaps the funniest part of the story… the musicology professor sent me to a documentary called “Powerhouse for God” http://www.der.org/films/powerhouse-for-god-preview.html

    which “accuratley” depicts Southern Baptist life in white appalachaia…….
    He strongley tied “Southern Gospel” music to this….


  8. SG Obzerver wrote:

    #3 - David Bruce Murray - I am not sure that it is SUPPOSED to resonate with the fans. I get the impression most of Doug’s writing is more like a “Field Guide” to Southern Gospel…catering to the outlanders peeking in on our quiaint little village. It’s kind of like how Amish people must feel.

  9. quartet-man wrote:

    My understanding is that it used to just be called gospel music. At least up until the seventies or early eighties. I think CCM split because of the new style, but yeah it was known as Jesus music first. Years ago (in the eighties) I was looking for SG albums. A book I had that gave places that sold gospel found me usually finding out that the gospel they had as black gospel. I think they called what I was looking for “white gospel.”

  10. Angie M wrote:

    #3 DBM: I’d imagine that this is sometimes logistically more difficult than it would seem to be. This is not a perfect analogy, but I’ve had a similar experience. When people asked me if my first guide dog was a seeing eye dog, I generally would say that she was, because the explanation required more time than I had available for the conversation. But I would have never told another guide-dog user (or someone who worked with blind people) that my dog was a seeing eye dog. “Seeing Eye dog” happens to be a trade-marked name for dogs trained at a particular training center. (Actually, my current dog is a Seeing Eye dog; my last dog was a Guide Dog.) As someone else pointed out, I think “white gospel” is primarily used to quickly educate those who aren’t insiders when you encounter them on the elevator, for example.

  11. quartet-man wrote:

    #10 Angie, sort of like calling a Puffs Facial tissue a kleenex. Kleenex and Puffs are from different companies I believe.

  12. Wade wrote:

    You are correct QMan

  13. Angie M wrote:

    #11 Exactly. Sometimes, though, I don’t have time to explain all of that to the person who asks about my dog. :)

  14. AnnD wrote:

    I think the term “southern gospel” came into being, so to speak, in the late 70s (or so) concerning categories for the Dove Awards/GMA.

  15. Kyle wrote:

    Does anybody remember the blooper from Gaither’s “Memphis Homecoming” B-roll? He tries to explain that both “white and black gospel” music had roots in Memphis, but as he was doing his speech, he said, “both white AND gospel music….” Freudian slip??

  16. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    Angie #10,
    Yes, it may be difficult to explain in words. In fact, I believe descriptions and quick generic summations like “white gospel”…which is even more generic than “southern gospel”…lead to even more confusion for the uninitiated.

    Lend them a copy of the NQC 2008 DVD, though, and they should get the message clearly.

    - - - -
    It’s a bit like a guy from Atlanta talking to a guy from Chicago.

    Southerner: I’m from Atlanta.

    Chicogoan: I have a cousin who lives down there.

    Southerner: What area?

    Chicagoan: I believe he’s in West Virginia.

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