It has become a truism to say that most forms of traditional music in the American South were to some extent ‘commercialized’ by the end of the 1920s; certainly this is true of fiddle and instrumental traditions, country singing, the blues and jazz. By the middle of the Depression most of these musics had gained access to the mass media, either through phonograph records or radio. Throughout the Depression amateur musicians gave way to semi-professional, and then fully professional, musicians who spent most of their time playing music. While these changes meant erosion of regional styles and dilution of tradition, they also meant an improvement in the quality of musicianship, more creativity, more experimentation and an expansion of audience. However, some forms of traditional southern music did not follow this pattern. White gospel music is one. White southern gospel music -and the term here specifically excludes Sacred Harp music, church music, hymns -has for too long been linked to white country music and seen as a sub-category of that music. Yet in many ways, white gospel music had little in common with mainstream country, and when it emerged as a genre of its own in the days before the Second World War, it followed a development pattern that is very distinct from that of country or any of its sub-genres. This becomes even more obvious as we begin to make cautious, tentative inroads into the serious study of this brand of music which has attracted millions of Southerners and Midwesterners. The question that I want to explore is just what happened in the 1940S to cause white gospel suddenly to make serious inroads into American pop music in general.
The generally accepted history of white gospel, sketchy though it is, usually runs something like this: in the early 1920S the publishers of gospel shaped-note song-books began to hire quartets to travel throughout the country singing the new songs and popularizing the new song-books. These quartets became so successful that several of them broke away from the publishers and began separate careers. Thus professional gospel music. But there is a great unknown transition period between the publishers’ quartets and the fully professional ones that had a serious impact on pop music. It was a period of about twenty-five years, and a vitally important one.
The one basic, all-important development during this transition period was the breaking away of the quartets and groups from the singing convention tradition. This tradition was the major outlet for the hundreds of paper-backed song-books published by firms like James D. Vaughan, Stamps-Baxter, Hartford, Stamps Quartet and dozens of others from the 1920S through the 1950s. Exactly what went on at these rural singing conventions is important too. At least once a month, most of the singers from a county would gather at a church and sing, as a large group, songs from the seven-shape note books. Unlike the Sacred Harp singings, in which old songs and old books were used over and over, the singing conventions deliberately sought new songs from new song-books: one of the reasons was that the singing convention was often a competition to see how well the members could sight-read a song they were unfamiliar with, and how well one of them could conduct the assembly in making its way through a new or difficult song. Thus it was necessary to have a steady supply of new songs, and these were provided by the new song-books. Each book would have around 130 songs in it, about seventy-five or eighty of which were newly written for that particular book. Some companies, like Vaughan and Stamps-Baxter, were putting out two such songbooks per year. Of course, many of the members of these conventions were very literate musically, having probably learned ‘the rudiments’ of music from a music school taught by a representative of one of the companies. Often, representatives of the companies -including quartets -would visit these singing conventions, hoping to promote songbooks. The quartets would offer the convention a chance to rest from singing and listen to ‘speciality numbers’.
For years this system dominated white gospel singing, even after radio and records made it possible for a few groups, like the Chuck Wagon Gang and the Rangers, to more or less separate themselves from the system and pursue a separate career. As the movement toward independence by the quartets accelerated in the years after the Second World War -under circumstances to be explored shortly -the singing convention tradition began to weaken, and an inevitable clash occurred. The birth pains of any new popular music are especially acute, since they involve often the death of an older music as well. It was painful to see the big bands die in the face of the new small combos in the 1940S; so it was painful to see the singing convention assaulted by its progeny, the quartet movement.
What changes took place in the late 1940s that might account for this shift in the direction of gospel music? Some insight can be gained by looking at the career of one particular group of this era, a group whose career reflected most of these major changes, and who found themselves, at times unwillingly, functioning as an important transition between the old and the new. This is The Homeland Harmony Quartet, of Atlanta, who in 1948 found themselves as the first southern white gospel group in history to have a nationally popular best-selling record, a piece called ‘Gospel Boogie’.
