Defining Southern Gospel, and Great Depression-era culture

Over the years, when asked to define Southern Gospel, I have typically said something like:

Southern Gospel is a genre featuring overtly Christian lyrics, and power harmonies rooted in the four-part male quartet tradition, where the second-highest voice sings the melody.

But is this enough to understand and define the genre?

I was recently talking with a Southern Gospel legend who was telling me stories of life in the rural South during the Great Depression. As I listened to the stories, I realized how little I know about daily life in the rural South during those years. I have read assorted autobiographies of Southerners who grew up in the era, but that only goes so far.Β I’ve talked at length with my grandparents about those years, but they experienced the Great Depression in urban settings like Cleveland and South Bend. Hearing these stories first-hand was like peeking into a culture so foreign that I suspect I would feel less out-of-place in modern-day Ireland or Australia!

With a fresh generation of fans discovering Southern Gospel, I doubt I am alone. In fact, just among my fellow bloggers, I would guess that half have as little (or less) familiarity with that culture.

Can Southern Gospel be defined and understood without understanding Great Depression-era rural Southern culture? Are everything from our theological emphases to our inside jokes so rooted in that culture that it must be understood to fully appreciate the genre’s music?

Whether it’s crucial or merely helpful, though, it certainly plays a role.

And with that in mind, faces come to mind: A college student in Minnesota, another in Northern Ireland, a young professional in Indiana, a new fan in Australia, and a twenty-something in Brazil who stumbled upon it on YouTube. What do we need to be doing now to preserve that heritage and legacy, so they can fully grasp and appreciate what the genre means and stands for?

One more questionβ€”and this one may be the most thought-provoking. If it did indeed define our genre in the past, but if you expect it to be increasingly less relevant in the future, what will define our genre in fifty years, when those pioneers are no longer with us?

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64 Letters to the Editor

Southern Gospel Journal welcomes letters to the editor. We will post the most thoughtful and insightful submissions. Ground rules: Don't attack or belittle groups or fellow posters, or advance heresies rejected by orthodox Christianity. Do keep comments positive, constructive, and on topic.
  1. i think one thing we as listeners can do is just provide old fashioned support for our favorites, and for up and coming groups as well. We spend the price of a ticket to a concert on more mediocre things. Buy music. In hindsight, $15 isn’t much. And it’s usually less than that on iTunes.

    As for the groups, i think in the not so distant future, we’ll see groups sit down and ask the all important question: “Why do we do what we do?” And with that questions may come some tough answers. It may be a wake up call for some. I think we’ve seen that already especially with the last two Booth Brothers’ albums, Declaration, and their newest Let It Be Known, both of which are great! I personally would like to see more mission minded groups out there. They don’t have to be serious all the time, but why else would we “sing the Gospel”? If we’re not gonna do that, we’re no different than the country artist. I believe the future of Gospel Music rests on that, partly. As for reaching fans down the road, fans will appreciate when groups take these kind of stands. I’m 26 years old, and my favorite group is Greater Vision. Why? They are genuine, REAL, and live what they sing. One can see that clearly. That’s why i believe groups that take after that will flourish. Great post, Daniel. These are questions I ask myself also…i pray we can say that in 20 years, even, that Gospel Music is stronger than ever. People need to hear it.

    • The harder it gets (financially and culturally) to devote your life to spreading the Gospel through Southern Gospel music, the more it will weed out people who are only in it for the finances or the cultural prestige.

      Great thoughts, and I’m optimistic that ministry motives will be a great deal of what propels the genre going forward. But as to the topic of the post – do you think that Great Depression-era Southern culture will still play a key role in defining the genre, or will convention-style Heaven songs like “Gettin’ Ready to Leave This World” become more of a relic?

  2. I’m 26 years old, and my favorite group is Greater Vision too. πŸ˜€

    Daniel, you’ve piqued my interest this morning. I know you don’t want to hear this, but I must suggest that you do at least a few interviews to help us learn what you’re talking about. (In your spare time, you know. πŸ˜› ) I don’t necessarily mean a verbatim “I asked this; he said this” interview, but some way of sharing this context with us – more an occasional series of articles.

