Race and sg

Part of what accounts my recent bloggerly silence is work on a couple of book chapters about the history (and historiography) of southern gospel, and one issue I’ve had to deal with recently is the question of race and southern gospel - specifically, how comparatively late into the twentieth century mainstream southern  gospel acts were appearing alongside, recording music specifically addressed to, or otherwise making a point of being conspicuously a part of Jim Crow politicians and culture.

On the one hand, this should come as little surprise given the southern, white roots of the music. On the other hand, it’s also true that the world of southern gospel has pretty effectively contracted more or less collective amnesia in the last quarter century or so about its often (at best) somewhat checkered past in terms of race, so that it’s not necessarily a given to think of sg and race intersecting.  There are a lot of caveats and issues here (for one, white southern yeomanry and their descendants lived largely separate lives from blacks drom Reconstruction onward well into the mid century), and you’ll have to read the book for the fuller discussion (though this guy gives you a flavor of the sort of thing we’re talking about as part of his larger exploration of Elvis and race),  but my question here is: how late did this sort of thing go on in mainstream sg - high profile groups and personalities affiliating themselves with segregationist politicians and policies?

I have documented instances of well-known sg names appearing with loud and proud segregationists well into the mid-1970s (h/t, DA). But after that, overt supremacism seems to trail off. I’ve always assumed this was the delayed effect of Civil Rights legislation trickling down culturally into ordinary every day life, where it was becoming by the 1970s  at least potentially unpalatable to publicly espouse supremacist views in polite society. But I’d be curious to hear the general consensus (if there is one), esp from anyone who was there for this stuff.

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Comments

  1. NG wrote:

    As a white man in Canada, I’m not sure that I can add much to this discussion other than point out some interesting reading. I will note that I was taught by the first black teacher in Toronto history (he was appointed in 1951) so race is not certainly not just a Southern US issue.

    I highly recommend Charles Wolfe’s article, Presley and the Gospel Tradition which can be found in the Elvis Reader published by St. Martin’s Press, New York in 1992. The early part of Michael Bain’s book “White Boy singin’ the Blues” has a chapter called “Jesus in Black and White” a great title for a CD set. The Da Capo Press edition of Bane’s book was published in 1982.

  2. Kyle wrote:

    In the Oaks’ 1986 biography, Noel Fox talked about the backlash they received in 1970 and ‘71 when they started singing and recording Andrae Crouche songs. “Through It All,” “I Don’t Know Why Jesus Loved Me,” and the like were considered no-no’s in a lot of places. Forget the fact that “Through It All” has become a modern classic of sorts, especially through SG.

  3. Jeff Crews wrote:

    Has anyone else heard the live Statesmen album where Hovie talks about being invited to a church in Washington DC? He goes on to tell that the church “has already done what they’ve been trying to do in Little Rock.” Explaining that the church was intergrated, Hovie says, “When we got there, the church was 50% black, and the rest of it was ni**ers.” Audience laughs for at least 60 continuous seconds. I have it on cd. It makes the same circles as the song of Les Beasley’s mic solo’d out from the group and instruments, the fake version of James Blackwood singing Elvira, and The Blackwood Brothers’ bus driver singing, “I Love Those Dearhearts.” It always made me laugh when watching Gaither Homecomings to see Hovie sitting next to Jessie Dixon after hearing that live recording from the 50′’s.

  4. Auke wrote:

    I’ve heard a story about James Blackwood being saddened by the fact that he and the blackwoods couldn’t share a supper in a diner after a gig where they and a black group performed. I really can’t belief that Elvis,The Statesmen and other groups were racists or bigots….all we prolly can hold against them that they obeyed the law of the southland.

    Auke

  5. CVH wrote:

    I remember many conversations with Sherman Andrus and of some the things he went through when he joined the Imperials in 1972. Even though they were always on the musically-progressive end of things and may not have been considered SG in comparison to groups like The Blackwoods or The Statesmen, they certainly paid the price for adding a black singer to their roster.