The Homeland Harmony Quartet was formed about 1942; original members were Connor Halt Otis and James McCoy, B. C. Robinson and pianist Hovie Lister. Halt a native of Greenville, South Carolina, grew up singing old sentimental country songs and as a young man served as a singing-school teacher; later he became an influential editor at the Tennessee Music and Printing Company, a position he still holds today. The McCoys were also associated with the Tennessee Music and Printing Company for years, and both were products of the Alabama singing conventions. Hovie Lister later founded the Statesmen, who, with the Blackwood Brothers, dominated the 1950S gospel scene. (Both Lister and Hall have been voted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.) By 1945 Lee Roy Abernathy had replaced Lister, and his promotional devices were to accelerate the group’s move to commercialization. By this time they were staff musicians on Atlanta radio, and had a syndicated program heard on fifty-five southern stations. Their first taste of controversy came in 1947 when Abernathy -who had become their manager -generated a stir by writing and having them perform a song about the tragic fire in the Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta. Abernathy, who came from a gospel-singing family and spent time heading a country band called the Modern Mountaineers, spearheaded a number of changes in the quartet’s performing methods; he made them a good deal of money, but they were not ready to change as fast as he was. He left them in 1948, though the quartet continued in various forms throughout the 1950s.
A number of different developments in the mid-1940S helped the Homeland Harmony Quartet and others like them, to professionalize their music. One was the rise of the independent phonograph record company in the days after the Second World War. In the 1920S and 1930S the major record companies had recorded some white gospel music, but they had included it in their various country or old-time music series. From 1925 to 1935 gospel, or what was then called ‘old-time sacred singing’, represented about twenty-five per cent of the various country or old-time series. While there were occasional best-sellers – the 1926 recording of ‘Where We’ll Never Grow Old’ by Smith’s Sacred Singers sold over 300,000 copies, making it one of Columbia’s best-selling country records of the twenties -most gospel records sold many fewer than fiddle-band or vocalists’ records. By the start of the Second World War, only a handful of white gospel groups had access to the major companies: the Chuck Wagon Gang, Stamps Quartet, the Rangers, the MacDonald Quartet. After the war, there was a sudden explosion of independent record companies; by 1949 the annual Billboard report listed almost 400 such companies. Several of these companies, such as Bibletone, Sacred and White Church, specialised in gospel music exclusively, while other regional labels, such as Bama (Birmingham), President (Little Rock), Rich-R-Tone Johnson City) and Blue Ridge (North Carolina), were receptive to local quartets who had regional appeal. These companies not only offered white gospel groups much more access to records, but, because they were small, they generally allowed the groups more freedom in choice of repertoire and selection. Soon some of the more enterprising groups took matters a step further and began ‘custom recording’ records on their own labels: the Blackwood Brothers were one of the first to do this, launching a long and successful series on their own label complete with their picture on the label -from their base in Shenandoah, Iowa. Others, like the Rangers and the Statesmen, soon followed suit; Wally Fowler, a former successful country singer who switched to gospel in 1945 and became one of gospel’s most innovative and successful promoters, even had for a time a ‘Record of the Month Club’. These records were even more under control of the artists themselves, and even more absolute expressions of the direction in which they wanted their music to go.
This independence extended to song publishing as well. The song convention publishers often offered song composers only copies of the song-book as payment: usually the song-writer was one of sixty-five to seventy listed on the composer page of the book. As quartets became more popular and independent, they were able to issue their own specialized song-books, replete with favorite hits and photos of the performers. These books were totally produced by quartets, and sold by them exclusively, either via mail or at personal appearances. By the early 1950S some groups had graduated to large folio song-books, such as pop artists used. Another key change, for the Homeland Harmony Quartet, was Lee Roy Abernathy’s decision to publish some of his most popular songs in sheet-music form. Quartet members were somewhat taken aback by this idea; why should a person pay 50C. for one song when he could buy an entire Stamps-Baxter song-book for 35C. ? But Abernathy’s songs were so popular -and so well promoted that people did buy. Through these methods, and through a more aggressive attitude toward copyrights on the part of Abernathy, Fowler, the Blackwoods and others, gospel song-writers were now able to start making money from their songs.
The third element in professionalization was radio. Since the 1930s, a number of quartets had appeared on southern radio, on commercially sponsored program. By the end of the war, technological developments had made radio a viable source of income. For the Homeland Harmony Quartet it was the major constant source of income. They made, in 1947, $15 per man per day for doing three shows over Atlanta radio station WAGA; this was $75 a week, a decent income in those days. Thanks to transcription technology and, later, to magnetic tape, the group was able to pre-record some program and do concert dates in the area at week-ends. This brought in more money. Combined with record sales, song-book sales and occasional royalties, the music could almost be self-supporting.
