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Southern Gospel’s Roots Traced in “Close Harmony”

by Jane Nicholson

BOONE–Gospel quartets were employed in the early 1900s to promote music publishing companies’ songbooks. Christian music in all its form–southern gospel, traditional and contemporary–has since evolved into a $600 million industry.

James R. Goff, a professor of history at Appalachian State University, has written “Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel,” published by the University of North Carolina Press.

Southern gospel quartets, with their signature high tenor and low bass singers, grew from a business enterprise in the early 1900s, according to Goff.

“Professional gospel music actually got its start as an extension of songbook publishing, specifically shape-note songbook publishing,” Goff said.

Shape-notes were part of a notation system that helped people without traditional music training learn to sing, Goff said. Shapes, such as diamonds, squares and half moons, corresponded to notes on the scale.

In 1910, James D. Vaughan of the Vaughan Music and Publishing Company in Tennessee began paying quartets to travel to church meetings and music conventions to sing and sell his company’s books, Goff said.

“This was a clear extension of economics. This was a way to get a songbook publisher known and to get those songbooks into the churches,” Goff said.

By the mid-1920s, Vaughan Music and Publishing sponsored as many as 16 traveling quartets. Other companies sponsoring singing groups included the Stamps-Baxter Music Company, the Hartford Music Company and the Showalter Music Company.

The Great Depression reduced the number of quartets that publishing companies sponsored, but singers soon found an outlet that would further transform the industry.

In the 1930s, commercial radio stations began paying gospel quartets to sing live on the air. “Radio gave these quartets, like the Blackwood Brothers, a new audience. These quartets became so well known, that they didn’t need the music publishing companies anymore,” Goff said.

One of the best-known radio quartets was the Chuck Wagon Gang, a family of migrant workers who had never sung professionally before auditioning for a job at a Lubbock, Texas, radio station in 1935. The quartet was one of the first to sign a record contract, entering a partnership with Columbia Records in 1936. The Chuck Wagon Gang, along with the LeFevres and the Speer Family, was among the first to have female singers as part of the quartet.

“Most of the early traveling groups were male,” Goff said. In the absence of women to sing the high parts, men would sing the alto parts an octave lower than was written.

“Around 1915, the practice changed into what would be one of the trademarks of southern gospel,” Goff said. “The quartets found men who could sing the alto voice in the women’s range.” The high tenor sound was known as first tenor, while the lead became known as second tenor. The high range quickly became a crowd pleaser. “That’s probably the most traditional sound in southern gospel,” Goff said.

In the 1950s gospel quartets added television to their performing venues, giving them access to a potential four million households in 1950 and 50 million households by 1960. The National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) sponsored The Statesmen Quartet on NBC from 1953-57. The program was followed by the Gospel Singing Caravan in 1961 and the syndicated program Gospel Singing Jubilee in 1964, among others.

“I grew up hearing it (Jubilee) every Sunday morning of my life when I was a kid,” Goff said, who grew up in Goldsboro. “Television totally changed gospel music. It allowed new groups instant exposure, without making contacts with promoters or having ties to traditional groups.”

In recent years, radio has resurfaced as an important medium for gospel music.

A new focus on

“the charts” led syndicated radio programs that “count down” the top gospel songs, much like the top country and Top 40 recordings are promoted.

Southern gospel groups continue to take advantage of changing technologies and trends. In addition to radio, television and recordings, videos have introduced new audiences to the early gospel groups. Magazines, such as the Boone-based “Singing News” with more than 200,000 subscribers, and sites on the World Wide Web, keep fans apprised of new recordings, concert dates and milestones in the artists’ lives.

Goff said fan access is one reason the industry has remained popular.

“It’s one of the few music industries left where the fans really get to meet the performers,” he said.

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Contacts:

James Goff, Department of History, (828) 262-6011 or 262-2262 or goffjr@appstate.edu

Jane Nicholson, University News, (828) 262-2345