    I even would ask if you know someone whose writing skills you trust who has access to ask these questions and would share what they’ve learned. Unfortunately, I know most of your co-writers are scattered across the virtual world, but please think about it. πŸ™‚

    • The questions were in the context of an interview which you will hear one of these days, even if it ends up being several months. πŸ™‚

      I think, though, that the interviews aren’t totally necessary to explain the question at hand. It doesn’t take much digging to realize that the fact that many if not most SG classics of the 30s and 40s are centered around Heaven – and many of the songs since, through their influence – was influenced by the place and time in which the genre really got going.

      • OK – I’ll be looking forward to it.

        And I get what you’re saying – We can imagine that context. But … I’d like to hear more of it anyway.

        I have some more thoughts on your question; we’ll see if I get some down time later today to formulate them a little better.

      • I hope it does work out! πŸ™‚

  3. I would certainly hope that what defines our genre in 50 years is the same set of criteria that define it today, because I would hate for this to be a lost art form eventually. I think you have provided a good foundation for the definition of Southern Gospel from a musical standpoint, but in answer to your question, I think it is probably not enough to totally define the genre. What separates Southern Gospel apart from other forms of music, even other forms of gospel music, is the lyrical content. Southern gospel has always been strong on testimony and leading the listener to Christ. Songs like “Thank God I Am Free” or “He Touched Me” are prime examples of classics, while “If You Knew Him” and “That’s Why I Love Him So” are more modern day, yet with the same theme. Whether the song is straight from the Bible or a concept/story that is more like a modern day parable, or a verse of each, I think most Southern Gospel songs eventually get the listener to the blood, the cross, the Bible, or the greatness of Jesus Christ and his sacrifice for us–in essence, the Answer, The Way, The Truth, The Life. To me, that’s the major defining point of what makes Southern Gospel “Southern Gospel.” And while you have certainly identified the basis for the “roots” of the genre, I do think that families and trios and duos and mixed groups and bluegrass groups and progressive southern or whatever sub-genres are out there are still all under the umbrella of Southern Gospel because of the life-changing message of the lyrics. I would also say that musicality is a part of that, too. Piano, bass, and drums have eventually set the foundation for the mainstream southern sound. There may be strings or banjos, guitars, or horns, but the musical foundation generally starts with piano, except for the bluegrass faction, of course.

    **On a side note: Praise and worship music has it’s place and I’m not slamming it. But I think what man meant for good—praising God–Satan has used to infiltrate our churches, removing hmyns and testimony songs and replacing them with p/w in and in essence, we are robbing entire generations from hearing salvation/come-to-Christ songs because they are all but totally removed from our churches in many cases, and often in the seeker-friendly movement. But I do condend until you tell a person how to be saved, they cannot possibly grasp the greatness of God in the first place. Just a personal problem I have with totally removing soutern gospel and hymns from our churches.

    • I’ve gone into more detail on the vocal side on other occasions. Perhaps I should have here, because there are always readers new enough to not remember other posts.

      Basically, church music pre-Southern Gospel was soprano/alto/tenor(our baritone)/bass. The Southern Gospel has the second highest vocalist typically carrying the melody in ensemble singing. This is often an octave down from soprano.

      The highest singer sings the hymnbook alto part. The baritone sings the hymnbook baritone part. The bass sings the bass part.

      This is something you see throughout Southern Gospel – male trios work from this formula, subtracting the bass part, and many mixed groups do many or most of their songs as second-highest-singer-led.

      Sure, there exceptions, like the Hoppers, who do straight SATB much of the time. But by and large, that vocal formula goes a long way toward defining the SG vocal sound.

      • Hymn arrangements sung by men might follow the lead is soprano down an octave, tenor sings alto in the same octave, baritone sings tenor and bass sings bass, but that isn’t true on all hymns let alone all of the time.

        In my experience and expertise, the way people basically sing four parts (excluding inverted harmonies, tenors taking leads at end etc.) is that the lead singer sings melody, the tenor sings the closest part above that fits the chord, the baritone sings the next part lower that fits in the chord, and the bass sings the root of the chords with some variations moving to the next chord.

        Even that is very basic and is deviated from. For instance, WARNING DANIEL, the Oaks (and others I am sure) sometimes has the baritone and tenor sing harmony parts over the lead. Sometimes when the baritone has the lead, they also do this, but other times the lead and baritone essentially trade parts with the lead taking the baritone part.

        When the tenor takes the lead presuming the lead doesn’t sing over the tenor (which the Oaks sometimes does as well the studio version of Elvira is one example of this), the lead singer takes over the harmony part that was the baritones and the baritone takes what had been the tenor harmony and drops it an octave lower than the tenor would have sung it.