Along with this new-found independence came a shift in songwriting styles. Young writers began to look to other sources of musical inspiration besides the singing convention models so well exemplified by Albert Brumley, Eugene Wright, J. R. Baxter, Jr and others. Young writers such as Mosie Lister, Lee Roy Abernathy, Wally Fowler and Yep Ellis began to incorporate into their songs echoes of secular pop music. The smooth harmony cowboy style popularized by the Sons of the Pioneers emerged in songs like ‘Riding the Range for Jesus’; the fondness for metaphor so common in country music emerged in pieces like ‘Jesus hits like an Atom Bomb’; the technique of a high tenor being cushioned against close harmony, a favorite with black gospel quartets, was appropriated by the Blackwoods; piano boogie, a pop fad through the 1940s, was incorporated into new songs by Mosie Lister and Lee Roy Abernathy. In fact, a close listener to the new ‘hot’ quartet style of the Blackwoods and the Statesmen in the late 1940S can see direct links with early rock ‘n’ roll styles. The Blackwood Brothers records issued while the group was still at Shenandoah, Iowa, in 1948-9 contain such striking features as an echo chamber, a bass singing boogie riffs, use of nonsense rhythmic phrases, two tenors making daring octave jumps for a dramatic crescendo effect and numerous harmonic devices that were probably borrowed from popular black ‘jubilee’ groups like the Golden Gate Quartet. Elvis Presley, for one, listened closely to such groups as the Blackwoods and the Statesmen (especially lead Statesmen singer Jake Hess), and originally aspired to sing with such groups (see Wolfe 1979).
‘Gospel Boogie’ was far and away the most successful of these new hybrids, and its success gave a vital stimulus to this new movement in white gospel music.
Though ‘Gospel Boogie’ was copyrighted in November 1947, the Homeland Harmony Quartet did not record it for White Church until early 1948. Their original version attracted immediate attention, and began to sell well, for a gospel tune on a small label. Though advertising was to insist that over 2,000,000 copies of the record were sold, Connor Hall places the true sales figure for their version at more like 200,000. (Such exaggeration of sales in Billboard advertisements, to spur more sales, was quite typical in the late 1940S.) Within a few months, the record was ‘covered’ by at least ten other artists: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Red Foley, Wally Fowler, the Pilgrim Travelers and others, both white and black. Even after the popularity of this version of the song died down, Wally Fowler continued to promote the song, and a few years later took it to Randy Wood, then president of Dot Records. Wood got the song to Pat Boone, then at the height of his popularity, and he recorded another hit version of it (using the title ‘ A Wonderful Time up there’), which in 1958 reached tenth position on the Billboard charts. Today the song is reasonably well established as a standard with many gospel artists, white and black.
One barometer of the impact this music was having on the national scene is provided by the pages of Billboard. In the Billboard charts there was no real category for gospel music until 1953; then the categories were ‘sacred singing’ (white) and ‘spirituals’ (black). As early as 1951, black gospel record companies like Speciality (Los Angeles) and Peacock (Texas) were advertising in Billboard, reflecting the nationalization of this music; no white gospel companies routinely advertised, though occasionally a major company would include a ‘sacred’ section in its list of new releases. Generally, though, white gospel first entered the Billboard world piggy-backed on country music artists like Molly O’Day, the Bailes Brothers, Johnny and Jack, and even Hank Williams. But as the new music made itself felt, attitudes changed. One key event in the new visibility took place when the Blackwood Brothers appeared on the Arthur Godfrey national TV show, and had a hit record on Victor, ‘Have you Talked to the Man Upstairs?’ Once the pop market was breached, gospel developed dramatically. For instance, in June 1954 RCA Victor issued its first catalogue of religious music: it was called ‘Sacred Music’ and included, alongside the first recordings of the Blackwoods, titles by pop singers like Perry Como, light-opera performers like Mario Lanza, country groups like Eddy Arnold and Johnny and Jack and formal artists like Sir Thomas Beecham and the Robert Shaw Chorale. Yet barely eighteen months later, the same company issued a religious catalogue under the name ‘Gospel Music’, and, replacing the ‘popular’ interlopers were the likes of the Speer Family, the Weatherford Quartet, the Statesmen and the Johnson Family. (Within another ten years, the Victor catalogue would show no fewer than twenty-five LPS by the Blackwoods, twenty by the Statesmen.)
