The Roots of Southern Gospel Music – and Its Branches in the Ozarks

Blackwood Brothers Quartet

The Roots of Southern Gospel Music – and Its Branches in the Ozarks

By Matt Meacham

Matt Meacham, program manager for statewide engagement with Illinois Humanities, was a public folklorist with the West Plains Council on the Arts from 2007 to 2011. He remains involved with the Old-Time Music, Ozark Heritage Festival, and is performing during this year’s festival as a member of The Juhl Family. This article is adapted from the May 4, 2023, edition of his column, Obscurity’s Magnet, published in the County Journal in Randolph County, Illinois

     The 2023 Old-Time Music, Ozark Heritage Festival features several artists specializing in Southern gospel and closely related kinds of music. They include Arena Stage performers The Isaacs (Friday, 7 PM), Women in Need of God Sing (WINGS) (Saturday, 4 PM), and The Blackwood Brothers Quartet (Saturday, 5 PM), as well as Theater Stage performers Four Corners Quartet (Saturday, 2 PM) and The United Quartet (Saturday, 3 PM).

     How did Southern gospel music originate, and how is it significant to the culture of the Ozarks? I’ll do my best to answer those questions.

     Please note, however, that the following summary represents a simplification of a complex subject, so it omits many details and nuances. Furthermore, I’m admittedly not an expert on Southern gospel and people who know more about its history than I do might interpret some aspects of it differently.

     Also, a clarification: the term “Southern gospel” usually refers to music sung by white people. Black gospel, discussed below, is generally considered a related, but distinct, tradition.

     With all of that in mind: Southern gospel can be said to have originated from the late-19th-century convergence of two musical trajectories: 1) the longer-established shape-note tunebook tradition and 2) the newer gospel song genre. Taking them in order…

The shape-note tunebook tradition:

     Shape-note notation was invented around 1800 by traveling singing-school teachers. Before music education was readily available through public schools, these instructors visited small communities on the American frontier and offered “singing schools,” brief courses in the basics of choral (mostly sacred) singing and music theory.

     Finding it challenging to teach people to read musical notation within just a few classes, they reasoned that people might be able to learn sight-reading more quickly and easily if the notation provided an additional indication of the pitches to be sung besides the positioning of the notes on the staff.

     Several singing-school teachers developed notation systems in which note-heads have different shapes indicating the scale degrees that they represent – a triangle for “fa,” a square for “sol,” etc. – in contrast to conventional notation, in which all note-heads are round or oval.

     The version of “shape-note” notation that gained wide acceptance is the one used in a book called The Easy Instructor by William Little and William Smith, published in Philadelphia in 1801. Although major and minor scales encompass seven notes each, the notation used by Little and Smith had only four shapes, corresponding to the scale syllabification system often used in early-19th-century America, in which several syllables were repeated: fa-sol-la-fa-sol-la-mi-fa, rather than do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do.

     Publishers began issuing collections of music in shape-note notation, known as “tunebooks,” for use in singing schools and church and community activities.

     Their contents represented a cross-section of sacred music typically sung in predominantly Anglo-American rural communities in the early 1800s: metrical psalmody from Presbyterian and Congregationalist traditions, older British Protestant hymnody, newer Protestant hymnody composed by New Englanders, folk hymns and spirituals originating in Baptist, Methodist, and related traditions, and revival songs associated with the First and Second Great Awakenings.

     Although shape-note notation originated in the Northeast, it attained greater popularity and permanence in the rural South and lower Midwest, where regional traditions of singing from particular tunebooks developed. The best-known of those is The Sacred Harp (originally published in 1844), but The Missouri Harmony (1820), The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (1835), and others were also influential.

     Widely known examples of music originally published in such tunebooks or integral to the regional traditions associated with them include “The Promised Land” (“On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand”), “Wondrous Love” (“What Wondrous Love Is This?”), “Holy Manna” (“Brethren, We Have Met to Worship”), “Old 100th” (“Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow,” also called the “Common Doxology”), and “New Britain” (“Amazing Grace”).

     Later, seven-shape versions of shape-note notation were developed as seven-syllable “do-re-mi” scale syllabification began to supplant the four-syllable “fa-sol-la” version. Seven-shape notation appears in such tunebooks as The Christian Harmony (1866), which gained popularity in the Ozarks and remained in use here for several decades.

     Additionally, some churches published – and still publish – hymnals in shape-note (usually seven-shape) notation. One example (among many) is The Good Old Songs, edited by Elder C.H. Cayce. Originally published in 1913, the hymnal has been reprinted several times. It contains much of the same repertoire as many of the early- to mid-19th-century tunebooks do and is still used by several Primitive Baptist congregations in the Ozarks.

     Furthermore, “singings” featuring 19th-century shape-note tunebooks still occur occasionally in and near the Ozarks. They include the annual Missouri State Convention, usually near St. Louis; Northwest Arkansas Singings in West Fork and Springdale; and the Northeast Kansas Singing in Lawrence. These singings use The Sacred Harp and, in some cases, The Missouri Harmony.