        Speaking of the Oaks, sometimes Duane (the lead singer) even sings over and under the baritone on the same song. Sometimes this is inverted harmony or to fill in around the lead, but other times it is the arrangement. For instance, on the song “Thank God For Kids”, Duane sings the baritone part beneath William Lee’s lead on the chorus, but also sings a “tenor” harmony part over his solos on the verses.

        The Cathedrals (and Statlers for that matter) generally had the lead singers take the baritone part when the tenor took the lead, and the baritone jumped to second tenor which essentially was the same harmony part they had already been singing, it just is a different placement in the chord (no longer the lowest except the bass, but all of a sudden has the lead singer’s harmony and bass harmony lower.)

      • “tenor sings alto in the same octave IT IS WRITTEN IN not an octave up like the lead (in case it were taken that way by context).

      • Yet, despite all the variations, the second-highest-voice-carrying-melody formula is one we see most of the time in our genre (and see far, far less in other genres).

      • Yeah, that is the “standard” so to speak, I was referring to the fact that male quartet harmonies typically do not translate into the hymnbook arrangements really. Some hymns translate well, but others have situations where the tenor stays on the tenor and the baritone takes the alto down an octave. Often though it turns out to be a combination of both.

        Victory In Jesus could be sung with tenor on alto and baritone on tenor as is, but when done the last part (beneath the cleansing flood) would have the tenor and baritone both over the melody, so a better way would be for them to modify that line and have the tenor jump down to the tenor and baritone take the alto an octave down on those parts). Now, I am going by memory on the hymnbook arrangements I remember seeing.

      • OK – I get your point. There are certainly times when what a quartet sings doesn’t mirror a hymnal SATB arrangement.

  4. I may be missing the point, but if you are trying to define and understand the SG genre, you cannot stop with just who sings what part. There are harmonies similiar to southern gospel in country groups, bluegrass, barbershop quartets, choral ensembles, etc. So, I’m contending that vocal placement alone does not define the southern gospel genre. It’s as much about the lyrics and the accompaniment as it is vocal placement. In fact, I’d argue the point that it’s MORE about lyrical content than vocal structure or musical accompaniment. And I’d also contend that lyrics to songs, especially those written during the depression era, were certainly affected by the hardships those writers witnessed and lived through. I guess my point is that if they wanted to, Gold City could pull off a country show much like the Oaks and TaRanda Greene could rival any pop singer, but I would think it’s the message in the songs that makes one stop and say, “oh, that’s a southern gospel artist.”

    • That’s why I put “overtly Christian lyrics” first in the definition and “power vocal harmonies” second.

      Other genres and groups – especially those who only sing and record older hymns and to some extent those in the modern hymn movement – use overtly Christian lyrics. That is why overtly Christian/doctrinal lyrics can’t be the sole defining characteristic of the genre, even if it is, as I put it, first.

  5. I understand what you’re saying, but by the same token, I think you can make a case for power harmonies in groups from Manhattan Transfer to Gatlin Brothers to the Sweet Adelines to the Platters to Rascal Flatts (at least their studio verion of their songs. We will save pitch problems for another day). But, I don’t hear overtly Christian lyrics in every other genre. So, while I agree it may not be the only defining characteristic, I think we could safely say it is the main distinctive quality to southern gospel music.

    That said, somewhere along the way, southern gospel music stopped being innovative on its own (ie: Statesmen) and started being imitative of other forms of music. I’m not sure when it happened but today there are so many influences from which our younger artists have to draw from, it may be hard to tell what our music will sound like in 50 years. Of course, since the depression, there have been 60-70+ years of music, artists, and styles from which to draw from today that were not available to the folks back in the depression days. Honestly, I dislike asking an artist about a new project and they start saying “this one has a Michael Buble feel and we’re doing one that sounds just like Sugerland, another one is really grassy and we put an Eagles spin on this one…” I guess I’m a traditionalist, and while I respect fresh and exciting new sounds, I really don’t want the core of the mainstream southern gospel sound to be tinkered with too much. I would certainly hope the core values and sounds would remain no matter what.

    • By that same token, the Gatlins, Oak Ridge, and others got the foundation for those harmonies out of Southern Gospel, and many of the others who do harmonies in those style got it from them – i.e., from Southern Gospel, but secondhand. πŸ™‚

      • Well then, doesn’t that sort of challenge your own statement about defining southern gospel in the sense of power harmonie, if you’re saying that other styles of music (Oaks, Gatlins…) have the same type of structure? πŸ™‚

      • Oops! I meant “harmony”!

