Book Review: Then Sings My Soul (Douglas Harrison)

Then Sings My Soul: The Culture of Southern Gospel Music is an academic analysis of Southern Gospel history and culture. Its author, Doug Harrison, describes himself as a former Evangelical Christian, an Associate Professor of English at Florida Gulf Coast University, and openly homosexual. The book is an attempt to reinterpret Southern Gospel through these viewpoints.

The book contains five chapters, plus an introduction and an epilogue. The introduction and first chapter set the tone for the book, attempting to translate the Southern Gospel experience into words. Chapters two through four form the core historical backbone, tracing Southern Gospel from its roots in shape-note songbook publishing and singing conventions through today. These chapters build up to Harrison’s penultimate closing chapter, “Southern Gospel in the Key of Queer,” which, in his own words, is an “effort to ‘queer’ Southern Gospel” (i.e., reinterpret it in light of modern homosexual thought).

Intellectual Conceit

One point Harrison constantly emphasizes and revisits is that singers and songwriters in Southern Gospel aren’t as smart or intellectual as he is. He calls Southern Gospel culture “proudly primitive,” “a musical tradition whose contemporary exponents regularly denounce modernity,” and “antimodern.” He refers to “Protestant Fundamentalism’s often retrograde worldview.” He calls Kyla Rowland’s songs “flamboyantly emotional,” describes Vestal Goodman’s singing as “bellowing, really,” and, despite his critiques of purportedly insensitive jokes, subtly deploys a weight-related one himself when describing a Happy Goodmans song ending as a “harmonized pig call.” 

Southern Gospel Songwriting

Harrison uses similarly cavalier language when describing Southern Gospel song lyrics. He uses selectively culled lyrics to make his case, then describing these songs with wording like “trite imagery or flimsy metaphors,” “conceptually incurious lyrics,” “juvenile,” “singsong meter, obvious rhyme scheme, and reliance on predictable Christian imagery,” “formulaic,” “lyrical vapidity,” “astonishingly shallow and one-dimensional,” and, most dramatically, as having “intellectual and lyrical poverty.”

Quite simply, he’s listening to—or at least citing—the wrong writers. There is a reason that his appendix of songs referenced doesn’t contain a single song from Dianne Wilkinson, Wayne Haun, Sue C. Smith, Rebecca Peck, or Phil Cross, and only a single song each from Marty Funderburk, Jim Brady, and Kyla Rowland. It wouldn’t take too much digging through the catalogs of these writers to dismantle his thesis. 

Since this is merely a review, not a book of its own, let’s use one song as a case in point:

Far back in time, Your love all sublime
Pitied the lost sinner’s plight
You gave Your Son, the pure, sinless one
The darkness was broken by His holy light
His blood was shed for the sins of all men
Your mercy extended to me
Though I once hid my face, all because of Your grace
When You look at me, Lord, I’m something to see

I faced you then in the rags of my sin
Helpless and hopeless, I stood there condemned
But, Lord, when You saved me, You cleansed me that day
You clothed me and threw all my old rags away
When others see me, I look just like them
Imperfect, as they all can see
Oh, but You see me righteous, forgiven, and free
Lord, that’s what You see when You look at me
Lord, that’s what You see when You look at me

— from “When You Look at Me,” written by Dianne Wilkinson, © 2009 by Christian Taylor Music. Reprinted by permission from the author and from Daywind Music Publishing / Christian Taylor Music. Recorded in 2009 by the Kingdom Heirs on When You Look at Me (2009) and Live at Dollywood (CD/DVD, 2009)

The theological doctrine of our identification in Christ is hardly a clichéd, trite, overdone song theme. In fact, it’s rarely captured well in a sixty-minute sermon, let alone a song. Yet this song couples incisive theological insight with an equally vibrant musical setting.

