Fondly familiar and sparklingly new

In a comment following up on a recent post about the late sg pianist James D. Walbert, Stephen Shearon made the case for Walbert’s significance in the history of southern gospel and its stylistic development.

 [H]is greater impact, it seems to me, came more from

1) his virtuosity at the keyboard (especially when accompanying fine SG singing);

2) his skill at blending the styles (some might say “genres”) of American pop,  jazz, and standard church music to create a relatively unique personal style that has since become foundational in SG pianists;

Steve also points to Walbert’s knowledge of music theory and his link to the Vaughan name, and these are no doubt important too, but I’m particularly struck by that second point, about the hybridized style of accompaniment that Walbert helped cement as a fixture in southern gospel music.

Around the time Walbert died, I wrote to someone in an email that I had become somewhat smitten with Walbert’s piano work over the summer when I was able to listen to some early Vaughan recordings at MTSU’s Center for Popular Music. But I frustrated myself at not being able to say what, beyond the fact that I liked listening to it, was striking to me.

But in light of this point about Walbert’s seamless blending of styles, it occurs now to me that the presence of Walbert (and a few others like him) at the piano in the mid-century Vaughan quartets roughly coincides with the quartets beginning to really sound like classic southern gospel as we commonly use that phrase today to refer to the now immediately recognizable style of all-male quartets and piano of yore.

Which is to say, the very earliest recorded southern gospel  from the 1920s sounds like nothing so much as four white guys trying to sound like the a cappella black quartets of that era.

By the 30s and 40s, the Vaughan sound - at least as captured in the early recordings - has started to come into its own, is beginning to sound like what I suspect most people imagine southern gospel always sound liked: the Blackwoods, only cracklier. And my point here is that I don’t think it’s entirely a coincidence that by this time the groups were mostly being recorded with piano accompaniment, provided regularly by pianists among whom Walbert was one of the best. 

The evolutions and developments of highly fluid and adaptive genres like southern gospel in the mid-twentieth century are difficult things to nail down. But it seems at least plausible to suggest that while early professional southern gospel was broke out with talented vocalists who could lay down a reliable harmony or solo line, the origins of real stylistic transformation were often coming largely unnoticed from people like Walbert. (Today the transformative energy is, as David Bruce Murray suggests here, coming mostly from producers and arrangers, and, I would add, a few gifted composers).

That the piano should be particularly central to the emergence of white gospel fits with what historians have established about the piano as a symbol of white, middle-class, post-Puritan/Victorian achievement going back as far as the middle of the 19th century.

So far as professional white gospel came to rely on the piano as a constitutive feature of its sound (one that helped distinguish it early on from other related genres – not just black gospel but also other secular styles – far more than might be assumed given the default emphasis on vocal ability), it might not be too much to say that southern gospel has literalized the symbolic value of the piano as a familiar symbol of aesthetic and artistic significance within certain white, evangelical parts of the American world.

But of course pianos don’t play themselves (no, not even player pianos!), and it takes a pianist to produce musical art from the object. Re-enter James D. Walbert. His insight was not only to seamlessly merge several American musical sounds, but to make them subservient to his own ability at the keyboard in a way that fused all those early quartets’ borrowed bits and adapted moves and appropriated approaches into a coherent style. We ultimately came to call it southern gospel, but it really has always been a collection of tastes, interpretations, and what might best be described as movements of the spirit that came to be classified under the same title. At its best, this style sounded then, and still continues to sound, at once fondly familiar and sparklingly new. Which is, now that I think about it, a wonderful way of describing what Walbert’s piano work sounded like to me when I first heard it.

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  1. Jake wrote:


  2. Mike McIlwain wrote:

    Thanks for posting this, Doug. I had hoped that more pianists would have commented. I love reading about the people who laid the groundwork for this great music.

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