Studying White Southern Gospel
White southern gospel music seems like a strange source of pleasure for a "gay, secular humanist academic," as Douglas Harrison identifies himself (17). Guided by theological fundamentalism and social conservatism, southern gospel's performers and fans tend to take a dim view of homosexuality. In 2003, gospel singer Kirk Talley was "outed" when the FBI arrested a man who attempted to blackmail Talley with suggestive photographs he shared on a gay web site. Talley has since become persona non grata in the southern gospel music world despite his admission of "sin" and his willingness to do penance through "reparative" therapy (138–139). In his provocative and deeply personal book, Then Sings My Soul, Douglas Harrison wants to show that a single-minded focus on southern gospel's rigidly conservative façade obscures the music's hidden transgressive—and transcendent—qualities. His book begins with two critical questions: one personal, the other more expansive. First, how can a homosexual nonbeliever like Harrison, who as a youth was a "Southern Baptist sissy," who dreamed of becoming a southern gospel star until he came out and suffered the consequences for doing so by a repressive religious culture, still find ecstatic "glory-rolling joy" in southern gospel music? Second, what is it about southern gospel that attracts "queer" fans and supports heterodox interpretations of a seemingly orthodox musical culture? As Harrison says, southern gospel would not exist without "queers and their contributions as fans, songwriters, performers, producers, players, and industry executives." How can this square with what Harrison describes as "the most culturally fundamentalist sacred music in evangelicalism" (140)? These issues and questions make up the emotional and analytical heart of Harrison's fascinating book, even though he addresses them in depth only in his final chapter: "Southern Gospel in the Key of Queer."
|Ruth Daniel, Bill and Gloria Gaither perform at a Gaither Homecoming Friends concert, Fort Worth, Texas, April 4, 2009.|
The other main theme Harrison examines is how southern gospel, from its cultural origins during Reconstruction to the contemporary Bill Gaither and his Homecoming Friends phenomenon, has drawn upon nostalgia for an idyllic past and hope for a redemptive future to provide solace in the present. Southern gospel music, including song lyrics, melodies, and live music experiences, has provided evangelicals with the tools to negotiate the tensions between past and present, sacred and secular, commercialism and piety, and, for some, as Harrison details towards the end of his book, between orthodox and "queer" identities. "Through southern gospel," he argues, "evangelicals develop the capacity to think and act as modern pluralists or situational relativists when necessary, while retaining their identification with antimodern religious traditions that notionally believe in timeless, unchanging absolutes" (3). The ability to reconcile tensions between old and new, orthodoxy and heterodoxy, queer and straight, represents "a key psychodynamic dimension of modern southern gospel" (60).
In keeping with his focus on southern gospel music's ecumenical appeal and contingent meanings, Harrison takes a methodological approach "as multidimensional as the culture itself" (16). An associate professor of English at Florida Gulf Coast University, he is a literary and cultural critic by training, which shines through in his deep textual analysis of song lyrics, stage performances, and styles, and in his occasionally overwrought, jargon-laden prose. He is also by turns a musicologist, historian, sociologist, psychologist, ethnographer, and "participant-fan" (17). Then Sings My Soul draws upon Harrison's immersion in southern gospel culture since his childhood, as well as information he has gathered from interviews and relationships with people in the industry over the years. For almost a decade, he has maintained a blog on southern gospel music at averyfineline.com that attracts "orthodox fans and professionals who regularly and vociferously dissent from [his] secular humanist approach . . . as well as those voices and perspectives that have found no other meaningful outlet for this type of conversation in the epistemologically cloistered world of southern gospel" (11). Harrison now uses the blog to also engage and debate fans and detractors of Then Sings My Soul.
