Are we forgetting vocal counterpoint?

The greatest convention-style songwriters in the 1920s-1950s were masters of three-part and four-part vocal counterpoint. Vep Ellis, in particular, was so remarkably adept at vocal counterpoint that it wouldn’t be absurd to term him the Bach of convention-style songwriters. Yes, these writers wrote many songs with only one or two melody lines, but they were not limited to two.

For readers new to the genre, here is a video of an Ellis classic, performed by the Gaither Vocal Band and Ernie Haase and Signature Sound:

Today’s Southern Gospel songwriters write an increasingly high percentage of their songs with one melodic line. It’s the rare song that even has two. When there are two, it’s often more a vocal echo than a true counterpoint. Of course, there’s not a thing wrong with one or two melody lines. But is three-part and four-part vocal counterpoint becoming a lost art in Southern Gospel?

Can you think of any excellent recently written examples of three-part and four-part vocal counterpoint in our genre?


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66 Letters to the Editor

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  1. “Salvation Is the Miracle to Me” (D. Wilkinson) and “I Always Have a Song to Sing” (New Gospel Singing Caravan version) (J. Kelso) are some relatively recent examples off the top of my head. I bet Mrs. Dianne could give us a few more recent examples from her pen…she more than anyone else carries the torch of old-time gospel music songwriting in today’s southern gospel.

    • I did have a few examples in my mind, but I hadn’t even thought of “I Always Have a Song to Sing.”

      Here’s the odd thing: Legacy Five did both songs, before the Kingdom Heirs and the New Gospel Singing Caravan, respectively, cut their own versions. In both cases, the earlier versions were done as two-part answer-backs. That raises the question: Were they originally three-part and did Legacy Five simplify them, or were they originally two-part, and did the later versions add a third part?

      (Yes, of course I do know about the Mark Trammell Trio’s version on their 2008 album Always have a Song to Sing. They did two-parts, but that’s somewhat a moot point, since they didn’t have a bass in the ensemble at the time!)

      • I would think they were written originally with the counterpoint, and L5 chose to simplify them for their recording. That would put the onus of counterpoint creativity on the songwriter, which I think is more likely.

      • It’s an interesting discussion and question, either way!

  2. “Standing on Holy Ground” – Cathedrals and “Fear Not” – Hoppers and Gaither Vocal Band (among others). The latter (written by Darryl Williams) has the sound of one written back during the day.

    • They do, but are they RECENT? 😀

      • “Fear Not” is probably much more recent than “Standing on Holy Ground”. Speaking of Daryl Williams, one of his most famous compositions, “Glory to God in the Highest” is a relatively recent example of multiple counterpoint.

        I think, for this exercise, twenty years ago can be called recent…that gets you into the current generation of songwriters. Especially when we’re talking that the heyday of convention songwriting was more like 60-70 years ago.

      • I had in mind the last decade, but I wouldn’t mind expanding the discussion to the last two decades.

        It’s funny how Southern Gospel operates in a different timeline than other genres; in CCM, ten years ago is OLD and twenty is ANCIENT! 🙂

      • Yeah, even something “Salvation Is the Miracle to Me” is at least 12 years old.

      • Yes. Another one that came to mind was the Old Time Gospel Hour Quartet’s “The Return,” recorded in 2002 by the Old Time Gospel Hour Quartet. But that’s now ten or eleven years old, too! There are certainly examples, like that one and a few others named, in the 10-20 year old range. I guess I’m more specifically interested in how many have come out within the past ten years. 🙂

      • “Fear Not” is relatively recent (in the past 10-15 years at least). According to Ben Speer (and Daryl Williams could correct me if I’m wrong), they didn’t have any written-out counterpoint when recording it in the studio and just created them on the spot.

      • Quite interesting! I’m thinking it’s more than 10 years old, but it is probably also less than 20.

      • I’m trying to find music for Standing On Holy Ground…the old 4-part harmony song that the Cathedrals sang. Any idea where I can find this?

      • As far as I know, it’s completely out of print, and nearly impossible to find used. Hopefully another reader can correct me, but if not, I’m sorry!

