Defaulting on Gospel’s Promissory note

In preparing to interview Anthony Heilbut (most well known for his landmark book on black gospel from the early 1970s, The Gospel Sound), I’ve been spending time with his most recent book, The Fan Who Knew Too Much.

There’s a lot more to be said (some of it from the man himself, I hope, when I talk with him) about the continuum and disruptions between white and black gospels. But near the end of the book, in a discussion on the role of sound recordings in gospel, he hits on an aspect of the gospel experience in the past that helps us understand a great deal about the present: namely, that the mid-twentieth century heyday of gospel was built on an unwritten but widely shared understanding among fans and artists about the role of sound recordings:

They understood that recordings were, in the current parlance, merely a “delivery system,” an advertisement for what [artists] could do [live on stage], and promised to do better after the recordings made them famous. Particularly in gospel … there was a compact between artists and fans that the recording merely initiated an experience that would be completed when the artists appeared in person. Whether single or album or MP3 file, the music remained a calling card, an advertisement for the self. (299)

Though Heilbut is talking about black gospel (and while I think that southern gospel differs from black gospel in that recordings haven’t historically so much made southern gospel artists famous as they have commodified stage fame and made it for sale on a per unit basis), his general insight has legs. Indeed, I think this goes quite some distance in explaining why and how so much of southern gospel has traded its groove in for a rut.

So much of what you’ve gotten from notionally live performance for the past decade or more has become a replaying (very literally) of what one hears on a group’s latest recording, the main difference being that the music is piped through louder - though not always better - sound systems than one has at home or in the car. For the people who like this sort of thing, this is exactly the kind of stuff they love, and they keep turning out and buying tickets or dropping a few bills in the chicken bucket. And of course someone has to be there to hit PLAY on the Canned-Trax-O-Matic and collect all the love from the offering. In the process, there are always a few unexpected sparks of musical immediacy that transcend the plastic sameness of a show built around digitrax, and these moments inevitably become evidence of what is known as talent or popularity or stage appeal.

And yet …

To the extent that the transactional balance between what the fan puts in the chicken bucket and what comes out of the audio system on stage has found a “get what you pay for” equilibrium, I suppose there’s a certain sense to all this (along these lines, Heilbut has a great line elsewhere in the book about many grizzled gospel artists hardbitten by the cutthroat bidness of singing for Jesus taking on the mindset that “if you pretend to pay me, I’ll pretend to sing”). But economically balanced as this arrangement may be, it also feels like to those minority of fans (and make no mistake, despite the loud whinging online, we are a minority) who want live performances to have a less mechanized heartbeat, this state of musical affairs is inevitably alienating.

If the recording used to be a promissory note paid back in full and then some in concert, today the “live” performance is the reverse mortgage of gospel music: not exactly bankruptcy itself but perhaps one of the sure-firest signs of how to go broke artistically.

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  1. NG wrote:

    Heilbut’s book “The Gospel Sound” is one of the best books I’ve read (and re-read) on any type of popular music.

  2. BackwoodsPhilosopher wrote:


    Amen and amen!

    Canned music has stolen the “magic” of a live performance with a live band. Of course, I’m beating the same drum that I have before, but in essence, I actually feel cheated to pay a ticket price to hear an artist or group, and half of what I listen to is canned music.

    I compare it to going to a steakhouse and eating a steak on a paper plate with plastic utensils (which I’ve actually experienced)…….in Georgia, of course.

    Personally, I wouldn’t have a group on the road if I couldn’t afford a live band. I feel that strongly about it. To me, it cheats the audience.

    Even though Gaither has live music, the last time we saw him at the Macon Centreplex, he was not performing in the round. We were sitting quite a distance from the stage and we watched most of the concert on the big screen. I told my husband, “You know…..when you think about it, it’s a little ridiculous to pay $65.00 per ticket to watch a concert on a screen.” We can do this at home.

    Speaking of books on Black Gospel music, Professor Bob Darden of Baylor University in Waco, TX has worked on a research project for quite a while.

    Black Gospel Music Restoration Project

    His new book is due in September, 2012. Here is another book about Black Gospel Music that he authored in 2005.

    People Get Ready: A New History of Black Gospel Music

  3. BackwoodsPhilosopher wrote:

    About my last comment…….I need to make a correction on Bob Darden’s latest book. His new book is actually going to the publisher in September. I’m not sure when the book will be on the market.

  4. Michael McIlwain wrote:

    I think Heilbut has a point. I remember seeing the Kingsmen during the Big Jim era, the Cathedrals and the Hinsons. Their live performances far outshine their albums, even though the groups made good albums. I’m not interested in merely hearing in concert what I can hear on mp3/CD/tape/record.

  5. Mayor-of-Mayberry wrote:


    When you get a chance, you might want to find a copy of Jacques Barzun’s, “From Dawn To Decadence -1500 To The Present - 500 Years of Western Cultural Life”.

    Barzun basically traces the stages of a culture from discovery to the cyclical dead-end. Though he does not delineate each segment as rigidly as I do here, he does tick all the boxes.

    Basically, as his title implies, Music, Arts, and the rest of the stuff move from Origin/Invention to Variation, then to Duplication (copy cats) to Routine Repetition, and finally, Hollow Redundancy.

    While his subjects are broader in nature and have an effect on the culture that SG never dreamed of, or thought of for that matter, the process/stage seems to be identifiable in SG. Your above blog entry more than hints at it.

    In fact, if I read you correctly, SG may be dangerously close to the Hollow Redundancy stage. Granted, there are still enough groups to call themselves an industry, and still enough organizers/promoters around who believe there is gold in “them thar” pews/auditorium seats.

    However, the metaphor that carries the above entry seems to turn the discussion to the question, “What went wrong?” Historically, that question is raised long before the natives notice that the wheels are coming off.

    Barzun’s prologue alone will serve you well.

  6. Dean Adkins wrote:

    I can relate to what Heilbut stated. During the early & mid-60s I couldn’t wait to see the Statesmen after a new LP was released. I wanted to see what Chief was doing as he sang a particular song and what would Hovie say to set it up. Good stuff.

  7. jimmieg wrote:

    @Dean Which is why I have always preferred “Live in Concert” albums, though they were never technically as good as studio recordings. I’m not sure Hovie even played on some studio recordings. (An engineer told me once some good stage musicians made too many errors and caused too many retakes for the studio). And the concert recordings often featured some awful notes. Whichever tenor finished Old Country Church (it was a multi group run on reprise on the Long Beach album) vies for worst tenor note ever in the history of SGM” with another tenor (again a run on reprise) on the Harvesters “At Home” live album (think the Couriers and Rebels were involved there).
    But the live album even with flaws transported you back to the power of the live concert - and made you want to go to the next All-night Sing. Lloyd Orell, are the tickets out yet?

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