Although an academic, Harrison is careful to distinguish himself from "humanist scholars" who have tended to treat "conservative evangelical values and culture as a curious artifact from some socially recalcitrant land that time forgot" (2). He brings his book to life with ethnographic thick-description, particularly in his opening chapter on the live experience of southern gospel music, but mostly avoids the pitfalls of documentary work's tendency to view its subject as a cultural and temporal Other. Harrison's candor about his personal connections to southern gospel, his love for the music's transcendent qualities, and, most importantly, his openness about how his sexuality has shaped his experiences with the music and industry make his book a powerful and effective example of self-reflexive scholarship. To that end, he writes that he is "particularly indebted to autoethnography for empowering scholars to mobilize personal experiences too long deprecated by humanist scholarship" (14). Despite his clear disdain for the homophobia, fundamentalism, and, at times, racism lurking beneath the surface of white southern gospel, he does not become polemical or "substitute one set of moral dogmas for another." Harrison's mission is to reveal southern gospel music's mutability, its capacity to "deconstruct the very orthodox doctrines it depicts." Denying this facet of the music and its culture, he argues, obscures "the persistent role that misfits, outcasts, nonconformists, and strugglers of all sorts have played in the history of gospel music and evangelicalism more broadly" (168–169). Who knew southern gospel was punk?
The Cultural Origins of White Southern Gospel
Then Sings My Soul focuses on the culture of white southern gospel music while acknowledging the "long history of stylistic exchange and mutual influence" with black gospel music and their near parallel commercial development during the early and middle twentieth century. A segregated society and record industry might have created artificial barriers between white and black gospel cultures, but Harrison sees both cultures as unique because their fans and performers have interpreted gospel's meaning and spiritual function in different ways. He argues that the black gospel tradition emphasizes the music's emotional soulfulness and "spiritual improvisation" while white evangelicals use gospel as a proselytizing tool akin to a Protestant sermon. Black gospel, with its call-and-response style, emphasizes the "power of the individual (the soloist) within the community (the congregation or audience and singers) to assert the self idiosyncratically (improvisation). . . ." In general, the black gospel tradition "ameliorates suffering by absorbing individuals into a community of fellow strugglers." White southern gospel on the other hand "forms around an experiential theology of the saint's solitary self-embattlement." It unites fans and singers in the recognition that "all God's children are called to bear their crosses alone." Choirs, consequently, are rare in white southern gospel. Trios or quartets predominate in their stead singing in "close harmony" about the individual soul's longing for redemption and salvation amid the stresses of modern life (34–36).
|Aldine Sillman Kieffer (1840–1904). Harrison credits Kieffer and his publishing company co-founder Ephraim Ruebush with laying the foundations for southern gospel's growth.|
Harrison traces the cultural origins of white southern gospel music back to the Reconstruction Era and then provides an analytical history of the genre from its commercialization and professionalization during the early and middle twentieth century to its crises of identity during the latter half of the century. He argues that southern gospel's cultural function, if not all of its professional and commercial infrastructure, developed during the social, cultural, and economic upheavals unleashed by the Civil War that wrecked an old agrarian world and led to the rise of the New South's business ethos. Though publishers and song writers would not begin labeling it "gospel" music until later in the 1870s, the genre's early manifestation, according to Harrison, performed a kind of cultural work that provided evangelicals with melodies and messages that helped them find meaning and stability in a rapidly modernizing world.
Harrison credits Aldine S. Kieffer, a former Confederate solider, and Ephraim Ruebush, a former Union soldier with laying the foundations for southern gospel's growth during Reconstruction and into the New South Era. Before the war, the two taught shape-note singing together and worked in the music printing company Kieffer's grandfather, the Mennonite Joseph Funk, owned. The two reunited over a shared love of shape-note singing and a desire to reclaim "the pastoral peacefulness" of the past they had known before the war (55–56). Kieffer returned from war and found a "ruined country, poverty stricken people, and no currency!" Looking out on a forlorn landscape, he wondered "What could be done? Where should I begin life anew?" Rather than try to rehabilitate a lost agrarian world, he returned to another familiar pursuit and became a gospel song writer and businessman along with Ruebush (50–51). In 1866, the pair created "Ruebush & Kieffer," a gospel tune book publishing company at Singers Glen, Rockingham County, Virginia, an early nineteenth-century settlement in the Shenandoah Valley founded by Joseph Funk and German Anabaptists in the early nineteenth century (59–60).
