Who’s the father?
Of southern gospel, that is. That’s a question that both Daniel Mount and David Bruce Murray have both seized on in responding to Then Sings My Soul (DBM also goes another big step further here, but I’m going to stick to his more direct response to what he read of my book for the purposes of this post). Particularly, Mount and Murray have taken issue with their reading of my reading of the importance of Aldine Kieffer (compared to James Vaughan) in the history of southern gospel.
Mount claims that I argue that Aldine Kieffer is the “father” of southern gospel today, and then proceeds to dismantle this claim by showing that everything that’s important stylistically, technologically, and economically about southern gospel today was actually popularized and institutionalized by Vaughan.
And here’s Murray, in a similar vein: “Saying Aldine Kieffer contributed to some of the traditions that Vaughan built and expanded on is fair, but saying Kieffer started what we now call Southern Gospel is rather absurd.”
Indeed it would be absurd to say that, if that’s what I said (just as it would have been pretty silly to try to argue that Kieffer was somehow more instrumental in innovations such as radio and phonographs and traveling quartets and other things that didn’t even exist in his time than Vaughan). Except that I don’t say these things or make these arguments.
What I actually say with respect to Kieffer is that I’m interested in “tak[ing] seriously the notion of Kieffer as founding figure in southern white gospel and explor[ing] the implications of this view for our understanding of the music’s cultural function that continues into our time” (55).
Though my choice of “founding figure” (rather than the founding figure or founding “father”) was quite purposeful, the key phrase here is “cultural function.” Now I get that academic prose can seem purposefully obtuse or appear needlessly “flowery,” as both Murray and Mount (and many of their readers) point out in different ways. That’s often true, and I’m sure there are plenty of places in the book where I could have been clearer. But this particular question is one of those cases where paying attention to language is really important – both for me as the writer who chose the words and for readers engaging meaningfully with the argument (which, I should say, I’m delighted Murray and Mount are doing on this issue … it’s the kind of substantive give and take I’ve always wished there was more of in the southern gospel blogosphere).
If you assume a phrase like “the music’s cultural function” is a piece of academic sophistry or just a highfalutin way of saying “the music’s history,” then it will indeed seem absurd to suggest that Kieffer was more important in any understanding of southern gospel as we know it today than Vaughan (or Sumner or Gaither or whomever else from the more recent rise of mass-market professional southern gospel).
But the history of modern southern gospel – the documented story of how one thing led to another in the past to get us where we are today – has already been ably written by James Goff in Close Harmony.
Of course knowing the history of the music is essential to understanding southern gospel, and I have great respect for – and have been influenced by – Goff’s work (the introduction to my book discusses what I’m trying to accomplish in contrast to Goff’s more traditional historical account, and footnote 13 on page 185 discusses the relationship of my book to Goff’s in more specific detail). But as I write in the book, there are limits to what we can know about why southern gospel music matters if we focus only on the “changes over time in the way the music was created, sold, and consumed.” This approach leaves “very little room for any meaningful engagement with the sonic experience of southern music in all its lived, immediate, soul-stirring power.”
It is this power and the way it has operated in southern gospel as a means for people to form and express a particular kind of religious identity that I mean by “cultural function,” and though this function is related to the rise of quartets, custom coaches, record labels, gospel radio and other countless factors that were indispensable to turning shape note singing at the turn of the twentieth century into the modern industry most people think of as constituting “southern gospel” today, it’s not the same thing and doesn’t require all those modern technological and business innovations to exist and thrive.
In this light, I’m interested in Kieffer because his life and career powerfully capture the dominant ways of feeling, thinking, and behaving that have been part of southern gospel in its modern form, which I date from Reconstruction. The states of mind, feeling, and the expression of feelings associated with what we now call southern gospel were made much more widely available in America by the technological innovations and entrepreneurial insights that Vaughan pioneered. But the deeper reasons people were and are drawn to music and what they get out of this experience - that is, the emergence of gospel’s cultural function - predate Vaughan’s career and took formative shape, or so I argue, in Kieffer’s time and were embodied most vividly in his life and work.
Murray thinks I’m just moving the historical goal posts (“Doug would only need to jump back to the hymn writers like the Wesley’s, Crosby, Watts, and Newton and say they started Southern Gospel”). But that’s because he assumes I’m making a case for Kieffer on Vaughan’s terms. I’m not. Rather, I’m proposing to highlight a different set of issues and dynamics that are at least as - and, I argue, more - important in order to understand southern gospel, and then trying to understand the people and events associated with these other factors.
In their understanding of southern gospel, Murray and Mount (and as I try to suggest in Chapter 3, most of the southern gospel world) privilege that part of southern gospel history that looks and sounds and acts most like what we call southern gospel today. All roads lead to Vaughan in this view (or maybe Sumner). Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just not the argument I’m making in the book.Email this Post