  6. quartet-man wrote:

    #2, AND, Joe Bonsall in the same book talked about hearing some audience member(s) talking about they weren’t going to stick around and be around THOSE people. (I think I am remembering that right. I will try to check out and give the quote for mine and yours later.

  7. cdguy wrote:

    Kyle — your story reminded me of a friend who attended an independant fundamental Baptist church in Nashville, back in the 80’s (Bob Jones followers) who forbade anything that included drums or bass guitar, or anything written by blacks.

    My friend blessed the congregation one Sunday with his rendition of “My Tribute”, then later told the pastor who the composer was. He was able to make a point, without getting the pastor nor congregation in an uproar.

    The same friend had attended Liberty Collage (Falwell’s school) in the early 70’s, and was a part of one of the PR groups Jerry took around the country with his “Jesus First” rallies. One pastor met their bus, and informed Falwell the church allowed “no slacks, no tracks, and no blacks.” I’m pleased to report Jerry kindly thanked the gentleman for the information, and had the driver head out to look for another church at which to hold their rally that night.

    The irony of the entire subject, as relating to sgm, in my mind, is that the Statesmen and other groups of that era sang songs originally recorded by black gospel groups (perhaps homogonizing them some) and the white crowds loved them.

    I’ll be really honest about one sg presentation I saw about 3 years ago, that I didn’t think was appropriate in today’s climate. A prominant quartet lead singer of the day was singing a gospel song (that may or may not have originated in black gospel), and as he sang, he strutted around “George Jefferson style.” I thought that was a little too over-the-top. He may as well have performed in black-face, IMO.

  8. Extra Ink wrote:

    3 years ago….”A prominent lead singer of the day”…????….Was 3 years ago a different era?

  9. Bones wrote:

    Everyone seemed to like Teddy Huffum and The Gems. They could tear the place up.

  10. John Crenshaw wrote:

    The recording Jeff Crews refers to was recorded at a concert in Fort Worth, Texas in 1959. It’s a great concert, but the recording was never intended to be released to the public. Those were much different times.

    However, the last live album the Statesmen recorded in 1979 also featured Hovie telling a story about their visit to a black church in Raleigh, N.C. It’s a little more politically correct than the Fort Worth story.

  11. Ethan wrote:

    Anyone know where you can buy those old classic live recordings?

  12. CWG wrote:

    Attended an Orell S.G. concert in Detroit - Ford Auditorium - in the late 60’s and was surprised by a capacity 100% white audience.

  13. David J. Stuart wrote:

    Some folks may have took offense to when Dale Shelnut used to talk like a black guy, and sing like one purposely, or the old Gold City track Ezekiel saw the wheel, where he acted like a black guy, then said a comment about getting some watermelon.

  14. Kyle wrote:

    Here’s the Dale Shelnut reference to “colored spirituals.”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6gMSDpoVeXg

  15. cdguy wrote:

    Extra Ink — To the best of knowledge, that lead singer is no longer singing professionally. That’s why I worded it that way.

  16. Bones wrote:

    If you went to see the Hawkins Family, Fair Field Four, Blind Boys of Alabama, Mighty Clouds of Joy it would mostly be a black audience. People just so hear what they like. That sounds like a good concert. Lets go.

  17. NG wrote:

    Every year Oxford American magazine puts out a music edition about southern music (lots of kinds) which includes one or two CDs. It’s a steal at $12. It has never included SGM but often has Black gospel and great writing about it.

    This year a writer named Greg Bottoms, commenting on a Black Gospel recording, writes: ” The body is a vessel. The voice is an instrument. The soul is a connector, only one side of which is connected to you. . . When it is connected in song, it becomes like a wire. Beautiful gospel opens the current. That is why as we listen our whole bodies thrum.”

    “This life is our burden, but music, if made right . . . can transform pain into joy, darkness into light. It can patch the disruptions of the past by facing us towards our final escape into the future.”