Though the studio version is perhaps on the sterile side, the live version is as Southern Gospel as Southern Gospel gets. By the end of the second verse, the live band kicks into double-time. Lead singer Arthur Rice brings the point home with a conviction that brings the audience to its feet. The quartet comes in for the chorus, toning the intensity down a few notches. But for the tag, the tenor and lead singer shift into high gear, the bass rattles the subwoofers, and a huge classic-quartet-style ending brings the audience unglued and to its feet for a second time. It must be noted that this is in front of an amusement-park audience, not the sort of church audience which one might assume would be predisposed to matters of theology.

It would be equally absurd for me to cherry-pick songs to make the opposite case—that every Southern Gospel song offers the theological depth and vibrant clarity of this one. Yet this is just one case in point which stands out with particular clarity among thousands of others which could also be cited.

In point of fact, most groups cut songs with rich theological depth, and most groups also cut at least an occasional song that could be described as “trite,” “predictable,” or “shallow and one-dimensional.” The apparently peaceful coexistence of these songs next to one another on albums and in live concert programs—the milk with the solid meat, the talc next to the emerald—is an intriguing cultural phenomenon, worthy of further thought and research. Yet it is a discussion that cannot even be started if songs are so selectively presented that only one of the two streams is acknowledged to exist.

Language

Academic terminology is beneficial when it offers greater precision than everyday language can provide. Effective academicians employ technical language as needed for precision; insecure academics attempt to prove their intellect by stuffing their sentences so full with terminology that the result is nearly unreadable bloated verbiage.  At points, he employs terminology deftly and precisely; he captures the Happy Goodmans’ classic four-voice improvisational ending so well that a college professor in Nova Scotia who has never heard Southern Gospel would recognize it when he heard it. Yet there are also times when he slips into unnecessarily bloated verbiage; take, for example, this passage describing goosebumps, or, as George Younce called them, “glory bumps”:

In such instances, live performance distills sensation to a kind of experiential essence, burns away the superfluous, and filters out the ancillary, secondary impressions and responses—leaving a wordless feeling that, in its purest form, exists at the ethereal level of intuitions sharpened by metaphysical intensity and encounters with beauty.

Seriously? Most people already know what goosebumps feel like!

There are approximately a half-dozen profanities, largely if not exclusively in direct quotations, and predominantly in the chapter focused on homosexuality.

Historical Accuracy

In chapter 2, Harrison argues that Aldine Kieffer should be credited as the father of Southern Gospel—not James Vaughan, who sent the first male quartet on the road. 

It’s an intriguing case. Harrison is able to marshal a more impressive array of arguments than for his argument that Southern Gospel lyrics are juvenile and one-dimensional. Even so, it is ultimately unconvincing.

Kieffer became a songbook publisher after returning home from his service in the Confederate Army. For the next several decades, he helped popularize shaped-note music in the South, wrote a number of songs, and helped popularize singing schools in the South. Let’s examine his influence in each area.

First, songwriting: While several of Kieffer’s songs were popular in his time, none remain popular today. In fact, while no search could ever be completely exhaustive, a search through several thousand Southern Gospel recordings released since World War II reveals no Kieffer cuts.

Though Vaughan is not likely one of Southern Gospel’s five all-time most influential songwriters, his work is far more lasting. Most notably, he arranged the musical setting pairing William Hunter’s lyric “I Feel Like Traveling On” with the melody we use today. Through these and a half-dozen other songs, his post-WWII credits include groups like Blackwood Brothers, the Blue Ridge Quartet, Brian Free & Assurance, the Dixie Echoes, the Gaither Homecoming Friends, Glen Allred & Generations, Eldridge Fox, the Florida Boys, the Gaither Homecoming Friends, the Gospel Singing Caravan, Greater Vision, the Harvesters, the Inspirations, the Kingsmen, the LeFevres, Legacy Five, the Rebels, and the Statesmen.

Second, Gospel music as a business: Harrison rightly admits this was not Kieffer’s innovation:

Of course, Roebush and Kieffer were not the first to do what they did. Their business model in many ways reflects a form of sacred music publishing perhaps most powerfully defined by Lowell Mason in the first half of the nineteenth century. More contemporarily, there was the foundational influence of northern white gospel composer and singer Ira Sankey, the longtime musical associate of the evangelist Dwight Moody.