      • Nope. I’m saying that more often than not, if someone else has it and does it decently well, they got it from us. πŸ™‚

      • I can’t find the post I just made so I will make it again–if you find it floating around, let me know! LOL! I would say that if someone else has harmonies like southern gospel, then that really cannot be a descriptive to explain what sets us apart from other genres because power harmony would not be and is not unique to this genre at that point. So, I say again, the lyrical content has to be what truly defines this industry, because gospel music is the only genre with a consistent gospel message and to define it further, southern gospel music is the only genre that has a conistent straightforward in-your-face gospel message that leads the listener to Christ on a regular basis. If the harmonies are found in other genres and the instruments we use to play the melodies are found in other genres, then we would not be unlike other genres if not for the message.

      • My reply to that was that other genres do have power vocal harmonies – and you can often trace it back to either them getting it from us (Gatlins, Oak Ridge) or from someone who got it from us (secondhand).

        My other point was that a number of lyricists in the modern hymn movement, like Stuart Townend, Keith & Kristyn Getty, and the Sovereign Grace writers, write solidly doctrinal lyrics that lead listeners to Christ. And, in fact, they’re so strong lyrically that a number of the movement’s strongest songs have seen Southern Gospel renditions.

        I rejoice to see doctrinally meaty lyrics anywhere, even when the musical accompaniment isn’t to my taste.

        Anyhow, thanks to their efforts, Southern Gospel simply can’t be defined on lyrics alone.

      • The Statlers got entrenched in country first (in fact, unlike the Oaks they didn’t really so much make a name for themselves in gospel although I believe they had performed as the Kingsmen there for a while, they never got to the top there first like the Oaks did).

        Nonetheless, although there were harmonies in country (from the Kendalls or George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s duets to songs like Olivia Newton John singing “Let Me Be There”, “If You Love Me Let Me Know” and “The Banks of the Ohio” which all had strong harmonies and a bass singer) etc. country wasn’t really ready to accept groups in the seventies.

        As I understand it, the Gatlins couldn’t break into country. They wanted Larry and his songs, but not the family. Larry did find backup positions with I believe Tammy Wynette for them, but that was all they could do.

        What Larry had to do was promote it as Larry Gatlin with Family and Friends for a while. Basically, Ladonna, their sister would sing the high part and Steve would either double her part down an octave or sing bass.
        Eventually, their sister decided she didn’t want to continue, so they discovered Rudy could sing tenor and Steve baritone. At that point they were called the Gatlin Brothers or at least eventually after this.

        The Oak Ridge Boys signed with Columbia and started transitioning in the early seventies (sometime after late 1972 I believe). They had no real success in doing so, but eventually won people over with their energetic stage show and live performances. Even after they got released from Columbia and signed with ABC, many in the industry thought there was only room for the Statlers, but were won over and their first country hit there went to I believe #3.

        Since then, Alabama broke in, and other groups like Exile, Restless Heart and others until you had groups like Diamond Rio, Lonestar and several other groups break in. Except for the Oaks and Statlers (and for a short time 4 Runner), groups didn’t include bass singers. If they did, it was as background vocalists on select songs.

        Yes, I think pretty much country harmonies were ushered in by groups with strong gospel influences or indirectly by people listening to these or bluegrass or whatever which got them from them.

      • There are two different things. Of course what makes a Southern Gospel song gospel, is the gospel lyrics. However, songs can be in a gospel style and not be gospel. Even when the Oaks, Gatling, and others are singing secular lyrics, they often have gospel stylings. The aforementioned Olivia Newton John songs all had strong gospel styles, but were not gospel. Two were taken and had the lyrics changed and made gospel, but the style was already there.

        So, the lyrics are what makes a song secular or gospel, but as Daniel was saying, there are gospel lyrics in different styles. Some are strong, some are not as much. Even SG, doesn’t exclusively do strong lyrics. Some are fluff lyrics, but the style is still SG.

        To take matters further, Gold City doing How Great Thou Art would be different than 4Him doing it would be different than Avalon doing it would be different than the Winans doing it. Same lyrics, different styles.

        The Oaks did the song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” which was different than the way Norman did it and different than the way DC Talk later did it.