  18. Soli Deo Gloria wrote:

    Southern gospel’s institutional racism, past and present, isn’t funny, and shouldn’t be wistfully reminisced about.

  19. Jeff Crews wrote:

    Soli Deo,
    The story about Hovie and the Statesmen isn’t racism. It reflects PREJUDICE that was widely accepted and embraced in the 1950’s South. I’m not splitting hairs, there is a difference. Racism is the active effort to keep a race of people down. Prejudices are ideas formed by experience or ignorance. It’s still wrong, you understand, but it is different. I’ll say about Hovie what Lewis Grizzard said about a southern politician from the 1960’s South - “He was singing segregation, but he wasn’t singing a solo.” As a note of encouragement, I know that lots of those 1950’s quartet guys drastically changed their ideas about lots of things over the years. I travelled with Jake Hess late in his life, and though he was raised in the segregated South, he legitimately did not see color. He loved Jessie Dixon and on one occassion, when a long time Hess fan and friend told Jake that he wouldn’t be coming to any Gaither Concerts to sit and listen to a bunch of “nigs”, Jake told him straight out that those “nigs” were his friends and some of the finest people it was his pleasure to know. I also think Hovie was just playing to the audience of the time. I know that they were friends with black quartets from that era. Jake talked with great fondness for the Golden Gate Quartet and the Jubilee Four, who he counted as friends. The Statesmen were also great fans of those groups and did many of their songs, like Get Away Jordan and others. I think Bill Gaither had a lot to do with bringing black and white Gospel music together by focusing on what the music types had in common. if you look at old versions of the Singing News, you will notice there has always been a presence of black groups - Teddy Huffam, Jessie Dixon, Charles Johnson. I know these guys had great friendships with artists like the Florida Boys, The Kingsmen and others.

  20. Auke wrote:

    #19 Jeff what a great post…very accurate i think, and the topic is placed in the proper context.
    I resent all forms of rasiscm,prejudice and such…but i realize all of the mentioned sins/flaws are taught sentiments.
    I really am shocked to read that people who are involved in the world of Gospel music would refer to african-americans as ‘nigs’ …unbelievable that this is still on the agenda of some…may i say very stupid folk.
    Auke

  21. quartet-man wrote:

    Jeff, you are right about the differences between the two. Racism and homophobic are two words carelessly and often misused when thrown around often. Although both exist, racism is as you defined and homophobia is an irrational fear, not disagreeing with or speaking against. Someone disagreeing with or speaking out against COULD on occasion be caused by racism, neither are always the root cause.

  22. gabriella422001 wrote:

    I could tell you people a thing or two about racism in the southern gospel and independent baptist world. But I won’t. If they aren’t OUTRIGHT to your face racists, believe me, they will find a way to “get you”. Its all still alive and well, people just don’t uh, admit it. But dirty racism lives on.

  23. KC wrote:

    And now, some racism humor from one of my favorite musicals: Avenue Q. :)

    Princeton:
    Say, Kate, can I ask you a question?

    Kate Monster:
    Sure!

    Princeton:
    Well, you know Trekkie Monster upstairs?

    Kate Monster:
    Uh huh.

    Princeton:
    Well, he’s Trekkie Monster, and you’re Kate Monster.

    Kate Monster:
    Right.

    Princeton:
    You’re both Monsters.

    Kate Monster:
    Yeah.

    Princeton:
    Are you two related?

    Kate Monster:
    What?! Princeton, I’m surprised at you! I find that racist!

    Princeton:
    Oh, well, I’m sorry! I was just asking!

    Kate Monster:
    Well, it’s a touchy subject.
    No, not all Monsters are related.
    What are you trying say, huh?
    That we all look the same to you?
    Huh, huh, huh?

    Princeton:
    No, no, no, not at all. I’m sorry,
    I guess that was a little racist.

    Kate Monster:
    I should say so. You should be much more
    careful when you’re talking about the
    sensitive subject of race.

    Princeton:
    Well, look who’s talking!

    Kate Monster:
    What do you mean?