    • Well, to me even though the former was from around 1989, it is still recent in that those types of songs haven’t been done much since the fifties or sixties I think. So, the past couple of decades or so are in the modern era. Brian is right about Glory to God in the Highest. I should have thought of that even though I was in a hurry this morning. I think “Holy Ground” was written by Otis Forrest unless my memory fails me.

      • “Standing on Holy Ground” was written by Iva Gardner and Clettus Miller. It apparently was written rather close to the time the Cats recorded it. I was thinking it was an old song out of a book that they picked out, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

  3. Correct me if I’m wrong, but when I think of this style of singing, two songs done by the Kingsmen come to mind. The first I’m thinking of, Leave your Sorrows and Come Along, was done well over 20 years ago with the Sheppard, Crawford, Rice lineup on one of their live albums. If I’m not mistaken though, that song was probably not new even back then. The other I’m thinking of was one they recorded back in 2000 on their Proven Time and Time Again album called I’ll Meet You When the Morning Comes. I think at least one or two choruses of that they sing in this style. I have no idea how old that song is either though.

    • I can’t remember off the top of my head how old “Leave Your Sorrows and Come Along” is, but I do know that I have a 1972 Happy Goodmans version on an album of the sane name!

      • Published 1931 by Tennessee Music & Printing Co.

  4. “Delivered From the Hands of Pharaoh” is another recent one. It’s an older song, but I believe David Phelps arranged it with much of the counterpoint. I could be wrong, though.

    • I have a 1962 LeFevres version (on It’s Wonderful) where they have the same vocal counterpoint going. 🙂

      Thankfully, groups still sing these songs. My primary concern is that songwriters don’t forget to how to write them! 🙂

      • I had not heard that. I’ll have to look it up. I think one of the problems is that it is such a dated technique. Many of today’s songwriters stick melodies with your standard chord structures in the key of their choice. Writing counterpoint may be beyond many songwriters technical ability(at least writing it correctly).

    • The harmonies & counterpoint from their arrangement is pretty much right out of the songbook. The intro/turnaround was added.

    • Thank you so much, I had heard this song when I first discovered the Gaither vocal band and southern gospel in general, and then I forgot what it was called and couldn’t find it again. I now have had it on loop for over half an hour. I love counterpoint!

      • Cool! Given that it’s about a ten-minute segment, that would only be about three plays, and that’s not difficult at all! 🙂

  5. Dianne Wilkinson has written so many songs like this, even in recent years. Kyla Rowland, too. I could start listing songs, but we’d be here awhile! Both of these great writers are among those who are keeping the convention style going. Thank God!

    • I can’t speak for Miss Kyla, but I do know that Miss Dianne grew uo at the tail end of when county singing conventions and shape-note singing schools were still central in Southern Gospel. I just don’t want to see them be the last two! (And thankfully, from a few other examples given, it sounds safe to say that they won’t be!)

      As I was drafting the post, I did have a couple of examples in mind. But I wasn’t sure if they were the rule or the exceptions to the rule!

  6. This has definitely been one of my concerns about modern Christian music in general, not just gospel. We are forgetting how to sing corporately as the music becomes more and more focused on soloists, and the lack of writing for multiple parts shows that. But the body of Christ, as Gaither so astutely noted in the above video, is made up of PARTS and learning to choreograph our parts (both in singing and in daily life) is a valuable part of Christian growth.

    BTW, that’s one of my favorite YouTubes! 😀

  7. “Glory to God in the Highest” – EHSS

    Actually, I think EHSS has done others too, but I can’t think of any right now

    • The Inspirations cut it first, mid-to-late 90s.

      • They did it before the Cats?

      • Maybe my mind is playing tricks on me, but I can’t recall the Cathedrals doing that song. Old Friends … another story. 🙂

      • Yeah, after I clicked Submit, I remembered that…

      • Daniel, the first group I remember hearing do “Glory To God In the Highest” was the Specks back when Jeannie Cameron was with them. I think theirs was a charting single somewhere around 1993.

      • Thanks! I’ve never heard that version.

  8. I’m glad to see that you distinguished between true counterpoint and echoes.

    • Counterpoint is a more recent phenomenon, but echoes go clear back to the burning bush. 😉

      • Well done!