     Additionally, singings take place monthly or several times per year in West Fork, Springdale, and Mena, Arkansas; Cape Girardeau, Kansas City, Bowling Green, and St. Louis, Missouri; and various locations in adjacent states. Information about many of these gatherings is available at Also, the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, Arkansas, has hosted singings drawing upon various tunebooks and regional traditions.

The gospel song genre:

     The other main ingredient in what became Southern gospel music was gospel song, which developed in conjunction with the urban Evangelical revivals that occurred in Northeastern and Midwestern cities such as Philadelphia and Chicago in the mid- to late 1800s (sometimes called the Third Great Awakening). Writers such as Fanny Crosby, Ira Sankey, and Philip Bliss developed a new kind of sacred song for use in such revivals, as well as churches, meetings of organizations such as the YMCA and temperance societies, and other settings.

     Their compositions, called “gospel songs,” reflected the influences of parlor songs and other popular music of the Civil War and Victorian eras; Protestant hymnody by such mid-19th-century Northeastern composers as Lowell Mason, William Bradbury, and Thomas Hastings; and children’s Sunday School songs. Usually in verse-chorus form, these early gospel songs often featured bouncy, dotted-note rhythms and somewhat sentimental-sounding, chromatically inflected melodies.

     First-generation gospel songs still familiar to many Americans include “Blessed Assurance,” “There Is Power in the Blood,” “Trust and Obey,” “Wonderful Words of Life,” “It Is Well with My Soul,” “Whispering Hope,” “Shall We Gather at the River,” “The Unclouded Day,” and “Softly and Tenderly, Jesus Is Calling.”

The emergence of Southern gospel:

     The synthesis from which Southern gospel music emerged occurred when several publishers based in the South began printing gospel songs in shape-note notation in the 1870s, thus incorporating an urban Northern musical genre into a rural Southern musical tradition.

     That synthesis wasn’t as revolutionary as my description of it in the preceding sentence might imply, however. Some of the newer Southern seven-shape tunebooks, such as The Christian Harmony (1867), had already begun incorporating compositions that reflected many of the same influences that Northern gospel songs did and might therefore be considered proto-gospel songs. Concomitantly, books such as The Christian Harmony might be said to represent a transition between the tunebook tradition and incipient Southern gospel music.

     Soon, Southern composers began writing gospel songs of their own that closely resembled those of their Northern counterparts but borrowed some characteristics from folk hymnody associated with the older tunebook tradition. Hence, Southern gospel was born.

     Among the earliest compositions that can be considered distinctly Southern gospel songs, one that remains well-known today is “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” (1887), which has a text written by a Northerner, E.A. Hoffman, and a tune written by a Southerner, A.J. Showalter.

     Another influential first-generation Southern gospel composer was Charles Tillman, known for “Life’s Railway to Heaven,” as well as his adaptations and arrangements of “Old-Time Religion,” an African American spiritual, and “Wayfaring Stranger,” a folk hymn, illustrating the cross-pollination between early Southern gospel and closely related musical traditions.

     A milestone in Southern gospel music’s formative period occurred when the Tennessee-based James D. Vaughan Publishing Company formed several male quartets and began dispatching them throughout the South to promote the company’s songbooks in 1910, adding a substantial performative and commercial aspect to what had been a predominantly participatory kind of music.

     In fact, some people consider that development the starting point of Southern gospel, but the consensus among historians seems to be that it had already solidified as a distinct idiom by that point. Its performative and commercial dimensions continued to expand, but so did its participatory dimension. Still today, numerous churches, including many in the Ozarks, use hymnals printed in seven-shape notation that consist largely of Southern gospel songs and related repertoire.

     The history of Southern gospel music from its formative years to the present is fascinating and complex, but we’ll have to save that topic for another day.

     One observation, though: in my view, among the most significant aspects of that history are the ways in which it mirrors the economic, social, and technological evolution of the “New South.”

     Southern gospel music’s expansion from a mostly participatory genre to one with major performative and commercial components paralleled the gradual transformation of the Southern economy from one overwhelmingly dominated by land-based occupations such as agriculture and timber harvesting to a more diversified one encompassing various industries and forms of commerce, and it arguably reflected the influences of that transformation and its social ramifications.

     The construction of roads suitable for automobiles, which made travel easier for musicians and audiences, as well as the growth of the radio and recording industries, influenced Southern gospel music’s course. Many developments that have occurred within the economy of the South (and the United States in general) since then have manifested themselves somehow in the music’s evolution. Southern gospel could be considered an index of the relationship between economic change and cultural change.

