For decades an original American artform has been largely ignored outside the Southern States. Now that's changing. Tony Cummings plots the story of SOUTHERN GOSPEL.
By the 20th century, two musical strands in particular were evident in the American church, and both these strands were to have a huge influence on the emergent styles of 20th century popular music. The first was black gospel in all its variants. The second was the church music of the white rural south. At the turn of the century there was an explosion of new religious songs published. Hymn writers like Fanny Crosby, Homer Rodeheaver, and dozens more, found their songs sung, particularly in the new Pentecostal denominations. In the Southern states, publishers of these new songs developed a novel way of promoting them. Through a method known as 'shape note' singing, the skills of harmony singing could be taught without the need to read music. Special schools were set up in churches and school halls to teach 'shape note' singing and these proved extraordinarily popular. The rural south singing schools were in turn publicised by singing groups which often took the names of the songbooks or publishers they publicised. So by the 1920s groups like the Original Stamps Quartet were very popular as they toured, and appeared on local radio. Their synthesis of barbershop harmony and the emergent country music came to be known as Southern Gospel.
By the 1940s, numerous groups were beginning to enjoy big popularity in the Southern states, including the Delmore Brothers with their soft, bluesy sound and the Louvin Brothers with a harmony blend later a huge musical influence on the Everley Brothers. The most popular Southern gospel group of all were the Blackwood Brothers, but there were numerous other country / Southern gospel har-monisers whose 78s, mostly released on the groups' own 'custom' labels and flamboyant on-stage performances at 'All-Night Sings' (multi-group concerts, often staged overnight in city sports stadia), gained the groups a large following. The Statesmen (an influential group from Atlanta featuring the lugubrious lead voice of Jake Hess), the Harmoneers (from Knoxville), and the Crusaders (from Birmingham) whose lead singer Bobby Strickland was much admired by a teenage Elvis Presley, all gained a big following. It's a matter of record that Elvis used to listen to the daily live radio programme by the Blackwood Brothers on station WMPS and was a regular at the monthly 'All-Night Sings' at Memphis' Ellis Auditorium. Elvis in fact auditioned for the Songfellows - an offshoot of the hugely popular Blackwood Brothers - but failed to get through the audition because of his inability to sing harmony.
It was Elvis Presley who was to momentarily catapult the jaunty harmonies of Southern gospel from a regional folk tradition to an internationally popular style. In his records he often recorded with a Southern gospel group ready and willing to sing secular as well as gospel material, the Jordanaires. The group's crisp backups became an integral part of Elvis' sound. And when in 1957 Elvis began making occasional gospel recordings it was to Southern gospel that Elvis often turned for style and material. Major labels began recording groups like the Blackwood Brothers, the Speers and the Statesmen and by 1968 the industry was so established that the Gospel Music Association (GMA) was formed in Nashville to promote the music and hold an annual awards ceremony. Today Southern gospel still exists in dozens of touring groups and its own radio programmes, festivals and magazines, though with its stylized clean-cut, short-haired, young men image had seemed increasingly anachronistic.
By the '90s Southern gospel seemed to have dwindled to an enculturalised religious offshoot, with little appeal beyond a small enclave. Then a series of videos and albums by veteran songwriter Bill Gaither with 'Friends', largely from the Southern gospel field, showed that there was still a huge latent audience for the old time, homespun harmonies of authentic Southern gospel. The unexpected upturn of interest in Southern gospel was recently acknowledged, with the world's biggest Christian record company Word re-issuing some old classics, including the 'Blackwood Brothers Heritage' album featuring the greatest Southern gospel group of them all, the Blackwood Brothers Quartet.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.