|Cover of The Temple Star, edited by Aldine S. Kieffer, 1878. Courtesy of the Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.|
Kieffer and Ruebush's decision to enter into the gospel music business reflected the "social, political, cultural, and aesthetic developments that collectively came to define the New South," writes Harrison (58). Published at the end of the Reconstruction Era in 1877, The Temple Star, their most popular tunebook, sold more than a half-million copies (51–52). Embracing gospel music allowed Kieffer and Ruebush, and the people who purchased The Temple Star, to maintain nostalgic connections to a pastoral past while providing a new generation of white southerners with moral instructions to navigate a new modernizing world. The lyrics of many gospel songs Kieffer wrote evoke scenes of the old home-place and voice yearnings to transcend the crises of modern life and seek refuge in a simpler Edenic past or a new home in Zion (58). The songs, and the emerging style of southern gospel music they typified, "offered people a powerful language in which to express complicated feelings of fear and faith, to voice a nostalgic longing for what had been lost, and to work toward a better life here in this world by singing of their pietistic hopes for a brighter day hereafter" (53). The songbooks themselves, argues Harrison, "became an early evangelical technology for managing the disorienting effects of modernization through a continuous stream of new shape-note tunes" (65).
Ruebush and Kieffer's books also emphasized a new style of singing that distinguished them from other popular southern tunebooks. Their music's defining notational feature was its use of seven shape-notes instead of the traditional four shape-notes, which were associated with more complex melodies and harmonies. Songs sung from books like Southern Harmony relied on the four shape-note system and often used the pentatonic scale or other gapped scales that gave the music a more primitive and haunting air. Though Jesse Aiken conceived of seven-shape notation in 1846, Ruebush-Kieffer songbooks like The Temple Star popularized the style of singing that Harrison argues anticipated the "melodic and harmonic developments that would come to define twentieth-century white gospel" (64). The seven-shape system attempted to "improve the quality of congregational music making by teaching as many people as possible how to sight-read . . . and to fill a void in recreational music for musically inclined Christians" (53–54).
|James David Vaughn (1864–1941). Often described as Southern Gospel's true founder and patron saint, Harrison depicts Vaughn as a "transitional" figure.|
|Virgil Oliver Stamps (1892–1940). According to Harrison, Stamps ushered in the true era of professionalization in Southern Gospel.|
In the early twentieth century, James D. Vaughan of Lawrenceburg, Tennessee became a critically important "transitional" figure in white gospel music. Here Harrison counters the hagiography of industry leaders in the 1990s that characterized Vaughn as the genre's true founder and patron saint. What Harrison describes as "Vaughnism" amounts to a search for a "usable past" by an increasingly marginalized southern gospel industry seeking to legitimize its historical importance. While Harrison emphasizes Kieffer and Ruebush's role in creating what would become "southern gospel," he does not discount the significant role Vaughn played in the modernization of the genre and industry. In fact, Vaughn had connections with Kieffer and Ruebush, having studied at their Virginia singing school in the early 1880s. By 1910 he had created the first professional quartet, underwrote the first recordings of white gospel music in 1921, and started the first radio station focused on shape-note singing in 1923 in addition to his publishing company, Vaughn Music. Vaughn's rise and influence initiated a shift in white gospel culture from amateurs singing together at singing schools and conventions to professional quartets increasingly defined by their roles as performers and celebrities (80–84).