Resources for learning more about Southern gospel music:

     If you’d like to learn more, I suggest starting with the “Gospel music” entry in the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edition, edited by Charles Hiroshi Garrett (Oxford University Press, 2013), Volume 3, pages 550-571. Written by Stephen Shearon, Harry Eskew, James C. Downey, and Robert Darden, it provides a comprehensive, yet concise, scholarly overview of the subject. (It’s available digitally if you subscribe to Oxford Music Online.)

     For further study, I recommend consulting the books, articles, and online resources listed in the bibliography of that Grove Dictionary entry, especially these books: Then Sings My Soul: The Culture of Southern Gospel Music by Douglas Harrison (University of Illinois Press, 2012), The Sound of Light: A History of Gospel Music by Don Cusic (University of Wisconsin Press, 2006), and Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel by James R. Goff, Jr. (University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

Close relatives: African American gospel and country & bluegrass gospel:

     African American gospel shares many historical and musical similarities with Southern gospel but is usually considered a genre unto itself.

     One of its main antecedents was the tradition of Black spirituals. That tradition encompassed the folk spirituals sung by Black people in the South both during and after the slavery era, as well as the formal, stylized choral arrangements of such spirituals performed by such ensembles as the Fisk Jubilee Singers beginning in the 1870s.

     During the following decades, smaller groups, especially quartets, performed “jubilee”-type arrangements of spirituals that incorporated stylistic elements borrowed from barbershop quartet singing and other popular music. Additionally, predominantly Black churches associated with the Holiness and Pentecostal movements developed lively, partly improvisational styles of sacred song, sometimes accompanied by various instruments.

     In the early 20th century, songwriters such as Charles Albert Tindley, Lucie Campbell, Charles Henry Pace, and Thomas A. Dorsey composed music that synthesized characteristics of all of the music described above, as well as secular African American traditional music such as blues and ragtime, and first-generation gospel songs written by white composers associated with urban revivals in the Northeast and Midwest.

     Many of their compositions appeared in hymnals published by principally African American denominations and were adopted by congregations, especially those located in Northeastern, Midwestern, and West Coast cities to which many Black people from the South moved during the Great Migration, including St. Louis. These developments led to the emergence of Black gospel music as a distinct genre. Dorsey’s compositions, including “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and “Peace in the Valley,” were particularly influential.

     Black gospel and Southern gospel musicians have interacted and influenced one another over the years, especially since the Civil Rights Movement, in which Black gospel music played a vital role. The two genres share much of the same commercial and promotional infrastructure, as well as some of the same repertoire, and musicians associated with them often collaborate, but they maintain their own distinctive traditions and stylistic features.

     Country gospel and bluegrass gospel can be considered hybrids between 1) country and bluegrass music and 2) gospel music (primarily Southern gospel but also Black gospel in many instances) and closely related sacred music traditions (such as folk hymnody and spirituals), combining repertoire and stylistic traits from both categories. Of course, those two musical categories stem from common cultural roots.

     To learn more about the development of African American gospel music from its beginnings until now, as well as country and bluegrass gospel, I recommend the same Grove Dictionary of American Music entry that I mentioned above.

Gospel music as a component of Ozarks culture:

     The following is a slight revision of a segment from the “Ozarks” entry that Julie Henigan, Drew Beisswenger, and I contributed to the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edition (Oxford University Press, 2013), Volume 6, pages 302-305:

Currently, gospel music, especially Southern gospel, is more prevalent in the Ozarks than the older traditions of white spirituals and folk hymnody that contributed to its development.

Gospel songwriter E.M. Bartlett (1885–1941) co-founded Hartford Music Company in Arkansas in 1918. Hartford-affiliated songwriter Albert E. Brumley (1905–1977) achieved preeminence in Southern gospel, composing such standards as “I’ll Fly Away,” “I’ll Meet You in the Morning,” “Rank Strangers,” “Turn Your Radio On,” and “I’d Rather Be an Old-Time Christian.” His own Missouri-based company, Albert E. Brumley and Sons, still publishes music and hosts an annual “sing” featuring famous performers. The Stamps-Baxter Music Company maintained an Ozarks office in the mid-1900s.

Singing schools—brief courses in music theory, seven-shape notation, and ensemble singing, which represented a variant of the singing schools that originated in 18th-century America—occurred in many rural communities in the 20th century, often using materials published by Hartford or Stamps-Baxter. The Brockwell Gospel Music School in Arkansas, a 1948 outgrowth of such courses, remains influential.

Several renowned Southern gospel ensembles originated in the Missouri Ozarks. They include the Foggy River Boys and the Jordanaires, who contributed vocal arrangements to many major country and pop recordings, both sacred and secular. Branson, Missouri, is a center of Southern gospel, contemporary Christian, and Evangelical-themed music theater performances.

Gospel music provides the core repertoire for congregational singing in many churches. Church-hosted gospel “sings” and county singing conventions occur frequently. Local musicians spanning the gospel stylistic spectrum participate in community events. Old-time, bluegrass, and country musicians often perform gospel songs. African American gospel, though not as prominent as white gospel, is also represented in the Ozarks.

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