Borrowing Songs

Every now and then, the topic of groups recording songs introduced by other groups comes up. When a major group records a song that another major group recorded and singled, the first group’s fans often take offense and complain on message boards that the second group’s rendition simply doesn’t measure up.

Fewer object when a major group recycles a song that never got singled from another group’s project or when a good Christmas song starts making the rounds. The main objections seem to take place when a second group starts doing a song that the first group and its fans think was a good song.

This isn’t the way it used to be. Look at Southern Gospel’s roots; back in the 20s and 30s, when the songbook companies were the driving force behind keeping Southern Gospel quartets on the road, that company’s quartets would sing any song from the songbook, and nobody seemed to mind.

In the 1940s and 1950s, when the genre became more artist-driven, performers would think nothing of it if twenty other groups started singing a good song they’d introduced. It honestly didn’t take all that long for songs like “How Long Has it Been,” “Oh What a Savior,” “Happy Rhythm,” “His Hand in Mine,” or “The Old Country Church” to become classics. The songs were good, but it wasn’t just that the songs were good. If a good song gets buried and forgotten, nobody knows it was good. They became classics because they were good–and because they were widely performed.

This attitude continued well into the 1970s. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when Southern Gospel became a more radio-driven genre, that the practice began to be frowned upon. Today, things have changed so much that personnel from major groups are sometimes bothered or offended when another major group takes a song they had recorded and starts performing it.

But the idea that good songs are limited to one group comes out of CCM or secular music, not out of Southern Gospel’s heritage.

For more about —and other Southern Gospel news and commentary—follow our RSS feed or sign up for our email updates!

24 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 have no problem if a group takes a song that was never singled from another project and sends it to radio.

    What I don’t like is when a group takes a song that is a fresh hit for another group and tries to “ride the coattails” of the first group. In reality, if it weren’t for that first group bringing it out, taking a chance with it, and singling it, the second group very likely would have never considered singling it themselves. They are taking the hard work and ingenuity of the first group and trying to capitalize on it.

    Put yourself in their shoes: If you were a group that finally found your “breakthrough” hit that placed you into “major artist” standing, you would probably be upset if another group came along shortly thereafter and tried to take your signature song and make it their own. It automatically robs the first group of having an exclusive signature hit that people recognize them for. The industry is cut-throat enough without having the hit songs of some of the lesser-known, breakthrough artists being robbed of their hits. Maybe it’s selfish. Maybe it’s not how history did it. Regardless, it just doesn’t “sit right.”

  2. Take a look at the very first Singing News charts sometime and you’ll find charting songs with multilple artists credited. Three or four artists would get credit for each song, and it also resulted in artists appearing more than once on the charts.

    The problem now is that everyone wants to make their OWN mark on the industry with their OWN music. As a result, groups who cover songs from other artists are usually considered to be of a lower caliber than the “big time” groups who do their own stuff.

    I wonder if the high turn-over in personnel among groups is part of the reason for doing covers. “This person used to sing this song with this group, and it was so doggone good that we want them to do it with us!” Michael English’s most popular recording of “I Bowed On My Knees” with the GVB from 1993 was actually the FOURTH time it’d been released. He originally sang it with the Goodmans, then with the Singing Americans, and then with the Brooklyn Tab.

    Although, a good argument in the other direction would be Signature Sound. Half of their repertoire is made up of covers of other artists’ songs, and Ernie’s “signature song” is actually Rosie Rozell’s signature song, “Oh What A Savior”!!

  3. Speaking of Signature Sound, the Perrys classic “Calvary Answers for Me” was originally found on a Signature Sound project.

  4. In the ’70s, there were several songs that were hits for multiple groups. “I Know” with the Oak Ridge and Blue Ridge, “Jesus Is Coming Soon” for the Oak Ridge and the Inspirations, “Touring That City” was recorded by about everybody. It almost was a competition to see who could have the most popular version. Sometimes I wish we’d see more of it today. “Truth Is Marching On” and “Calvary Answers” are really the exception these days, and even then, only one version released to radio.

  5. I know this is a horse that has been ridden to death already, but it’s a good example:

    I recently heard that the Dove Brothers don’t necessarily sing “Get Away Jordan” at all their concerts anymore. Was it their song to begin with? No. Did they bring it back and make it a signature song? Yes.

    Now EHSS did it. That’s FINE. But with their singling it and actually making it a #1 song with aggressive promotion, I think it would be illogical to assert that this doesn’t affect the Dove Bros at all. In fact, at NQC 2006 McRay even took a friendly stab at Ernie for taking “their” song. Times have changed.