The true pivot towards professionalization, according to Harrison, began in 1924 when V. O. Stamps challenged Vaughn's gospel music empire by creating the Stamps-Baxter Music Co. in Texas. His company sold songbooks not for use by ordinary singers but as "mementos of professional singers' popularity and fame" (85). By the 1940s and 1950s, a period traditionally known as the "Golden Age" of white gospel, groups such as the Speer Family, the Blackwood Brothers, The Statesmen, and The LeFevres had established thriving careers as professional performers that transformed singing-convention participants into paying fans at concerts that attracted up to two million people per year. In the 1960s and 1970s, television broadcasts spread white gospel music into US living rooms while Elvis Presley toured with gospel quartets. At each stage in southern gospel's growth, performers and industry leaders tried to maintain a delicate balance between the sacred and the secular, between maintaining tradition and embracing professionalism. Reconciling these competing purposes allowed the genre to achieve cultural relevancy while providing fans with messages and emotions that grounded their identities as pious people marginalized by a corrupt modern world (84–85).
Perhaps the most fascinating part of Harrison's historical analysis is his overview of how southern gospel became self-consciously "southern." The rise of an explicitly "southern gospel" genre, he shows, did not emerge until the 1970s and 1980s. Until that time what is now known as southern gospel "had simply been ‘gospel' music to its practitioners and fans" (89). While he does not dismiss the idea that "southern" emerged in part as a racialized term to distinguish it from black gospel, he argues that the use of "southern" was mostly the culmination of an identity crisis for an increasingly commercialized genre that seemed to have lost touch with its pious past and sectional roots. At the same time, the industry's executives and musicians also searched for legitimacy as competing genres arose. Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), for example, seemed to many in the gospel industry to be "indistinguishable from the most profane pop and rock acts of the day" (95). White gospel executives and major gospel groups in the 1970s like the Happy Goodmans saw CCM as a "hippie-oriented" threat to their dominance among white evangelicals. White gospel embraced "southern" as a way to assert traditionalism, authenticity, and relevancy (85–96).
Harrison's argument here, while persuasive, seems insular. How much did white gospel's adoption of "southern" represent broader changes such as the rise of conservative populism in US politics and culture during the 1970s and into the 1980s? What some have referred to as the "Southernization" of the nation manifested itself in George Wallace's ability to tap into the rage of a transregional white working class, the influence of evangelical Virginians Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, the growing popularity of southern rock acts like Lynyrd Skynyrd who proudly displayed the Confederate battle flag, the explosion of country music radio stations across the nation, and the popularity of television shows like the Dukes of Hazzard. Taken together, these political forces and cultural expressions constitute a backlash against the social and political upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s that left the nation's white working class searching for a sense of identity and belonging in a country they no longer recognized. To define oneself as "southern," as a "good ole boy," as a "redneck"—to embrace southern cultural symbols—often constituted acts of rebellion and reaction against the nation's political and economic elite and of "resistance against high taxes, liberals, racial integration, women's liberation, and hippies," as historian Bruce Schulman has noted.1
Assertions of whiteness animated many forms of cultural expression during this time of populist backlash, but Harrison says he found "no evidence that 'southern' gospel gained popularity primarily or even implicitly as a racialized term" even while he provides evidence of a persistent strain of racism coursing through white southern gospel during the twentieth century (97). His analysis here is a bit confusing and contradictory at times, but its important to note that he does not deny the role of racism in southern gospel culture. He attempts to add more nuance to what he sees as a historiographical fixation on race in the development of a self-consciously "southern" genre designation. Harrison says he wants "to suggest that the overt racism is not the only story here" and argues that "[r]ace is not nor has it ever been a predominant concern of most southern gospel songs or groups" (101).