But perhaps the most telling evidence of change was to be found within the gospel community itself, as the ideas and values of the older musicians ran head-on into the ideas and values of the new professionals. ‘Gospel Boogie’ served as a harbinger of this debate; popular though it was, Connor Hall recalls, there were many occasions when the leaders of a church or singing convention where the Homeland Harmony Quartet was appearing would specifically request that the group not perform this song. Letters to the Atlanta papers attacked the song on moral grounds; the author, Lee Roy Abernathy, defended it in other letters. Noting that ‘boogie’ was just another synonym for rhythm, a cornerstone for all music, Abernathy went on to say: ‘When I wrote ‘Gospel Boogie’ I was inspired to write it. I felt it was one means of reaching the distant places where no ministers go … no singers sing, in juke jives, etc.’ Abernathy, though, seemed unable eventually to overcome the connotations of ‘boogie’ and the song’s later success was attained under its alternative title, ‘A Wonderful Time up there’.
The real debate was yet to come though, and centered on issues much larger that those raised by a single song. For some years the singing convention publishers had been fond of having large, all-night group singings to mark the end of a term or year; in 1940 Stamps-Baxter held one that almost filled the Cotton Bowl. The professional quartets soon found they could adopt this tradition to their own ends. Starting about 1945, the Homeland Harmony Quartet and the Rangers, then on opposing radio stations in Atlanta, staged a ‘Battle of Song’ in Atlanta’s Municipal Auditorium; for weeks prior to the concert, the two quartets -who were good friends-built up tension by asserting that Jim Waits, the bass singer for the Homeland Harmony Quartet, would run Rangers bass singer Arnold Hyles out of town. The ‘Battle’ drew a capacity crowd at the auditorium, and after it was all over, and the bills paid, the quartet members -all ten of them -found to their amazement that they had cleared over a thousand dollars a man. Hall recalls: ‘That was the first time I had ever heard of a quartet in a concert in one night making that much money.’
The ‘Battle of Song’ became a regular feature in Atlanta, and on 5 November 1948, promoter Wally Fowler staged a more elaborate variation at the home of the Grand Ole Opry, Ryman Auditorium, in Nashville. Instead of just two or three groups, though, Fowler cornered twenty-five groups, ranging all the way from his own pop tinged Oak Ridge Quartet to the Blackwood Brothers, and to the dean of the singing convention movement, Frank Stamps and his All Star Quartet. This too was a success, and Fowler began promoting these all-night sings’ -so named because they ran from 8 pm to 4 am throughout the South, sometimes as many as five or six per night.
The difference between such all-night singings and the singing conventions was considerable. Whereas the audience at the singing conventions participated in a major way in the singing, the Fowler audiences were passive, listening audiences. Most of the performers at a singing convention were gifted amateurs, singing for their own enjoyment or inspiration; most of the performers at the all-night sings were the new professionals, slick, smooth, clever, costumed, wisecracking, and singing to make money. The singers at a singing convention were trained musicians, able to sight-read shape-notes with ease; many of the new professionals sang by ear, and had difficulty reading from the song-books. Connor Hall recalls that many of the new slick quartets came to hate being invited to the singing conventions, because although they would be the centre of attention when they performed in concert on Saturday night, they would often have to suffer the embarrassment of sitting with their mouths closed on Sunday as the convention went about its sight-reading singing. For years the singing conventions invited quartets to provide special music and attract crowds; now the newer quartets were more and more anxious to break off from this association.
This finally boiled over into print in 1949 and 1950. Rupert Cravens, writing in the editorial pages of Vaughan’s Family Visitor, then one of the main organs for the singing convention publishers, launched a sustained attack against the ‘gospel jamborees’ in late 1949 and 1950. In one issue he wrote:
The cause of gospel singing is too sacred and universal for anyone conscientiously to take up some phase of it for personal economic, political or social purposes … It is a flimsy excuse when a godless, Sabbath-desecrating quartet or singing group will say, after one of their typical Saturday night or Sunday shows, ‘We are doing this for a living.’ No doubt they are, but moonshiners who are damning the lives of our youth may say with them, ‘We are doing this for a living.’ . . .
Why should people who love the Lord and clean Christian society have to listen to the music of the ‘juke box’ to find a medium of expression toward God? Would Wesley or Toplady have written poems to be set to some of the modern boogy-woogy songs that so many of the so-called better quartets go wild about? Why should men who are supposed to love the Lord make for their most popular phonograph records and ‘song hits’ a type of songs that is too cheap in the light of God’s holy purpose to deserve mention? Why should a so-called Christian audience go crazy over an all-night jamboree which is often opened with a prayer but is thereafter carried on as if there were no God? What are we to say about Sunday conventions that often have for their special attraction quartets and groups whose breath smells strongly of the beer joint?
