Harmony Singing

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Everyone seems to enjoy good harmony singing.  From the Andrew Sisters during World War II, the McGuire Sisters, the Four Lads, the Mills Brothers, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and even the Osmonds during the sixties and the seventies.

Each generation seems to have had their favorite group and great harmony singing never really goes out of style.  A good example of this today is high-rated shows on television like Glee and Sing Off.

Historically, there are four great genres of grassroots music that can be attributed to our country, all originating from the south:  jazz, blues, country, and southern gospel.  But the one we never hear much about, one that features beautiful harmony singing, is southern gospel.  Ironically, it is the one that actually has “southern” in its name.  While its roots were firmly planted in the shaped note singing schools of the South, whose predecessor was the Sacred Harp which has become so popular of late, it has taken flight and now lives a life of its own all over the U.S.  According to recent statistics, at the end of the twentieth century Christian music sales topped 600 million dollars and much of that can be attributed to southern gospel.

In 1957, when Elvis Presley made his final appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, he wanted to do a “gospel” number.  The sponsors immediately said, “No!”  That night, he performed the southern gospel classic “Peace in the Valley” and shocked the nation with his love for gospel music.  That love would continue on through his career as he continued to record gospel music and sing it at his concerts until his death in 1977.

Throughout our history, gospel music existed in two different yet parallel places.  While the country was segregated by color and called the music “white” gospel or “black” gospel, the church was one place, even in the South, where the people were able to listen to and borrow stylistically from each other.  Even today, “white” gospel, or Southern Gospel, often sounds like “black,” or Urban Gospel. There are many similarities between the two.  The actual meaning of the word “gospel” is “good news” and the purpose of any type of gospel music is to share the good news!

During the Great Depression in the 1920s, when jobs and food were scarce in the South, many folks, black and white, began to go north and into the Midwest looking for work;  and with them they took this happy and jubilant style of worship.  Today, southern gospel is found not only in the South, but can often be heard in churches and concert halls all over the North and Midwest.  It has taken on a life of its own and people enjoy it because of the feeling of the good news and the spirit of joy that is brought along with the music.

There is a wonderful book that gives a detailed history of southern gospel music called Close Harmony.  Never have I seen such compelling storytelling and historic dedication culled together so lovingly to offer a chronological, historical account of southern gospel history that is so often overlooked.  The author, James R. Goff, Jr., is a professor of history at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.  The book will take you back to another place and time when things were simpler and much different than they are today.  It is truly a narrative of a forgotten and untold part of our American musical history that deserves to be heard.  So many people today are unaware of this wonderful part of our gospel heritage.  Many have researched and discovered in our history much information about the collection of hymns called Sacred Harp. That is only a small part of the history, there is so much more.  This book tells the rest of the story!

Click here for more information about Close Harmony.

Further reading:

The History of Southern Gospel, Part One

The History of Southern Gospel, Part Two

The History of Southern Gospel, Part Three

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Doug McComas
Music advocate, church choir director, pianist, vocalist, private music teacher, sacred choral editor at J.W. Pepper, supporter of Pepper's southeastern US customers from our store in Georgia

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