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Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel Music
By James R. Goff, Jr.
University of North Carolina Press, 2002. 
416 pages.
ISBN: 0807853461 (paperback) $24.95
ISBN: 0807826812 (hardcover) $45.00
 
 
 

Growing up Episcopalian in Laurel, Mississippi, in the mid-70s, I didn’t hear a lot of gospel music.  In fact, the closest we got to gospel music in my house was the cast album of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”  But in 1976, on my eleventh birthday, I got a tiny bicentennial-themed AM radio, and a strange fixation was born.  Laurel’s one AM radio station played southern gospel quartets on Sunday morning, and I heard the music that’s been freaking me out ever since.  

As an eleven-year-old, I listened to quartet music in much the same way I might have listened to intercepted transmissions from Mars.  The shouted “halleluiahs” and weird lyrics about being washed in blood were, I assumed, the spontaneous and irrational expressions of ignorant, possum-eating “Jethro Bodine”-types and had nothing to do with me.  Southern gospel quartet music was so remote from the staid hymnody of the Episcopalians that it never even occurred to me to compare them, or even consider them expressions of the same sentiment.   

Since then, I’ve had occasion to learn more about evangelical theology (having become a Baptist myself) and hillbilly music (I’m a banjo picker), but quartet singing still freaks me out, and for almost precisely the same reasons.  The Sunday morning men’s quartets heard in white churches all over the South still seem entirely out of context: bad suits, bad hair, bad theology, but a great sound, however inexplicable its origins.   

James R. Goff’s Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel Music provides a very thorough historical and social background for men’s quartet singing.  For decades, men’s quartets were the primary expressions of the musical form we now call southern gospel.  Goff traces the emergence of the contemporary men’s quartet, which grew out of promotional ensembles formed to hawk sheet music at shape-note singing conventions in the rural South.  As particular quartets gained broader fame through radio and later television, the groups themselves became the center of attention rather than the publishers who sponsored them.   

One of the sadder trends Goff explores is the transformation of southern gospel music from communal property to object of passive consumption.  As early quartets like the Rangers or the Speer Family gained in fame and grew in professionalism, the communal shape-note singing conventions that gave these quartets their first venues were slowly transformed into concerts. Crowds that had come to learn and participate now came to listen to the stars and buy records and souvenirs.  The inexorable process that changed gospel from overalls and wooden church houses to big hair and Dollywood had begun.   

Goff makes occasional reference to black gospel music, but acknowledges that for the most part the white and black gospel traditions have followed separate paths of development.  Promising early attempts to showcase black and white groups in the same event came to an end in the mid-50s.  According to Goff, Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 raised the political stakes for both white and black groups who wanted to perform together, since they would be seen as “making a statement.”  It would be many years before black and white gospel groups shared the stage again, and it is still rare, a sad testament to the racial divisions in American Christianity that still exist, making Sunday “the most segregated day of the week.” 

Goff’s book traces the careers of quartet stalwarts like Frank Stamps, the Speer Family, the LeFevre Family, the Chuck Wagon Gang, the Rangers, the Sewanee River Boys, the Statesmen, and the Oak Ridge Boys.  The detail in these sections of the book, especially detail covering changes in the lineup of these groups over the years, may grow tiresome for readers not already familiar with the groups.  Some of the groups have existed continually for decades and have featured dozens of performers, some of whom leave, return, and leave again.  The photographs, especially those from the 70s, are wonderful.   

The book is probably not for the casual fan of southern gospel, despite the bubbly blurb on the cover from Dolly Parton, who recommends the book to “anyone with any interest whatsoever in gospel music.”  Close Harmony is probably more appropriate for serious fans and for researchers.  Certainly a copy of the book belongs in any good university library.  Goff’s research for the book is impressive; the publishers include almost ninety pages of endnotes, plus a very thorough index. 

 

Edwin McAllister
Southern Scribe Reviews

 

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