        So, songs can have SG style and not be SG. Songs can have SG lyrics, and not be SG. Both together makes something that could be classified fully and appeal to the most SG fans.

  6. Four part harmony is always 4 part harmony. In secular singing of 4 part harmony, the lead always sings the solo, or most of the time, and the other 3 parts do the harmonizing parts. What separates SG from any other genre is that at anytime anyone of the four parts can take the solo lead and carry the song. I would tend to argue that SG music more tends to duplicate New Orleans or Memphis jazz. Where you have the trumpet normally taking the lead and the reed section plus trombone doing the harmonizing parts. However, like SG at any time anyone of the 4 mentioned instruments can carry the lead part. The other aspect of early SG, we were in a vaudeville era and many of the groups tended to interject this into the programs. Because of the strong spiritual message of the songs, of the past, groups were able to keep the a balanced act of a Christ centered message and entertainment. If you study past SG Singing and compare it today, it is as different as night and day. Not to say it isn’t as enjoyable. But at my age of almost eighty years, some of these groups drive me crazy trying to keep track of where they are on the stage. Much chaotic movement seems to identify popularity.

    But, we are in a different era and that is why I support Stamps Baxter Schools and FA SOL La seminars.

    • When times are tough, SG leans more to a Soul type interpretation of sound, whether it is in a power mode or not. I believe when we get back to basics and forget awards and plaques, we will begin to see an added interest in SGM. There is added interest in SG Music right now, and groups should stop and evaluate what they are doing, why they are doing it and get their priorities in order. Just like in the past, you had entertaining groups, ministerial groups and those that had a common sense balance of ministry and entertainment.

    • Part of that is because in most secular group there is one strong vocalist and others who are instrumentalists who also harmonize or those hired as background singers or sometimes just harmony singers who are out front more.

      Even though the Oaks had a strong history of trading off on leads and having four vocalists who could sing a lead, and even though they had had hits in country doing so for around 10 years, as I understand it, when Jimmy Bowen took over as producer, he pretty much wanted the group identity to revolve around Duane Allen’s lead voice. At least in part, he seemed to think that the group was recognizable more that way and of course Duane has one of the best voices around. Patti Labelle had made a comment on one of the late night talk shows that she would like to work with them, so they did get Bowen to acquiesce to letting Golden have a lead IF Labelle were on it.

      Even the Gatlin Brothers pretty much centered around Larry’s voice although the other two got some leads on Christmas material, some gospel and things that would not so much be pitched as singles to radio.

      • quartet-man, do you think that may be why they were accepted by the main stream music industry and were able to cross the lines between SG and secular?

      • I’m not sure exactly what you are asking, Melvin. The fact that the Oaks were different and traded leads, or the fact that the Gatlins pretty much kept Larry on lead. Or the fact that each group had strong harmony singing which was different than a lot of country, but still maintained gospel harmonies which lets them be liked by both sides?

      • Or their strong stage show? The Oaks admitted once that they had to learn to work hard on stage and have energy and such (entertainment) because of gospel and the love offerings. Now, this doesn’t mean they aren’t believers at all, it just means gospel fans often expect entertainment too.

  7. I think you may be misunderstanding, Daniel. Or perhaps I’m not explaining myself clearly. I think we’re mixing up “defining” and “distinctive” here. I agree that we cannot define southern gospel music by lyrics alone–in fact, I think in this day and age it would be difficult to completely define at all, given all the influences it has had in the 100+ years of it’s existence. But the “distinctive” factor in gospel music has always been and hopefully always will be the gospel! I don’t think that’s open for debate. It is not gospel music if the “Good News” of the Bible is not a part of it. And within the whole genre of gospel music, I’d say it is Southern Gospel that most precisely and in-your-face (for lack of a better term) ushers the listener specifically to Jesus, the cross, the blood, and/or the greatness of our God because of what He has done for us.

    • Ah, I see your distinction.

      Are you not counting artists and churches who only sing/perform hymns as a separate genre? Back in the day, it was called “Sacred Music,” and I think there is still plenty of that out there today. In fact, there are probably more hymns-only churches, both in the U.S. and worldwide, than SG churches.

      • I’m not sure why you are now suddenly asking about churches, when the topic is defining the southern gosepl music genre. So, no, I’m not including churches in my assessment.