    Princeton:
    What about that special Monster School you told me about?

    Kate Monster:
    What about it?

    Princeton:
    Could someone like me go there?

    Kate Monster:
    No, we don’t want people like you-

    Princeton:
    You see?!

    You’re a little bit racist.

    Kate Monster:
    Well, you’re a little bit too.

    Princeton:
    I guess we’re both a little bit racist.

    Kate Monster:
    Admitting it is not an easy thing to do…

    Princeton:
    But I guess it’s true.

    Kate Monster:
    Between me and you,
    I think

    Both:
    Everyone’s a little bit racist
    Sometimes.
    Doesn’t mean we go
    Around committing hate crimes.
    Look around and you will find
    No one’s really color blind.
    Maybe it’s a fact
    We all should face
    Everyone makes judgments
    Based on race.

    Princeton:
    Now not big judgments, like who to hire
    or who to buy a newspaper from -

    Kate Monster:
    No!

    Princeton:
    No, just little judgments like thinking that Mexican
    busboys should learn to speak goddamn English!

    Kate Monster:
    Right!

    Both:
    Everyone’s a little bit racist
    Today.
    So, everyone’s a little bit racist
    Okay!
    Ethinic jokes might be uncouth,
    But you laugh because
    They’re based on truth.
    Don’t take them as
    Personal attacks.
    Everyone enjoys them -
    So relax!

    Princeton:
    All right, stop me if you’ve heard this one.

    Kate Monster:
    Okay!

    Princeton:
    There’s a plan going down and there’s only
    one paracute. And there’s a rabbi, a priest…

    Kate Monster:
    And a black guy!

    Gary Coleman:
    Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout Kate?

    Kate Monster:
    Uh…

    Gary Coleman:
    You were telling a black joke!

    Princeton:
    Well, sure, Gary, but lots of people tell black jokes.

    Gary Coleman:
    I don’t.

    Princeton:
    Well, of course you don’t - you’re black!
    But I bet you tell Polack jokes, right?

    Gary Coleman:
    Well, sure I do. Those stupid Polacks!

    Princeton:
    Now, don’t you think that’s a little racist?

    Gary Coleman:
    Well, damn, I guess you’re right.

    Kate Monster:
    You’re a little bit racist.

    Gary Coleman:
    Well, you’re a little bit too.

    Princeton:
    We’re all a little bit racist.

    Gary Coleman:
    I think that I would
    Have to agree with you.

    Princeton/Kate Monster:
    We’re glad you do.

    Gary Coleman:
    It’s sad but true!
    Everyone’s a little bit racist -

    All right!

    Kate Monster:
    All right!

    Princeton:
    All right!

    Gary Coleman:
    All right!
    Bigotry has never been
    Exclusively white

    All:
    If we all could just admit
    That we are racist a little bit,
    Even though we all know
    That it’s wrong,
    Maybe it would help us
    Get along.

    Princeton:
    Oh, Christ do I feel good.

    Gary Coleman:
    Now there was a fine upstanding black man!

    Princeton:
    Who?

    Gary Coleman:
    Jesus Christ.

    Kate Monster:
    But, Gary, Jesus was white.

    Gary Coleman:
    No, Jesus was black.

    Kate Monster:
    No, Jesus was white.

    Gary Coleman:
    No, I’m pretty sure that Jesus was black-

    Princeton:
    Guys, guys…Jesus was Jewish!

    Brian:
    Hey guys, what are you laughing about?

    Gary Coleman:
    Racism!

    Brian:
    Cool.

    Christmas Eve:
    BRIAN! Come back here!
    You take out lecycuraburs!

    Princeton:
    What’s that mean?

    Brian:
    Um, recyclables.
    Hey, don’t laugh at her!
    How many languages do you speak?

    Kate Monster:
    Oh, come off it, Brian!
    Everyone’s a little bit racist.

    Brian:
    I’m not!

    Princeton:
    Oh no?

    Brian:
    Nope!

