Close Harmony: A History Of Southern Gospel
James Blackwood, founding member of the Blackwood Brothers quartet, died February 3, 2002, at the age of 82. He performed on over 200 albums and won nine Grammy awards. He was an influence upon, and inspiration to, Elvis Presley and other Southern progenitors of rock ‘n’ roll. Yet James Blackwood’s death went unmentioned at the 2002 Grammy ceremonies, held only three weeks after his passing. Such is the relative obscurity of Southern gospel music.
James R. Goff Jr. takes a step toward rectifying that situation with this fine overview. A professor of history at Appalachian State University, Goff also comes from a family of Southern gospel singers. He approaches the subject with both scholarship and an easy familiarity. Each chapter of Close Harmony is prefaced with a specific personal recollection.
Southern gospel is characterized by close, smooth harmony singing — especially among the quartets who came to be the music’s best known practitioners. It is also known by song lyrics rooted in American evangelical theology. Goff is especially good at describing the religious and cultural environment in 19th-century and early 20th-century America that gave birth to southern gospel.
The differences and similarities of white Southern gospel music and the parallel black tradition are well-delineated, as is the cross-pollination of the two musical branches. The book’s description of the development and evolution of shape-note hymnbook singing is a fascinating look into a relatively hidden branch of American folk music.
Close Harmony also skillfully describes the evolution of quartets from song pluggers for hymnbook publishers to their current status as entertainment professionals. Particularly interesting is Goff’s account of the rivalry between the Vaughan and Stamps-Baxter music publishing empires in the early 20th century, and the effect their competition had upon the development of the Southern gospel quartet tradition.
The Blackwood Brothers and other significant and characteristic artists are profiled, including the Statesmen, the Imperials, the Oak Ridge Boys, and the influential and flamboyant Hovie Lister.
The major shortcoming of Close Harmony is the absence of a discography. Disgracefully few recordings from Southern gospel’s heritage are currently available. A discography by a scholar as sensitive to the music as Goff would be an invaluable resource to those looking for representative recordings. It might also serve as an impetus for labels to reissue the back catalog of spotlighted artists.
That omission aside, Close Harmony is highly recommended to readers who enjoy Peter Guralnick’s forays into musical Americana, or lovers of American popular music history in general. It is a seminal work on a too-long neglected portion of our country’s musical story.