Southern Gospel music is not what, upon first blush, you might think it is. Yes, the music originates in the south (mostly Georgia), but it’s not Baptist revival music, with loud, brassy choruses and preachers doing the “Praise Jesus!” thing. What qualifies under this more-popular-than-you-know sub-genre is mostly quartets throwing together four-part harmony with aplomb (and help from a fifth player—an instrumentalist—usually plying his / her trade on guitar or piano). The genre is almost a misnomer, anyway: in unspoken terms, Gospel vs. Christian music means Black vs. White. Both carry the same general messages, but gospel has a bit of an edge to it, making it a more appealing listen. You can get Jesus’ message by watching the Telicare channel during the sacrosanct Sunday mass, with straightforward songs sung by people who appear frozen to the lecterns, with assistance from taciturn backing choirs. You can also get the same message by watching the church and tent revival scenes in the Blues Brothers movies. Now, which one is more fun, more appealing and (most importantly) more interesting?
Be forewarned: Close Harmony: a History of Southern Gospel Music (Volume 1: 1920-1955) goes along the Telicare path. That’s not to say there isn’t talent among these quartets; there’s plenty. And of course, the message is heartfelt. But if you’re expecting to have this music move you, you’ll be in for a disappointment. It only attacks the brain with its message, not the rest of your body. The music picked-up steam during a time when segregation was an accepted fact of life, as normal as breathing. In fact, one of the bigger groups, the (Frank) Stamps Quartet, was mistakenly identified as a “Colored” group in a letter from a representative for the (RCA) Victor label. And of the 14 groups represented here, only one was actually black (the Golden Gate Quartet). One good thing about Southern Gospel back in those days was that it became one of the only acceptable bridges where the two races could peacefully co-exist . . . at least on stage.
The disc opens with a two-part anomaly, The LeFevres: they’re only a trio, and they all play an instrument. On “The Old Gospel Ship”, you can hear piano, banjo and fiddle mixed in with the three-part harmonies. On just about every song, the harmonic interplay is stellar—the trick is to find the songs that hold your interest. Getting right to that, the Golden Gate Quartet has the most upbeat, joyous song on here, “Swing Down, Chariot”. It’s almost stylized along the lines of early Blind Boys of Alabama, and it’s all in the vocals, since their backing instrument of choice is lower-mixed drums utilized to keep the uptempo beat moving along.
Many of the piano intros sound like barrelhouse swing or a snippet of ragtime before slowing down and supporting the slow-tempoed vocals. A prime example is the Blackwood Brothers’ “Lord Build Me a Cabin in Glory”, one of the standout tracks. These folks even appeared on the old Arthur Godfrey television show. The other piano-based standout is “I Want to be More Like Jesus”, by Wally Fowler and the Oak Ridge Quartet. They sound like Dion and the Belmonts on a religious tear, and be warned—Wally goes for a surprise high note towards the end of the song, and nails it: it’s startling. Elsewhere, the Speer Family’s “Going Home” is solid, as is the Stamps Quartet’s “Give the World a Smile”. (The repetitive “bing-binga-bing-bing” at the end of that song is quite amusing.) Also, the Chuck Wagon Gang shows some country-and-western overtones in “Lord Lead Me On”.
Many folks outside the southeastern part of the lower-48 have never heard of Southern Gospel, yet it’s so popular, there’s even a Southern Gospel Hall of Fame . . . in Dollywood. (No joke.) Though mainly usurped and upstaged by the more popular Christian and Gospel stylings of church music, Southern Gospel had its place in the religious pecking order. Dr. James Goff Jr., a history professor at Appalachian State University (NC), helped compile the CD to accompany a companion book on the history of Southern Gospel. And while Close Harmony: a History of Southern Gospel Music (Volume 1: 1920-1955) won’t cause the Earth to shake and other forms of religious music to buckle, it is an interesting look back as to what could be construed as the genesis (no pun intended) of gospel music as we know it today. Unless you’re into this sort of thing you won’t be ripping this CD to your MP3 player, but there are a few tunes here to capture the mood when the urge arises.