    How many Oriental wives
    Have you got?

    Christmas Eve:
    What? Brian!

    Princeton:
    Brian, buddy, where you been?
    The term is Asian-American!

    Christmas Eve:
    I know you are no
    Intending to be
    But calling me Oriental -
    Offensive to me!

    Brian:
    I’m sorry, honey, I love you.

    Christmas Eve:
    And I love you.

    Brian:
    But you’re racist, too.

    Christmas Eve:
    Yes, I know.
    The Jews have all
    The money
    And the whites have all
    The power.
    And I’m always in taxi-cab
    With driver who no shower!

    Princeton:
    Me too!

    Kate Monster:
    Me too!

    Gary Coleman:
    I can’t even get a taxi!

    All:
    Everyone’s a little bit racist
    It’s true.
    But everyone is just about
    As racist as you!
    If we all could just admit
    That we are racist a little bit,
    And everyone stopped being
    So PC
    Maybe we could live in -
    Harmony!

    Christmas Eve:
    Evlyone’s a ritter bit lacist!

  24. Doles wrote:

    RE: #19-
    Although I’ve never posted anything on this, I found your post so moving I had to say something. I fell in love with this music through Homecoming thing, and it was a treat for me to watch and learn about all these people. I am among the least recognizable southern gospel fans (well, perhaps not southern gospel altogether) as I don’t fit the typical description. However since the first time I saw Jake Hess, my heart was fill with joy watching this piece of human singing like no others I’ve ever seen. I always had my reservations as to how many of them really carried prejudiced sentiments, although I didn’t care much because I love the music so much. I have to say that Jake was the one I was always ready to bet on. He just didn’t seem to care what race, color, or anything you were as long as you loved the Lord and could sing for Him. Boy, am I glad to hear that he probably wasn’t too much a misguided soul. I do believe all humans carry some prejudice. I just tend to navigate towards those who at least try to be fair with everyone.

  25. John Crenshaw wrote:

    Jeff, #19 was a great, informative post.

  26. princess7275 wrote:

    Interesting topic….I’m a southern gospel fan, and I attend concerts as often as I can. It tickles me the looks that I get when I’m the only African American in the audience….

  27. Jeff Crews wrote:

    This is not so much about racism, but about how musicians I’ve known are in general very accepting of others who are different than they. I loved and respected James Blackwood, but he had an expectedly “old white man” response to those who were different. I remember him writing a letter to the singing news blasting a Dove award ceremony he attended late in his life where the people’s hair and clothing were not appropriate to him. His response, however, was unique in my experience. I remember Jake being “hot” at the singing news when they came out with their facial hair and hair dress code for their magazine. He said, “Guy Penrod is one of the most Christ-like individuals I’ve ever met and a SUPER singer. He can wear his hair any way he wants, and it’s fine by me.” I also remember Hovie being “hot” at a NQC crowd who did not give Ricky Skaggs a standing O. it was the same year Ivan and Kirk were “hot” that there were no SG soloists on the main stage, but a bluegrass guy was given time. Hovie said talent is talent, and Christians are Christians whether they are singing old Statesmen songs or Bill Monroe tunes. Jim Hammil who was everybody’s favorite tobacco spitting redneck uncle was quick to share the stage and friendship with Teddy Huffam. The Rambos were threatened in my home state for singing songs from Dottie’s album of “black gospel.” JD Sumner said he always “liked to have a queer in the group just to keep things interesting.” Jake didn’t share that sentiment, however. Regardless of preferences or upbringing music is the common language that ties (tied) all those folks together.

  28. Luke Vaught wrote:

    This is not really adding anything to the discussion, but where in the world can I find that recording of the Statesmen Quartet Live at Fort Worth Texas Will Rogers Auditorium? I have almost all of the Statesmens records, including the 3 RCA live albums and the later Skylite live album, and I am EXTREMELY curious about where I can get this unreleased (I assume) live recording that everyone keeps talking about. Any help would be GREATLY appreciated!

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