        I’m not that familiar with current artists who do all hymns but no, that’s not southern gospel either. While hymns are beautiful and I love and respect them, sometimes they are harder to interpret because of their wordage (“Be thou my vision”, “attendeth my way,” for example)–so, by what I wrote above, I would still contend that Southern gospel does overall more precisely present the message modern grammar to the listener, than a hymn-genre (if there is such a thing today) would do.

  8. I think we are splitting hairs here and to some extent saying the same thing. Some of the greatest versions of Hymns have been favorites in SGM under the umbrella of SG Style.

    I believe there is a difference with singing a hymn in church and changing it to conform to a style of SG. Could we agree that SGM is more of a style of Sacred Music. The words remain the same but the power stroke of a vocalic interpretation is what makes SG unique. Phrasing and off tempo vocalizing is what drives so-called trained musicians crazy. I think we all agree that the message will always be primary in Gospel Songs. Interpretive freedom is what I love about SGM.

    • I love the interpretive freedom, too!

      I think people who have always grown up in the South or always grown up in SG-singing churches might underestimate the scope and influence of hymn-singing churches and (yes, Brady) recording / touring musicians who only record hymns. I’ve come across innumerable in a broad scope of theological traditions.

      • Would you care to list some of those “innumerable” musicians/artist who record only hymns? I would like to check them out.

      • Sure, I’d be happy to!

        Hymns-only isn’t as big as it used to be, but on decline or not, it’s still huge.

        (1) About 50-100 different Mennonite quartets, octets, family groups, and choirs with audio cassettes and some CDs available in resources like the GVS catalog out of Versailles, MO. Naturally, being conservative Mennonites, they don’t have a website.

        (2) Becky Morecraft, who is well known in Vision Forum circles: (I don’t know if she is exclusively hymns.)

        (3) Neil Craig Family: (EDIT 8/6/11: Broken link removed).

        (4) Majesty Music has a number of hymns-only artists, I think: (Beware! They believe that Southern Gospel is evil but pirates are good!)

        (5) The Duggar Family, of 20 and Counting:

        (6) Quite a few artists (not necessarily all) associated with Bill Gothard and the Institute in Basic Life Principles:

        (7) Quite a few artists whose work is available on Behemoth (, including Bethany Tiss, SMS Men’s Chorus, Kirsten Easdale, Hayley McGrail, The Outreach Quartet, Al Smith, Steve And Jenifer Hall, The Taubl Family, Bible Truth Music, Tim Zimmerman & The Kings Brass, Twin Sisters, Katherine Journey, The Hamilton Girls, Faye Lopez, Jeremy Vegter, Nicholas Christie, Steve Pettit Evangelistic Team, Messengers of Truth Quartet, The Herbster Trio, The Crist Sisters, Jordan Potter, Hannah Kenney, Bronn Journey, Heather & Raqelle Sheen (I actually know them!), Lauren Bowers, The Rushingbrook Children’s Choir, Valerie Ann Knies, Shepherd’s Trio, Four Hands In Praise, Dan Miller, One Voice, David Warren, and more.

        Seriously, I didn’t do any new investigating online – I only pulled up websites of organizations and groups I am familiar with.

      • #4 made me laugh.

      • As a member of a retired family group that studied music at Indiana Conservatory of Music for a short period of time,trained singers and muscians looked at us as musical freaks. Although we loved SGM, we were never able to attain the true SGM sound simply because the vocal ranges of the four brothers were almost identical. In times past, groups used to introduce themselves as the quartet with the lowest bass and the highest tenor. We had to introduce ourselves as the quartet with the highest bass and the worlds lowest tenor.

        I visit many churches, not only SB but Methodist and Pentecostal and I see less and less hymn books. And many times even if they have hymn books they don’t always use them.

      • I see the same thing you do, Mr. Klaudt. I see and hear fewer and fewer hymn books and hymns more than ever, and I’ve been and around gospel and church music for many years. And for that reason, my eyebrows raise at any comment that speaks to the contrary when all I’m hearing from choir directors and southern gospel artists is how hymns are out (and a lot of times southern gospel, too) and contemporary and P/W is in. It saddens me because I think our hymns are the foundation of church worship and gospel music in general and I love SGM, too, and would do anything to protect it’s future. Maybe that’s whay I’m so passionate about defending it.

      • I watch a TV Ministry out of Florida that I really enjoy. It has a College with it. For the life of me I can’t remember what town and I watch it most Sunday nights. What I like about the ministry is they use hymn books and some of the pages are in the 500-600 range. And they sing with a vibrant enthusiasm. so there probably are many churches still using hymn books. But I believe it is diminishing

      • I have been a church music director for several years. We still use hymnbooks and we use Power Point for Praise and Worship songs. This was the way it was before me. We have the majority of people in the middle age and beyond range, but some kids up to middle age.