      • Thanks, guys. How often is one presented a chance to tie it all together? 😀

      • Q-M – I love it! 🙂

  9. Looking at the history of where those contrapuntal techniques came from may offer some insight. Many of the songwriters that used this technique(like V.E.P. Ellis) were heavily influenced by the early American Singing Schools. These schools taught shape note singing, which gave us those campmeeting songs we love(which were essentially written using counterpoint). When the influence of these singing schools waned, and we moved to a standard notation for music, so did this contrapuntal style of songwriting(Remember, this style came from how the shape note songs were taught to those who attended). After this influence faded, songwriters just began composing melodic lines over basic chord structures, and that style has pretty much stuck around ever since.

  10. I have been inspired….I am gonna write counterpoints for “I Could Sing Of Your Love Forever” and turn it into a convention song!!!

    • I hope you record all four parts and put a video here.

      • It worked for G. F. Handel.

        “hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah”…and repeat!

      • Sorry, Q-man…that reply was meant for Kyle..

  11. I grew up in the era of the Stamps Singing School and Sunday afternoon singings. Everyone learned to sight read music; everybody from the kids all the way through the elderly. The convention books offered a selection of brand new songs every six months. Joe Roper was one of the most prolific of the talented writers of music with counterpoint. His songs were a challenge to read, but oh, what fun we had!

    On one of the Cathedral videos while introducing Echoes From The Burning Bush, George remarks that quartets don’t sing that style anymore, and immediately Glenn retorts, “Yeah, because they can’t,” with a chuckle. I think if truth be told, that is the answer. Many quartet members will admit that they can’t read a line of music.

    It is hard to write a beautiful song. It is harder to write several individually beautiful songs that, when sung simultaneously, sound as a more beautiful polyphonic whole. This kind of music isn’t written on the back of a napkin at lunch. It takes education, not to mention talent, to develop a good counterpoint. If one were to take the time and put in the effort to write such music, who would or could sing it?

    • That line was from Alive! Deep in the Heart of Texas, I think.

      Thankfully, even within the last decade, we’ve seen a number of groups demonstrate their ability in performing this style in the last decade; they just did it with older songs. These groups would include the Gaither Vocal Band, Ernie Haase & Signature Sound (see video above, as well as at least one other for each), the Chuck Wagon Gang, Gerald Williams’ Melody Boys Quartet, and the Kingdom Heirs.

  12. Convention music (and in particular those songs like we’re discussing here) are my passion and it’s my ministry’s purpose to help keep it alive. One thing that must be considered is that there are still songs in this style being written today. There are currently 4 or 5 publishers still publishing annual convention books with brand new gospel songs, following in the path of the “Titans” like James D. Vaughan, Stamps-Baxter, Hartford Music, Stamps Quartet, etc. Publishers like the Gospel Heritage Music Company, Cumberland Valley Music, Leoma Music, Jeffress-Phillips and a few others are continuing this tradition, but the focus is on the schools, not necessarily getting a cut on an album. (Although that would be more than welcome!)

    I believe one reason for a lack of this style is this shift in where groups are getting their songs. In the past (1910’s – 1950’s), groups, by and large, were affiliated with the publishers and sang those songs in the songbooks. From the late ’50’s to current day, groups are no longer connected with these publishers and the writers of songs that are recorded are not from this tradition. Certainly writers like Dianne Wilkinson and Kyla Rowland are masters in this style, but they’re not part of a traditional shape-note publisher.

    One thing that may be confusing to some that aren’t familiar with it: shape-note notation is not a style, per se (although it’s become to be understood that way). It’s merely a notation method to aid in sight-reading. You could take any song and write it in shape notes or regular round notation and the end result (aurally) would be the same.

    Many singers on the road today are not trained (in schools, colleges, singing schools or wherever) to read music (regardless of what shape the notes are), and this contrapuntal style requires the ability to read music. Is that a reason for the decline? Is it easier just to add a 3rd above and 5th below a tonic note? certainly.

    All that to say: I would love to hear more of it. I would also love for groups to take a look at not only the old songs, but the new convention songs that are being written and take advantage of this rich cultural treasury we have.

    • Fascinating, fascinating!