Third, shape-note singing: Kieffer helped popularize shape note singing in the South, but he is neither the inventor nor the first to popularize the method. In 1801, William Smith and William Little published The Easy Instructor, a book introducing four-note shaped-note singing. The most remembered and lasting example of this tradition is William Walker’s landmark 1835 hymnal Southern Harmony.

Looking more specifically to the form of shape-note convention notation Southern Gospel audiences would find familiar today, Sacred Harp historians and fans point to Benjamin White’s and Elisha King’s 1844 hymnal The Sacred Harp as the first major representative of the movement. 

Fourth, singing schools: According to Sacred Harp enthusiasts, singing schools date back to colonial times. Keiffer helped spread singing schools in the South, co-founding the Ruebush Kieffer Normal School in 1874. Significantly, James D. Vaughan attended the school in 1883. But crediting Kieffer with Vaughan’s innovation of sending a traveling male quartet on the road would be akin to crediting Einstein’s college professors with the theory of relativity or Edison’s mother (who homeschooled him for all but three months of his education) with the light bulb.

So Keiffer is not the father of Southern Gospel songwriting, not the father of Gospel music as a business, not the father of shape-note singing, and not the father of singing schools, though he played a role in helping popularize each.

But even if he were the father of any of the four, it would still be a stretch to credit him as the father of Southern Gospel as we know it today. Though the traditions of traveling music groups, singing schools, and congregational convention singing were closely interconnected in Southern Gospel’s early days, they have grown apart over time. Sacred Harp has come to define congregational convention singing, while traveling music groups play a major part of defining Southern Gospel as we know it today. As Harrison would agree, this innovation is rightly credited to James Vaughan.

Two other major innovations that define the genre today can also be credited to Vaughan. First, in 1921, he launched Vaughan Phonograph Records as a division of the James D. Vaughan Music Company, and released the first Gospel quartet recording. Second, Vaughan was also a pioneer in Gospel radio, launching WOAN in November 1922. (Though Bob Terrell’s The Music Men credits it as the first radio station in the state of Tennessee, it appears that WNAV beat it by about a year; WNAV claims a November 1921 launch.)

Southern Gospel as we know it today is defined by traveling music groups, recordings, and Gospel radio. Since each of these three elements were directly pioneered by James D. Vaughan, it remains historically accurate and appropriate to credit Vaughan as the father of Southern Gospel.

On a minor side note of historical accuracy, Harrison refers to the McKameys’ version of “God on the Mountain” as the first. They were not, in fact, the first; that distinction goes to the Songmasters, who cut it on their 1976 record Behold the Lamb, with a young Debbie Spraggs (Debra Talley) singing the soprano part.

Homosexuality in Southern Gospel

Harrison’s closing chapter, on the influence of homosexuals in Southern Gospel, makes broad claims. But for a book with with academic pretensions, the chapter relies on his personal opinions and perspectives to a remarkable extent. 

Conclusion

The book’s subtitle promises an account of “The Culture of Southern Gospel Music.” Yet present or future readers would receive a far more balanced picture by reading James Goff’s Close Harmony, autobiographies of three to five key industry leaders, and a book or two of stories behind favorite Southern Gospel songs. Granted, that would be a half-dozen books instead of one, yet they would together paint a far more accurate picture.

Douglas Harrison, Then Sings My Soul: The Culture of Southern Gospel Music (Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2012). Review copy provided by the University of Illinois Press; a positive review was not required.

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1 Letter to the Editor

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  1. The more I think about this, the more I am inclined to close comments on this post.

    I will explain it this way: Now that Averyfineline has retired, and nobody else is in the public arena advocating his agenda, the debate over his agenda has concluded, for now at least.

    I think it is worth leaving this post up as an entry in the historical record of a past debate. I’m simply disinclined for the community here to keep fighting a departed foe.