        There has been more of a push to do a contemporary service there etc. in an effort to get more younger people in there. Now admittedly even some of the people there would probably like more of the contemporary music, but there are also quite a few who probably don’t want any more of it than we do, if that. I also think that the people who would want a contemporary service are in each of the morning services and I am not sure if most on either side of the aisle wants to change. It is a tough situation to be in.

        Music can divide people and too many want just the style they want. Even an attempt to work in more contemporary music into the pre-service music was met with some complaints by a few.

      • That may be Pensacola Christian College ( I ran across their music by chance the other day ( and was pretty surprised at the existence of their choral-style southern gospel songs. Pretty neat.

      • Ah, yes, that may be it. And, by the way, David Ragan of the Inspirations went there.

      • As did my sister and several other people I know. Good school.

      • Pensacola Christian College has a radio station out of Florida, and here in Minnesota as well, which features a lot of choral music, hymns, and even some mainline Southern Gospel music. It’s always a treat when we hear Legacy Five, the Talley Trio, the Kingdom Heirs, Greater Vision, or the Booth Brothers floating over the airwaves! πŸ™‚ *Off-topic*

  9. I agree again, Mr. Klaudt, sadly hymns seem to be diminishing where I live, too. And I like holding a book. Nothing against the words on the wall, but there’s something about seeing all the words on one page and with the notes. I love it. And I miss it at our church.

    • Reading music is beginning to be a lost art. When I get in a church that uses hymn books, I enjoy singing the different parts on different verses just to re-acquaint myself to sight reading.
      When it’s on the wall, you don’t even know if there are different parts composed for the song..

      • Ah, yes! I, too, love doing that. On those rare occasions I have the opportunity to be in a hymnal-utilizing church, I’ll often take a four-verse hymn and sing a different part each verse (adjusting for octave, naturally, since I am not a soprano!)

      • Not only would I do the same (before I became music director) on the hymns, but the quartet I was in (at one point the bass section of choir) did. One of the low basses could sing lead and tenor, a baritone could do tenor, another low bass could do tenor, and I usually did bass, tenor and alto (as written unless it got REALLY high). I might have done lead some, but preferred singing the harmony parts (more fun). πŸ˜€

      • If we sing all the verses, I’ll start with lead on the first verse and work my way down the parts with each verse. If there are five verses, I try to mix it up on the fifth verse. Especially fun with contrapuntal (word I learned from David Bruce Murray) songs.

        My church has the red back hymnals (“…the King James Version of all hymnbooks…” – Steve French) in all the pews, but we also have choir books with other songs from which the choir will ocassionaly sing. The pastor would like to have these words on the projector, but I don’t want to lose the opportunity for people to be able to see the music so they can at least by association learn to read it.

        So, if we go that route, I’m planning on throwing the music up there somehow.

  10. Interesting discussion. It’s a little forign to me. The Church I’ve attended for the past 26 years has never used anything but hymnals.

    • JSR, enjoy that while you can.

    • Yeah. Also, what happened to singing the parts by ear? Most of the people in our church don’t really know how to read music anyway, but there is plenty of part-singing going on.

  11. When I used to fill in as choir director in Metro Atlanta. Most of the churches had small choirs, I would put all the different parts on a tape, i.e soprano part on a tape, bass on a tape, etc. and give each member their taped parts to practice their part. I didn’t have the time of a full time choir director. That will sharpen your voice and sight reading real quick.

    • I have made practice CDs of my playing their parts for cantatas and more challenging songs because several do not read music and some who do somewhat still need the help in places. I still sing the different parts to help sections in trouble spots too. πŸ™‚

  12. Thanks, Daniel, but you will have to excuse me for not rushing right out and purchasing these CDs (or cassettes, as the case may be–hmmm, do I even have anything to play a cassette on?). I am not impressed with credentials like “southern gospel is evil but pirates are ok,” “no website,” and “20 and counting.” it seems like one would really have to be digging or familiar through a denomination in order to know who most of these groups are. If it’s ok, I’ll just stick to the Hoppers, McKameys, Tribute, Triumphant and all my southern faves! But I am not dismissing the efforts of any group to keep the hymns alive. I do appreciate that!!

