Goodwill tour of American music?

No, not that Goodwill … I’m referring instead to something I ran across rereading Fanny Flagg’s novel Standing in the Rainbow. It’s that time when I order books for next semester’s classes, and since I’m reteaching the Gospel Music and American Lit course at the graduate level in the fall, I took another spin through Flagg’s book to see if I wanted to substitute it for any on the current roster (DBM suggested as much and it seemed like a suggestion worth at least considering).

As it turns out, I won’t be using it. Yes, one of the minor characters in the book includes the Oatman Family Gospel Singers (a poor man’s Goodman family, essentially), and Flagg does a decent job of capturing the vernacular lifeways of southern indigenous religious culture (for instance: the family matriarch, Minnie Oatman, convenes a prayer circle to hasten the return of her brother-in-law’s ventriloquist dummy, Chester, after a rival sg group steals it out of their car at a roadside diner one night), but the Oatmans are too much the bit players here to justify inflicting Flagg’s too-often flaccid prose and tip-toe-through-the-tulips narrative meanderings upon unsuspecting readers mainly looking for a story about gospel music.

Anyway, near the end of the book, the Oatmans are chosen to be international ambassadors of American song in Flagg’s imagined universe:

In 1970, the State Department put together a goodwill tour featuring a tribute to American music and the Oatman Family Gospel Singers were chosen to represent southern gospel. They traveled to sixteen countries and had a wonderful time, especially the night of the performance in London at Royal Albert Hall. (448)

So here’s my question to the collective historical mind of Avery’s masses: is this goodwill tour entirely a figment  of Flagg’s imagination or is art imitating life here?

I ask not least of all b/c Flagg clearly imagines herself something of a historical novelist, or doing something like cultural anthropology in fiction - the book spans the post WW-II years up through the turn of the century and using the life and times of Elmwood Springs, Missouri, as a microcosm through to chronicle the changing face of the southern Midwest in the last half of the twentieth century.

Southern gospel is a vital, constitutive part of this history for Flagg. She devotes an entire early chapter to summarizing what she intends to be taken as the real (not fictional) history of southern gospel, which of course starts, as it so often does, with James D. Vaughan. And though she doesn’t seem sure if she wants to love or loathe the Oatmans (who here among us hasn’t encountered this paradox?), she does insist that they be taken seriously, for the most part.

So she clearly has one eye on history in general, and southern gospel history in particular. Then again, she gets basic stuff discreditingly wrong (the “Spear” family, for instance) and has no compunction about interleaving her wholly fictional characters with real-world historical players like Truman and Elvis and Vestal Goodman. There’s not anything wrong with this latter move, mind you, but it does complicate efforts to discern where history ends and imagination takes over in the novel.

The 70s and 80s did see a spike in state-sponsored cultural history initiatives so it wouldn’t be hard to imagine something like the goodwill tour being based in reality, but it’s also something I would think I’d have encountered in my own research and haven’t. Any thoughts from the gallery?

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  1. Kyle wrote:

    In 1976, the Oaks went on a tour to the Soviet Union with Roy Clark and (I think) Mel Tillis, as part of a similar “American Goodwill” tour.

  2. Jonathan Sawrie wrote:

    “And though she doesn’t seem sure if she wants to love or loath the Oatmans (who here among us hasn’t encountered this paradox?)”

    -Me. I’m fairly certain I never cared for the Oatmans. Chester was awesome on “The Record the Color of Which Was in the Wavelength Range of Roughly 630–740 Nanometres”.

  3. BUICK wrote:

    While the Oaks, Mmmmell and Roy are free to tour wherever Americans are free to travel, because of the interpretation/application of the doctrine of the separation of church and state, I doubt that the State Dept. has or ever will include SG artists in a gvt. sponsored Goodwill tour.

    A more intriguing question might be, “If someone were to sponsor a Goodwill Tour that included SG music, what artist(s) would you nominate to represent the country and the genre?”

    I would suggest that any of the bluegrass artists might be a poor choice. We deem them as distinctly American but their Gaelic/Celtic roots are not far beneath the surface. Some of the best SG artists (like Jordanaires and Statesmen) leaned heavily on negro (now, African-American) music. I’d be hard-pressed to point to a distinctly American SG sound. (And perhaps there isn’t one singular SG sound and all SG is just a syncretism of other influences.)

    But anyway, if you were to put together a(n) SG Goodwill Tour, who would you have in it?

  4. NG wrote:

    Can’t find any Oatmans albums on ebay even if they were on the Arthur Godfrey Show. But there is good news for us Canadians. Last night in nearby Hamilton, Ontario Sarah Palin said “Do you know how many people asked me if I’m Canadian . . . I feel right at home with you all. We share a lot in that accent.” And poster #2 down in Arkansas used the Canadian spelling of Nanometres. If this keeps us maybe Celine Dion will be at NQC, eh.

  5. NG wrote:

    Can’t find evidence of a state department goodwill tour involving SGM artists. However, Billboard magazine notes that in the mid-60s a number of SGM groups entertained US troops in USO-sponsored tours. Gospel Echoes (Rambos) did Newfoundland-Labrador; Wendy Bagwell and Sunliters and the Rangers went to Europe; JD and the Stamps went to the Dominican Republic and Christian Troubadors (more of a country gospel group) toured the Far East.

  6. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    I don’t know about a world tour, but it seems so obvious that I’m sure it’s been done before.

    SG groups have been involved in variety shows from time to time. Wendy Bagwell & The Sunliters participated in a show at Carnegie Hall that featured a variety of musical flavors. If I’m remembering the account correctly, the Sunliters were the sole group representing gospel music on that event. Bagwell immortalized the moment in a comedy routine, “The Time We Played Carnegie Hall.”

  7. Kyle wrote:

    Actually, at the time, the Oaks were still doing a predominantly gospel show. The Soviet censors made them eliminate the word “Canaanland” from “Where The Soul Never Dies” (the story goes is that the Soviets wanted them to use “Disneyland,” and they settled on “that sweet land”); otherwise they did their gospel set.

  8. Jerome wrote:

    “Sunliters Tour Courtesy State Dept.”

    Billboard, Oct. 10, 1970, p. 56

    “Wendy and the Sunliters were chosen along with another gospel group by the State Department…”

  9. NG wrote:

    #8 Jerome: Great of you to spot that. I missed it in searching old Billboards.

    Here’s the link:

  10. EJK wrote:

    I think the Rambos sang for troops in Vietnam in the 70s, but I have no idea who sponsored the trip.

  11. Anthony Thaxton wrote:

    I don’t know of any international tours. But I do know that in 1979 Jimmy Carter held an all-day sing and dinner on the grounds at the White House. Anthony Burger was with the Kingsmen then (who performed with The Goodmans and others). Anthony once told me that the main thing he remembered about that event was Amy Carter climbing in one of the trees on the south lawn while two secret service men stood guard at the bottom of the tree. Funny stuff.

  12. Cindy wrote:

    What do you mean by the comment on the “Spear” family? There actually was a Speer family group. Some of the children (now in the upper years of life) are still living and singing.

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