|Cover of Walter B. Seale and Adger M. Pace's "Wake Up!! America and Kluck, Kluck, Kluck," an explicitly racist song published by James Vaughn's songbook company in 1924.|
While he is right that race is not the only story and has not been a dominate concern for southern gospel performers (they have tended to worry about redemption and salvation), racial fears and white supremacy have still wormed their way into white gospel throughout the twentieth century. James Vaughn's songbook company published explicitly racist songs such as "Wake Up!! America and Kluck, Kluck, Kluck" in 1924 during the Ku Klux Klan's national resurgence. In 1956, a performer named J. D. Sumner recorded a song in "flamboyant black dialect" (99). The popular southern gospel group, The Statesmen, told racial jokes on stage during the height of the civil rights movement and later recorded an album with Georgia's segregationist governor, Lester Maddox, in 1971. And southern gospel performers still told the occasional racist joke on stage as late as the 1980s. Harrison acknowledges this ugly strain of racism coursing through southern gospel's past yet he sees it as a part of a broader cultural dynamic that pits evangelical Christians with their pious adherence to religious orthodoxy and moral absolutes against the liberal and secular forces dominating the modern world. Harrison suggests that the existence of black southern gospel groups like Teddy Huffam and the Gems, who performed from the 1970s into the early 1990s, and the popularity of black authored songs among white gospel fans and singers, should temper the emphasis on "black-white polarities," which only obscures "our understanding of cultural dynamics submerged beneath the surface" that gave rise to an explicity "southern" gospel genre (103). These exceptions, however, hardly diminish the important role racism and expressions of whiteness have played in creating a separate "southern" gospel culture. Race is intimately tangled up with the cultural dynamics Harrison identifies as part of an identity that emphasized "'us' and 'them'" (96–104).
The Gay-Gospel Paradox
If racism and distinct understandings of gospel music's meaning and purpose have reinforced its separation as genres, white and black gospel can, nevertheless, find common ground with their shared traditions of homophobia. Then Sings My Soul was released just one month before Anthony Heilbut's The Fan Who Knew Too Much, portions of which open a door into what he calls the "secret closet" of gays in black gospel music. The intended audiences of each book may not overlap but they both expose the hypocrisy of the gay-gospel paradox in conservative Christian culture and, hopefully, will force broader debate. Heilbut, the noted gospel music producer and author of The Gospel Sound,2 a foundational history of black gospel, is the son of German-Jewish refugees. As a youth growing up in New York, Heilbut suffered taunts from bullies and found refuge in black gospel music. Gospel, he said, "wasn't merely about making it, but about doing so in spite of your enemies." Referencing Dan Savage's "It Gets Better Project," Heilbut recalls that gospel "grounded me and kept me sane, not because ‘it gets better,' but because for most people, it does not." Despite being an atheist, Heilbut found transcendent power in the music of the black church and went on to produce records by icons such as Mahalia Jackson and Marion Williams. His immersion in the gospel world exposed him to the genre's "family secret": gay people formed the heart and soul of black gospel music while the fundamentalism of churches and clergy kept them in the closet. "Arch-homophobes" in the gospel community, Heilbut writes, frequently sing "the music of gay people, acknowledging with every breath and step that if you banished the sissies and the bull daggers [gospel singer Shirley Caesar's homophobic aspersions], the tabernacle might crumble. It would be like Germany without its Jews." Harrison's gay-gospel paradox transcends race and could be applied to any homophobic area of American life, but the hypocrisy seems all the more glaring, as Heilbut emphasizes, in a musical and religious culture that played such a pivotal role in the civil rights movement.3
Ironically, Harrison takes Heilbut to task in Then Sings My Soul for his initial discussion of homosexuality in gospel culture in The Gospel Sound. In this older work, Heilbut argued that black gospel appealed to gay people because of the music's "theatrical" qualities. Harrison argues that Heilbut's assertion "perpetuates a heterocentric perspective that reduces nonheterosexuality to an oversimple monolith defined by its most orthodox gestures or queerest tropes" (142–143). In Then Sings My Soul he attempts nothing less than to "reimagine southern gospel music as abidingly indebted to a fundamentally queer aesthetic"—not simply a genre of music that possesses an aesthetic that happens to attract queers (140).
