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.Email this Post