Innovation and Decline
Now that grades are in and the summer has arrived for me, I’ve been spending a lot of time researching and reading about the early origins of white gospel music – mostly filling in gaps in my knowledge and reading into adjacent contexts and traditions. Yesterday I was reading about singing schools and conventions and stumbled across this:
The seven-shape-note tradition … became a dynamic vehicle for gospel songwriters in the late nineteenth century and attracted a growing body of new compositions, which demonstrated greater musical sophistication than their fasola cousins. Seven-shape-note songbooks exhibited the musical versatility which appealed to young attendees at singing schools and were responsible, therefore, for the growing popularity of the seven-shape-note tradition.
There’s nothing new here, but the article from which this bit is excerpted goes on to retrace the rise of commercial southern gospel in the twentieth century, including the emergence of the convention songbooks, quartets, and V.O. Stamps’ strategic integration of radio, publishing, and live performance in ways that exerted a shaping force on American music far beyond Christian entertainment – for instance, one author I read made a persuasive case for Stamps as the grandfather to the Top 40 concept in contemporary radio.
The takeaway here is that for most of the first half of the twentieth century, what we now call southern gospel music was really a driving force for invention, creativity, and strategic business innovation – in both sacred and secular music as well as popular and vernacular traditions.
And now, not so much. There are many reasons why this ceased to be the case – the most important being the rise of a newly affluent middle-class that preferred spectatorial modes of entertainment over the more participatory nature of Protestant evangelical music (indeed, virtually every major innovation in American music that white gospel has contributed to the broader musical culture – the seven note system, songbooks, traveling quartets, the all night singing – was developed as a way to directly or indirectly intensify the consumer-audience’s engagement in the music). But for now, I’m more interested in the fact that the innovation did end, by and large.
I was trying to think last night of what the last major musical or music-industrial innovation was to come out of southern gospel. Gaither and Homecoming only half count, because Gaither has always been a stylistic polyglot. So before Homecoming, what would it be? Dove Awards and GMA? Nope. The Grammys and
I wonder if part of the problem is not just that the socioeconomic ground shifted dramatically over the past several decades or so in ways that accelerated southern gospel’s marginalization from the mainstream. More fundamentally, the industry is or will soon be almost entirely populated by people who have never not known southern gospel in decline (and here I speak of the actual historical fact of southern gospel’s demonstrable decline since the 70s onward, not the pervasive good-ole-days talk that in sg probably dates back to just a few minutes after the ink was dry on the first gospel music songbook).
Music or any other creative undertaking forged in teeth of declension mentality inevitably produces inferior art, since the artist is trying to re-create something of which he has little or no experiential knowledge. That doesn’t mean there have been no stylistic innovations in southern gospel. In fact, I think it testifies to the artistic integrity and vitality of the music that stylistic innovations persist (with increasing infrequency, but persist all the same) even as the industry continues to disintegrate.
But the structural impediments to innovation and foresight are substantial. If V.O. Stamps were around today, he certainly wouldn’t be in southern gospel.
Later: a reader asks, “Can you elaborate on what stylistic innovations you have heard in SG in the past, say, 20 years? I’m just curious. When I think of SG, the word innovative would never come up.” Good question.
I didn’t say sg was innovative on the whole or that “innovation” is what comes to mind when I think of genre. Only that there have been innovations stylistically, and that this is not unremarkable given the moribund state of the industry in the main. Examples of stylistic innovation in the last twenty years: Gaither Vocal Band through most of the 90s (esp music from the Murray-English years and the neo-quartet stuff from the English-Lowry-Franklin years), the Martins, the Isaacs, and, whether you like it or not, EHSSQ, which seems pretty consciously committed to Baptist Broadway quartet music (I mean, listen to “Reason Enough” and see if you can find a subgenre of CCM in which that would obviously and naturally belong).
These examples are distinct in my mind from what is and has been going on in CCM at the same time because unlike the drift in CCM toward creating stylistic categories of Christian entertainment that mirror secular styles (take hip-hop, R&B, AC, pop, punk, rap, etc, then Jesusify it), the movement among gospel music’s most innovative artists is toward sounds that you can’t and won’t find in mainstream music (secular or Christian) for the most part. This was the argument I was trying, somewhat unsuccessfully, to make back when we were discussing the Doves. My claim isn’t that sg’s innovations are anywhere nearly as successful or popular as mainstream Christian entertainment, only that popular success and creative innovation are not the same thing.
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