|Vestal Goodman, 2001. Goodman's "style of adornment," overtly emotional and bombastic style of singing, and lyrics that resonated with the plight of many queer gospel fans, made her an icon.|
Harrison argues this in part by focusing on the popularity of the gospel singer Vestal Goodman, the late matriarch of the popular southern gospel group the Happy Goodmans. Goodman has been imitated by other singers, including males, while also becoming a character inhabited by drag queens in gay bars throughout the South. Goodman's appeal rested partially on her appearance. She often wore her hair in a beehive more than a foot above her head. She wore gaudy jewelry, floor-length flowing gowns of "clashing pastels," and "too much perfume" (142). Goodman's style, like that of Tammy Faye Bakker, represented the gospel diva's conscious and "highly visible deviation from secular American culture," a "style of adornment" that constituted the "semiotics of evangelical nonconformism"—a rebuke of middle-class gender conformism (147). Goodman's overtly emotional and bombastic style of singing, along with lyrics that resonated with the plight of many queer gospel fans, made her an icon. One of Goodman's signature songs, "Looking for a City," spoke of the wayfaring pilgrim seeking transcendence from this world of oppression in a heaven that resembled a "utopic invocation of a more accepting world," according to scholars Jeffrey Bennett and Issac West (143). For an audience in a gay bar, writes Harrison, gospel drag "transmutates the gospel classic into a call for action on the part of the audience" (144). The image of the gospel-diva also encourages straight evangelicals to imagine themselves as cultural outsiders oppressed by a dominant secular culture and its tastes. "If orthodox evangelical popular culture has a vested interest in portraying the gay-gospel connection as a sinful paradox," Harrison persuasively argues, "it is no small part an attempt to efface the fact that sinner and saint alike come to the music as nonconformists—real or imagined, gay or straight, and everything between—drawn to southern gospel's dramatic rendering of spiritual marginality and social misfittedness" (148). It is a conclusion that would resonate with equal power in Heilbut's discussion of homosexuality and hypocrisy in black gospel culture.
There is a critically important distinction between the outsider identity of the conservative evangelical and the gay gospel fan. The conservative evangelical, as Harrison acknowledges, can summon a persecuted identity when it is convenient and not have to worry about actual discrimination. The queer gospel fan has no such luxury and suffers the burden of "self-regulation that falls to the nonconforming individual who wishes to forge a religious identity beyond what orthodoxy strictly permits or heaven will allow" (168). The benefits of southern gospel certainly outweigh the burdens for Harrison. Still, you can't help but wonder if just "complicating" southern gospel music's "orthodox power structures," while never challenging or disrupting them, makes participation in that culture akin to complicity. It's a debate that resonates far beyond the "cloistered world of southern gospel" (11). The ultimate power and importance of Harrison's book comes from its ability to provoke questions about how marginalized people can appropriate previously heteronormative institutions (like marriage or the nuclear family) and create their own meanings and identities, orthodoxy be damned.
- 1. Dominic Sandbrook, Mad As Hell: The Crisis of the 1970s and the Rise of the Populist Right (New York: Random House, 2012), 135–137; Bruce Schulman, The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics (De Capo Press, 2002), 117.
- 2. Anthony Heilbut, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971).
- 3. Anthony Heilbut, The Fan Who Knew Too Much: Aretha Franklin, the Rise of the Soap Opera, Children of the Gospel Church, and Other Meditations (New York: Random House, 2012), 36, 60, 90, 320; Samuel G. Freedman, "Using Gospel Music's Secrets to Confront Black Homophobia," The New York Times, June 1, 2012, accessed August 4, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/02/us/gospel-music-book-challenges-black-homophobia.html; Louis Bayard, "Review of Anthony Heilbut's 'The Fan Who Knew Too Much,'" The Washington Post, August 3, 2012, accessed August 5, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/review-of-anthony-heilbuts-the-fan-who-knew-too-much/2012/08/01/gJQAtfvHUX_story.html. For more on the difficulties faced by black gospel singers who come out as gay see, Kelefah Sanneh, "Revelations: A Gospel Singer Comes Out," The New Yorker, February 8, 2010, 48–57, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/02/08/100208fa_fact_sanneh. Sanneh profiles the young gospel phenomenon Tonéx and his fall from grace in the black gospel world.