  6. I wasn’t gonna mention “Calvary Answers,” but I always thought that Signature Sound’s version was better.

    Let’s not forget “Canaanland Is Just In Sight.” Jeff Gibson wrote it with Heaven Bound in 1982, and by 1983, everyone was covering it (the Cathedrals put it on their “Cherish That Name” table release in ’83).

  7. Tyler, some of the greatest groups ever in Southern Gospel–Statesmen, Blackwoods, Kingsmen, Cathedrals, and Happy Goodmans–were able to make it and define themselves as legends before the CCM/secular radio “radio singles” practice started to redefine the genre.

    The Happy Goodmans are a particularly good example. Count how many artists did “Had it Not Been,” “Who am I,” or their other great songs–yet in my opinion it didn’t diminish anything from those songs.

    The Rambos are another good example. When the Speer family did one or two of their songs, it helped the Rambos take off (as opposed to killing their career.)

  8. Of course, at that same NQC, the Dove Brothers replied in kind, by doing EHSS’s signature song, “Stand By Me” (complete with choreography, I understand, though I only heard the audio and didn’t actually see it).

  9. Good point, Daniel! “Some of the greatest groups ever in Southern Gospel–Statesmen, Blackwoods, Kingsmen, Cathedrals, and Happy Goodmans–were able to make it and define themselves as legends before the CCM/secular radio “radio singles” practice started to redefine the genre.”

  10. I would have liked to hear David Hester sing “Stand By Me”, since I’m not nessicarily a Tim Duncan fan. But I didn’t. Did the Doves record it?
    When I saw that the Stateline Quartet released “I Can Pray” to radio, I thought that was a foolish choice. BUT, thankfully, it wasn’t the same song as the Doves’ hit. Once I heard it, it turns out that I liked Stateline’s song better. But both have a great message.
    Another example that comes to my mind is Crossway’s project “No Distractions”. It contains 4 or 5 cover songs. Later on the Perrys would release to radio “I Can, I Have, I Will”.

  11. Yes, the Doves recorded “Stand Be Me” – on Never the Same.

  12. We have recorded some of the old Statesmen songs, as have just about every quartet on the planet. The Florida Boys cut a couple of our songs we arranged on a project a couple of years ago, and recently L5 used our arrangement on a song from a project that we did back in 2004 as an original song. The song was called “Why”

  13. Actually, you’ll find “Stand By Me” on _Shout It Out_.

    _Never The Same_ is the title of their most recent label CD.

  14. Sorry, Quaid–DBM is right. My mind skipped a beat there.

  15. We seem to have done a 180 on this particular issue.

    From what some artists of the 1960s and 1970s have told me, in those days it was considered a compliment to a writer or artist if a number of other groups recorded a song they had initially popularized.

    And of course, the residual checks didn’t hurt the writer’s feelings, either!:-)

    I don’t know if the attitudes in secular music are different now, but for many years artists there had much the same attitude. Somewhere along the line, ownership became an issue, and music seemed to have property rights that it seemingly didn’t have in past generations.

  16. Thanks for posting! It’s nice to see someone else who sees things the same way I do here. 🙂

  17. I imagine it DOES get lonely around here sometimes.:-)

  18. I hadn’t checked this thread over the weekend, but yes, the DB’s did “Stand By Me” at NQC and it was hilarious! The “choreography” was nothing close to that of EHSS and it wasn’t supposed to be. It basically was McRay and Jerry dancing in opposition directions. 🙂

    Sure they recorded it on a table project, but what you say if the DB’s would take “John In The Jordan,” add real choreography to it, and aggressively single it right now? I would think it’s weird. Maybe I’m generation X.

  19. Ok, I see that there’s some difference because the style is different from, but if I were them I’d still be saying “get your own single.” 🙂

    Also, if EHSS quit singing it because of the new version wouldn’t that make the DB’s feel strange? (I’m not implying the DB’s don’t sing “Get Away Jordan” anymore, but I don’t think they do as often unless my info is incorrect)

  20. That would make sense, and I’d need to get more information before I make a conclusive statement, but I would be very curious as to whether or not they continue to sing “Didn’t It Rain.” If they continue that one, but not “Get Away Jordan,” that’s a clear sign, IMO. (But again, I need more info)

  21. Suppose, on the other hand, that they were to do a very different version, such as a slower-paced rendition without choreography. I wouldn’t mind that.

  22. That’s very possible.

  23. I think a large part of that is because they’re trying to push the modern/progressive end of their repertoire right now.

  24. Yes, I’d agree that that would be telling. But I know for sure that I’ve heard of McCray saying that he did Didn’t it Rain and Get Away Jordan at NQC–and does them at concerts–because the fans won’t let them go until they sing them. Once in a while, the way he’s phrased it makes it sound like they’d almost prefer to just sing the new material, but they do the old stuff because the fans demand it.