Southern Gospel in theory and practice

I write to you, loyal readers, from the big belly of the the giant Peabody Hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas (the place with the ducks everywhere) and the Society for American Music annual conference. I gave a paper yesterday as part of a panel on shape-note gospel and its legacies (you can see the full schedule here), a panel whose papers powerfully captured the growing scholarly interest in reimagining the boundaries of what the gospel phenomenon encompasses to take seriously white gospel traditions that have long been overlooked or ignored.

That’s the theory part. The practice side of things - the really fun stuff - came last night in the form of the Folk and Traditional Music Interest Group’s hosting “Gospel Convention Singing in Arkansas Today” (many thanks are due Steve Shearon of MTSU, a tireless and eloquent advocate among scholars of music for better understanding and appreciation of the vast cultural resources that exist past and present in southern gospel convention singing and shape-note music).

As the old song says, oh the glory did roll. Marty Phillips and the Brothers Jeffress from the Jeffress/Phillips Music company brought with them a host of convention singers from all the over the state, including Jonathan Sawrie (who both sang and played the piano and who I gather is still gigging on the road now and then when the spirit moves and personnel necessity for quartets arises), Eugene Gifford, and Ellen Marsh. Marsh was particularly virtuosic at the piano: she’s near the Tracey Phillips caliber of gospel player, and I was struck last night as much as anything by her sense of timing … there were moments during her accompaniment of Sawrie’s “My Gawd is Real” in which her rhythms were nothing short of artisanal in their merger of jazz impulses repurposed for great gospel effect (and Marsh is evidently having hand surgery today … send thoughts her way).

Finally, Bob Brumely and family were there (one of my co-presenters and organizers of the panel on which I presented, Kevin Kehrberg, from Warren Wilson College, has written an acclaimed dissertation on Albert Brumley and shape note music, which many of use are hopeful will soon appear in book form). Brumely (fil) is nothing short of an oracle in the convention world, and listening to him talk (and then sing), I was reminded of how skillfully the Brumley universe has managed to remain both beloved by the convention singing world and powerfully a part of the professional southern gospel realm - no small feat to have pulled off over the past three or four decades when the centers of energy in convention singing and professional southern gospel have grown farther and farther apart. I mentioned something to this effect to Brumley after the singing and he graciously attributed this success to the powerful catalog of songs his father left behind. I don’t doubt that’s true, but Brumley’s been an insightful and savvy bidness man to deploy the power of that catalog so strategically lo these many years since Albert E.’s passing.     

Anyway, there are fewer pleasures more satisfying than seeing and hearing and joining one’s voice in a chorus of gospel song … and personally and professionally feeling the old antagonisms between thought and action, theory and practice dissolve under the vitality of close harmony. More conventions singings, please. 

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  1. Georgia Reader wrote:

    Oh yes. The glory does roll in the singing conventions in the small churches of western Georgia. Although I am an infrequent church attendee, I attend and enjoy all of the convention singings I can. The future of this art form looks bleak based on the advanced age of most attendees. Trying to enjoy it while it lasts.

  2. John C wrote:

    I’d rather listen to Ellen Marsh play the piano than eat a steak when I’m hungry. She can infuse jazz into a gospel song like nobody else. She can make “Just As I Am” sound like “Honeysuckle Rose” and I still want to go to the altar.

  3. NG wrote:

    Couldn’t have said it better (or even as well) as John C in his comments on Ellen Marsh’s piano playing. Sawrie, while an amazing singer, is also terrific on the piano as he showed playing “Ain’t Misbehavin” at the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion last year.

  4. Matt G. wrote:

    Ellen Marsh is phenomenal. I wish there were more recordings of her out there.

  5. irishlad wrote:

    I felt compelled to slip this OT snippet in here.The UK has just launched it’s first Official Christian & Gospel Album charts. The Aussi rock band Hillsong United are #1.
    No Sg group are in the top 20.
    Christian/Gospel music in the UK goes virtually unrecognized so it’s good to see this fledgling joint venture with Compassion UK.

  6. irishlad wrote:

    Happy Saint Patrick’s Day everyone!

  7. Dean Adkins wrote:

    Now FGCU is famous for something besides the writings of Doug Harrison.

  8. Gayla wrote:

    Ellen Marsh and Jonathan Sawrie are simply two of the most talented individuals that I have ever had the privilege of considering friends!

  9. irishlad wrote:

    RIP Gordon Stoker Jordanaires at 88

  10. CVH wrote:

    Thirty more days passed and the silence continued…I stayed on the trail but it was getting colder by the day…colder than the Goodmans brushing off the Oaks. Where had the elusive Dr. Harrison disappeared to?

    Had he been buried in the far corner of a research library under a 20-volume set of ‘The Wit and Wisdom of Rex Nelon’?

    Passed out in the back of the FGCU chartered bus?

    Kidnapped and held for ransom by the interns because of their squalid working conditions? (I’ll chip in five bucks and a couple Cracker Barrel coupons if it will help).

    No, he was simply gone. Faster than a “Tonite Only!” special at the McKamey’s record table. Then it hit me…I was watching that Robin Williams movie, “Mrs. Doubtfire” which I’d accidentally taped over an NQC highlights video and that scene came on where they put on the ‘fat suit’ and the latex and makeup and wardrobe and he’s transformed into Mrs. Doubtfire…
    I thought, could it be?

    I began to pull information together; photos, cell phone records, Twitter accounts. Airline records and TSA video was reviewed. Confidential sources filled in the gaps and there it was. I looked at the images closely and I have to admit Suzan Speer did an amazing job with the transformation. Short of running a DNA test, there was no mistaking it - Doug Harrison is - Gloria Gaither.

    Unsettling for sure but the mystery is solved.

  11. Chuck Peters wrote:

    How ya doin?

  12. Wade wrote:

    Ha Ha CVH… I bet Bill wished… he (Dr. DH in Drag as GG) could possibly be companions for a few people on the tour and would not care what kind of possible mischief Bill might get in on TOUR!!!

    His drag name is Glorya Gaythor!!

  13. irishlad wrote:

    Wade,CVH there’s been a mass exodus to Gospel Music CSI.Recruiting detectives as i speak.

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