      Maybe I can find a regional or semi-pro group to work with who can practically sight-sing and make it sound good, and do a biweekly or monthly series featuring these songs. That would be an incredibly cool column, to be sure!

  13. The Florida Boys recorded “It’s Still True” in 2002 on “I’m Gonna Rise”.

  14. Three songs written by the humble Woody Wright
    Mark Lowry- I Want To Go To Heaven
    Legacy 5 – My Soul Is Firmly Anchored
    Kingsmen – Someday
    Respectfully submitted

    • Submission accepted with utter delight. 🙂

  15. I was thinking about L5 and My Soul is Firmly Anchored. Great song!

  16. Glorious Tomorrow- Greenes (Phil Cross- 2007)
    This Jordan- Mercy’s Mark Quartet (Kyla Rowland- 2004)

    • Ah! “This Jordan” is one that I should have thought of!

  17. How old is “Sweetest Song I Know”?

    • It’s an Albert E. Brumley song, so probably 50-80 years.

  18. When my family was still singing, we had the opportunity to open up for the Cathedrals out in west Texas. One of the songs we were singing at the time was Heavenly Parade. Glen and George told us that they had forgotten that song. It showed up on their next project.

    • Very neat!

    • The next project being “Symphony of Praise”.

  19. we ownly sings that are shaped notes.

  20. Stumbled upon this column and replies today, and found it most fascinating! Attempted to search through lots of old music books I own for the Standing on Holy Ground, after pulling a Cathedral’s cassette from 1989 to listen to it. I am very interested in learning and hearing more of this kind of singing.
    I own a book (hardback) called Singing The Glory Down, Amateur Gospel Music in South Central Kentucky 1900-1990 by William Lynwood Montell, author. I suspect this book is about the singing schools that taught singers to sing this style. I had never heard the terms True Vocal Counterpoint before. I do know that I love to hear songs written and sung in that style. Thanks for all the interesting comments, folks, and bloggers!! I hope to save this so I can study thru it again.

    • Hi, Bobbie. I have been searching high and low for the song Standing On Holy Ground as performed by The Cathedrals. I have about 20 of the OLD paperback convention Stamps-Baxter song books and thought I might find it in one of those, but it wasn’t. If you happen across a book the song is in or a copy of the song, will you please let me know. I, too, absolutely love this style of singing…and my husband sings with a quartet at our church and I would love for them to give this song a try. Much appreciation for any help you can send my way!

      • Hi Judy AndersonQ, I probably went thru most of the indexes on the song books I had yesterday. I wanted to help you!! My husband sang in a quartet years ago. He even had a 3-ring notebook with copies of songs they did or hoped to do….all alphabetized with dividers.
        Didn’t find it there either. I’ll keep you in mind & get back to you if I find a copy of that song.
        Bobbie

  21. I know I’m breaking the 30 day rule I supported a few weeks ago but I really enjoyed this post.

    As I always claim, I’m extreme young compared to a lot of the people who post on this blog. That being said, I love counterpoint and I do worry that we aren’t hearing a lot of new songs with it included. I’m not a music buff like a lot of you guys but I understand the concept and can read music. I love the just eveywhereness (not a word I know) of it. I love it.

    I actually think counterpoint can also gauge what kind of gospel music fan you are.

    Example: My mom loves CCM music but enjoys the Gaither videos and TV shows. The other night we saw the Sisters do O Happy Day, and I nearly just out of my chair and ran around the room, I loved it so much. My mom said “No, not my thing. I don’t like that.” I nearly fell over.

    Obviously, I not trying to say that you can’t be a diehard SG music without liking counterpoint but to me it kind of shows how much you like it. Often it takes in-depth knowledge to know these old conventions songs because people don’t usually look back at the history of the music they listen to.

    Great post Daniel! Sorry to break the new rule!

    P.S. was the song “An Old Convention Song” written within the last 20 years. I’m thinking there’s a chance since I heard Tim Parton wrote it.

    • No problem! I ended up deciding not to implement that rule, since there are too often insightful comments like yours to turn down all comments. 🙂

      “An Old Convention Song” would be right around the thirty-year mark; the Cathedrals recorded it right around 1984.