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Close Harmony, A History of Southern Gospel

by James R. Goff Jr. (The University of North Carolina Press, 2002)

Inarguably, Close Harmony is the new bible of Southern gospel music. There’s not much within these pages to tempt the unconverted, but aficionados should be more than satisfied with this well-researched book.

Black and white gospel, we learn, “developed as separate — and parallel — traditions.” And Close Harmony is really about white gospel, though Goff references both genres. The author contends that each side was influenced by the other, and that all gospel rose from the fervor of religious experience: “This tradition [singing songs with religious lyrical content] dates back to the Puritans [and] borrowed heavily from early European hymn singing.”

Gospel eventually rose to become a major, financially successful arm of the entertainment industry. One of the more-interesting revelations Goff dwells upon is the extent to which church members still keep “a scrupulous vigil over the personal lives of Christian entertainers. … Secular musicians might often profit from the publicity of a scandal in their personal lives. For gospel singers, such publicity could spell the end of their careers.”

One of the most-notorious of such scandals happened several years ago when the married Michael English, an award-winning gospel superstar, left the industry after he admitted to an affair with gospel singer Marabeth Jordan (also married).

Once started, the evolution of gospel and its divergence from more-austere hymn singing seemed unstoppable. The author cites Cane Ridge Camp Meeting of 1801 in Bourbon County, Kentucky, as having “tapped into an already brewing revival spirit. Drawing crowds in excess of 10,000, Cane Ridge became famous for the emotional freedom that many worshippers demonstrated as they shouted and danced under the influence of religious fervor.”

Once music stuck its nose under the revival tent, it never went away. In fact, by the start of the following century, it became practically de rigueur, promoted by such firebrand preachers as the converted baseball player Billy Sunday. Gospel was as different from the sedate hymns of more-conservative services as Sunday was different from the somber, black-clad pulpiteer.

Sunday’s music man was Homer Rodeheaver, a singer, songwriter and businessman. He formed his own music-publishing company early in the 20th century, invested in the new phonograph business and sold a million copies of his own recording of “The Old Rugged Cross.”

Those who followed would be key participants in advancing Southern gospel to its current status. First among them were the quartets of the ’40s and ’50s, including The Stamps, The Swanee River Boys, The Sunshine Boys and The Blackwood Brothers. Later generations would feature The Jordanaires (who reached their greatest fame singing backup for Elvis), The Statesmen, The Sons of Song, The Inspirations, The Kingsmen, The Imperials, and The Bill Gaither Trio. The industry developed its own stars and created its own music awards, the Doves, given by the Southern Gospel Music Association.

This wing of the music industry has become a multimillion-dollar business with an audience reaching far beyond the borders of the Mason-Dixon Line. Those early pioneers of shape-note singing could probably never have imagined how high and wide the flames of their musical spirit would burn. The SGMA Hall of Fame and museum is located at the Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.

James R. Goff Jr. will sign copies of his book at Malaprop’s Bookstore (55 Haywood St.) on Saturday, July 13 at 7 p.m. For more information, call 254-6734.

The Near Surround

by Nancy Mitchell (Four Way Books, 2002)

This sweet, lean collection connects the heart and head in a way many poets strive for, but few accomplish quite so well.

I liked the author’s voice from the opening work, “What About,” a poem about loneliness that isn’t laced with maudlin pleas but simply and poetically achieved by such vivid images as a snapshot of lovers torn in half. Love’s intimate companion, longing, is nicely illuminated in “My Blood” and also in “Falls Church Condo.” In “Seedlings,” Mitchell deftly plants erotic feelings: “In the dark/on our knees/your hands/on my hands/we mound dirt/around each.” Isn’t the greatest love often begun in such innocent but demanding gestures? One of the most-poignant pieces here is “Far Edge.” I won’t ruin it by quoting it. Suffice it to say that Ms. Mitchell manages what poets should always strive to achieve — introducing the heart to the mind and making sure they’ll meet again in the near future.

Nancy Mitchell received her MFA from Warren Wilson College and now lives and teaches in Salisbury, MD. She will sign copies of her book at Malaprop’s Bookstore on Friday, July 12 at 7 p.m.

[Bill Brooks teaches creative writing. He is the author of 11 novels. For a complete list of local author events, see Xpress’ weekly arts & entertainment calendar.]

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