The convention publishers were also correct in their perception that the growing popularity of all-night singing jamborees, and the rise of professional quartets, posed a serious threat to their well-being. The companies’ entire economic structure was founded on the singing convention; there was little way it could ever adapt to the newer system. But some of the objections by people like Cravens were doubtless also founded on genuine moral concern. Values were shifting, and a music that was once an expression of religious belief was now a business. It is no wonder that by mid-1950’s Cravens was comparing the singing jamborees to the threat of communism.
The quartets, for their part, saw the singing convention publishers and their supporters as standing in the way of their artistic and commercial development. In 1948 Lee Roy Abernathy published a fascinating book designed to serve as a handbook for the new professional quartets; in it he enunciated a ringing attack on the opponents of professional gospel.
Should gospel quartets charge? They most certainly should, and they really ought to charge more than they do. They have spent a lifetime learning to sing for you … Does your minister preach for nothing? … does anyone do anything for nothing? . .. No! Neither should the Gospel Quartet man. If you are one of those tight-fisted, cheap, chronic gripers that wouldn’t give a dime to see ANYTHING … you shouldn’t be allowed to go to church, or to have singers in your community. The general public has in recent years become educated to the fact that GOSPEL QUARTETS ARE THE REASON FOR THEIR SINGING BEING THE BEST IT HAS EVER BEEN. Only a few ignorant, jealous-hearted back biters are keeping Gospel music back. However, it is going forward now at the most terrific rate it has in years.
Abernathy was in the end right, and the commercial quartet tradition did win out; the battle was won by 1955. One by one the old song convention publishing giants -Vaughan, Henson, Winsett -were bought out by the new publishing companies organized by quartets like the Blackwoods, the Statesmen and the Oak Ridge Boys. In some cases, the new owners simply stopped publishing convention books, hoping to eradicate completely the singing convention movement and turn all the gospel convention singers into listeners at concerts. Many of the singing conventions have, in fact, disbanded; at a recent convention in Tennessee, only four publishers brought new song-books, and since then one of those has given up. White gospel music became a force in mainstream popular music, but at a tragic price. The results were not without irony. What would the Reverend Rupert Cravens have said had he known that Connor Hall, a member of the Homeland Harmony Quartet who initiated the ‘Gospel Boogie’ trend he so castigated in the pages of the 1950 Vaughan’s Family Visitor, would be, in 1980, the person who was, out of a sense of duty and nostalgia, single-handedly keeping the beloved Vaughan publishing imprint alive?
Much of the material in this essay has been drawn from personal interviews taped with the following: Connor Hall (1978, 1979), Cleveland, Tennessee; Otis McCoy (1978,1979), Jasper, Alabama; Lee Roy Abernathy (1979), Canton, Georgia; James D. Walbert (1978, 1979), Birmingham, Alabama. Printed sources include back files of Vaughan‘s Family Visitor, Billboard, The Nashville Tennessean and the Atlanta Journal. The Country Music Foundation Archives and Media Center, Nashville, provided access to some song-books and early gospel music catalogues; David Freeman made available certain data regarding early recordings of gospel music in the Columbia 15000 series. The book which Lee Roy Abernathy designed as a primer for modem gospel quartets is It, published by Abernathy in Atlanta in 1948; many facts about Abernathy’s philosophy come from this volume.
At present there is no reliable standard history of white gospel music. Of limited use are Lois S. Blackwell, The Wings of the Dove: the Story of Gospel Music in America (Norfolk, VA, 1978), and Jesse Burt and Duane Allen, A History of Gospel Music (Nashville, 1971). More useful are two unpublished dissertations: Jo Lee Fleming, ‘James D. Vaughan. Music publisher. Lawrenceberg, Tennessee 1912-1964 (Union Theological Seminary, 1972), and Stanley Brobston, ‘A brief history of southern white gospel music’ (New York University, 1977). See also Charles Wolfe, ‘Presley and the Gospel Tradition’, in Elvis: Images and Fancies, ed. Jac L. Tharpe Oackson, 1979), and Charles Wolfe (ed.), Gospel Ship: Studies in White Gospel Music (Urbana, 1980).
Portions of this article were originally read at a 1980 Symposium, ‘Folk Music and Modem Sound’, held at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, University of Mississippi. Used by permission of Mary Dean Wolfe.