The Ken Burns’ television series on country music — absolutely wonderful as usual for his work — only briefly touched the most important part of the music of the rural South, namely church music. Of course, the two are complexly intertwined, but there were so many more natural venues for church music in every town and rural community that church music was more deeply familiar, more often sung and performed.
Like other music of the South, it blends sounds from many cultures — ballads of Scotland and Ireland, spirituals of slaves and former slaves with echoes of Africa, etc. In its development, this music of the people predictably came to reflect them and the plain folk ethos of this country — personal and individualistic — hallmarks of evangelical Christianity. To be sure, even back country folk began with selected Psalms set to melody, but music invites creativity that expresses what people see, feel and think. Those who pushed their way onto the frontier from colonial days through the 19th century were often people who rejected the established ways of the European lands from which they had come. Those from Africa of necessity created a new culture.
Frontier religion was individualistic, personal and dramatically experiential. Today that is labeled “evangelical.” The religious music that developed to express those beliefs and experiences is “gospel music.” Much of it movingly reflects the piety of believers, but some express much more “I” than “Thou.” “I’ll Fly Away” is a toe-tapper that makes one oblique reference to God in “God’s celestial shore,” an alternative term for heaven to which the singer is intent upon going. However, “The Old Rugged Cross” is sung more often in most country churches.
Make no mistake, the ordinary folks who make up the membership of country churches can sing. They can sing well. Perhaps only a few can “read music”, but all know how to “sing by ear,” how they should sound at every point in a song and they do so. In many church song books, the contents were presented in shaped notes (do, re, mi, etc.), another way of reading music which was known by many singers.
As settlers pushed against the frontier two centuries ago and longer, they took their music and their faith with them. They did not need instruments to “sing unto the Lord a glad song.” They learned words and melody from childhood and there was no shortage of singers who could precisely pitch the first note, “histe (hoist) the tune” for congregations. It’s still true. For example, Old Line Primitive Baptists rejected musical instruments in a denominational dispute long ago and sing a capella now as in the past.
Religious music was not confined to congregational singing. There were singing groups — quartets, trios, etc. — that performed “special music” in church or on special occasions. The nucleus of such groups was typically family members led by a talented and trained parent or sibling.
The “singing convention” was an interesting social invention for enjoying and teaching religious music. A local church would host an event on a Sunday — usually a fifth Sunday — when no nearby church held regular worship services, for “all day singing and dinner on the grounds.” For obvious reasons, this did not happen in the heat of summer or cold of winter because there was an outdoor meal provided mostly by the ladies of the church. Singing groups and talented soloists performed. Good song leaders would lead congregational singing, perhaps throwing in a useful lesson or two. At the end of the day, participants knew more and were more skilled.
The “singing school” was another type of musical training. Teachers from afar visited a local church to enlighten anyone interested — but particularly school-aged children — how to sing from a shaped-note song book. There was a fee — tuition for each student — and a song book published by the teacher for sale. At the end of the week, if learners had learned well, at least some of them could sing in four-part harmony and teachers left well-fed and a bit more prosperous.
“Big time” singing groups entered the commercial picture. They were broadcast on regional radio stations. (There were no small town stations until after World War II when veterans who learned electronics came home with their skills.) Quartets like “The Old Hired Hand and His Plowboys” had “day jobs” to make a living but performed daily or weekly over WMAZ or some such station. They also took their talents to small towns in the area. Sponsored by some local group like a school or club, they presented a “program,” concert being too lofty a term. Of course, there was an admission charge.
Compared to the music in most churches, theirs was more up-tempo.
Spurred by post-war prosperity, commercial gospel groups grew in number and influence. Record players became affordable and record sales became another source of income. Some groups achieved national popularity, even singing accompaniment for Elvis Presley. Some local groups cut records and did small-scale paid performances. Southern church music had become part of Americana.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.