    • Wait a minute, the point wasn’t to sell you CDs, but to prove that they existed, and that there’s quite a few artists doing this sort of thing…right?

      And lest we become too defensive about their criticisms of Southern Gospel, let’s not forget how some of us have criticized CCM, perhaps in this very thread. Intriguingly, weak lyrics is one of the charges I’ve heard them toss our way. They look at classic convention songs which are so familiar we don’t even think about them, like “Give the World a Smile” and “Happy Rhythm,” and discuss how much weaker SG lyrics are than hymn lyrics! Thankfully, we can make the comeback that those are rare exceptions to the rule!

      Southern Gospel is my favorite, too. No question. All I was saying is that this is out there, and we cannot really claim that SG is the only genre that sings Biblically sound and meaty lyrics, when there are plenty of people singing hymns.

      (Brady, your response went too far under our comment guidelines, but I have to admit that I provoked you somewhat. So, along with removing the comments that went too far, I also went back and edited this one to tone it down and give a specific example.)

      • It’s funny but I was thinking the same thing about your comments, especially the one about self-righteousness, and felt like they went too far based on your own guidelines, so I thank you for understanding how your comment provoked mine. That shows great maturity and I appreciate that. And for the record, when you or anyone else sees the name Brady on a post, please know that whatevery comes out of my mouth (or out of the keyboard in this case) is stated as a either a fact I know for sure or my honest opinion about something that I’ve tried my best to express fairly in the spirit of good ole fashion debate and not to specifically or intentionally belittle any person or group.

        That said, I do think that because of all the rabbits we chased with this topic yesterday, we may be able to sort out a better definition of southern gospel music. At least we know a lot about what it isn’t. We really can’t say it’s four-part male harmony, because we have trios and solos and mixed groups, etc. We can’t say it is the “only” genre that sings Biblically sound, meaty Christian lyrics (but I think it is fair to say they are written in current English more easily understood than some hymns, maybe) and we can’t limit the type or number of instruments used in its music. But would it be fair to say that southern gospel music is a musical genre that is a)primiarly built on strong four and three part harmonies (but sometimes soloists and occasionally 5 or more voices) and b) that features strong Biblicaly and Christian lyrics that are written in modern-day language and that tell a story or feature a testimony from either a Biblical or personal account that draws the listener to the greatness/soverignty/holiness of Jesus Christ and His Father God, and features c) a variety of musical instruments normally centered around a piano (but sometimes features primarily stringed instruments).

        Now I know this is a 2-mile-long definition, but after all the thought we’ve all put into this, I’m not sure there is an easy way to define it. All I know is that when someone asks me about what southern gospel is, I normally tell them it’s hard to define or explain, so why don’t you just listen to it and once you do, I think you’ll like it!

      • As to your definition – very cool! And I’m slightly amused: Except for the piano-based part, which I should have included, we ended up using the exact same factors in the end, even if our wording/definitions were slightly different.

      • Well, we used mostly the same factors, but as we both know, those factors are certainly more complex than one may think. I think that’s the hard part to define about southern gospel music–the factors! It’s a male quartet or mixed quartet or male trio or mixed trio or female trio or family group or solist or duet with a third part on a track or five people as in the GVB or six as in the Crist family although with Tom Joyce’s exit, there’s no bass singer that I’m aware of there, etc. And that’s just the structure of the person or persons singing. Then you have the sub-genres like country gospel, bluegrass gospel, progressive southern, etc. And I’m fairly sure there’s not been an instrument made that hasn’t been used in southern gospel music at one point or another, including everything from bagpipes to a ukelele to a harp to a dulcimer. And we’re supposed to define it? So just about the time we think we can generalize it by saying it’s four-part quartets singing Christian lyrics, that barely skims the surface of one sub genre of the southern gospel realm as a whole. And since I already have a headache this morning, trying to wrap my head around this daunting task any further is going to make me more ill! LOL!

  13. Further description of the genre could be that it often has a southern twang and country influences. It typically uses instruments such as the piano, guitar, trumpet, bass, fiddle, steel guitar, and Hammond B3 organ.

  14. And the mandolin! My bad, I forgot that one! Dobros are also thrown in there sometimes.

  15. I generally agree with your definition, however I usually describe the main tenets that accompany a Southern Gospel song, ie, being born again, heaven, prayer, and the Christian Life. Contemporary usually doesn’t hit these items.