Vernacular Religious Music

A wide variety of terms have been used to describe American vernacular religious music: religious ballads, hymns, spiritual songs, folk hymns, revival religious songs, gospel songs, folk tunes, and fuguing tunes. Overwhelmingly revivalistic, nineteenth-century vernacular religious music began to express a distinctive American voice. For Tennessee this tradition began with the camp meeting revival songs of the early nineteenth century. Within these songs are the roots of blues, country, modern gospel, and rock-n-roll of the twentieth century.

A lack of education or musical sophistication on the part of the participants, the scarcity of songbooks, and the highly emotional nature of the meetings shaped the songs of the camp meetings that began from 1799 to 1801 in Kentucky and Tennessee. Hymnals such as those of Isaac Watts and the Wesleys, containing text only with no music, were sung to the music of secular/folk tunes which were interchangeable, and the older texts were revised by the addition of choruses. As the songs had to be sung from memory–often in call and response technique with the preacher lining out the text–they had to be simple. Techniques for easy memorization and sustained activity were refrains, formulaic tags, repetitive devices sometimes composed extemporaneously (e.g., “Where, Oh Where Are the Hebrew Children”), the verse-chorus pattern, and emotional appeal.

As religion spread over the Old Southwest the older “fasola” and the shape-note songbooks that began around 1811 provided texts for the rural areas. The original four-shape-note and later seven-shape-note books which were developed for unsophisticated worshippers used a system of shapes for musical notation with a leader lining out the notation for a song and the participants singing the notation through before beginning the words. Throughout the nineteenth century, shape-note singing schools were conducted all over the South, teaching a style of singing generally known as Sacred Harp singing, the name taken from the most famous tunebook–The Sacred Harp (1844). Several important shape-note tunebooks were published in Tennessee, including the influential Harp of Columbia (1845/1857) and New Harp of Columbia (1867). Texts were drawn from fasola book compilers or church hymnals, and melodies came from secular/folk sources or were homemade. The shape-note tradition is still very much alive in Tennessee today; a revision of The Sacred Harp was published in 1991.

Revivals continued to be the defining force in southern vernacular religious music throughout the nineteenth century, with the vernacular songs beginning to appear in some denominational hymnals after mid-century. The term “gospel songs” came into use in the 1870s, and some scholars credit this type of music as a unique American contribution to sacred music. These songs used the song with a refrain, verse-chorus-verse-chorus pattern, repetition of a single phrase, and a decidedly emotional appeal. The music was largely secular with many of the tunes being taken from contemporary music hall and parlor songs (e.g., “Here’s To Good Old Whiskey” with “Storm the Forts of Darkness,” or “There Are No Flies on Jesus”). One of the dominant traits of continuity in American vernacular religious music is the combination of secular tunes and religious text found from camp meeting songs to twentieth-century gospel and Christian folk-rock musicals.

An older singing school tradition from the nineteenth century developed into the tradition of singing conventions in the twentieth century, including the very influential county-wide singing conventions that flourished until the late 1940s. A vital gospel music industry began in 1910 when James D. Vaughan of Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, sent a quartet to singing conventions to publicize his new songbooks. These conventions usually included singing schools capped by performances by publisher-sponsored quartets. Two Tennessee gospel music publishers–Stamps-Baxter (Dallas and Chattanooga) and Vaughan Music Company–dominated the gospel music publishing business in the first four decades of the twentieth century. Moreover, Vaughan was responsible for some of the first gospel music recordings.

After World War II, the development of technology in radio and sound recording and the attendant professionalization of gospel quartets changed religious music from a participatory music to a passive audience/professional performer music and spelled the demise of the county singing conventions. Quartets bought publishing companies that had supported the conventions and changed their emphasis. The John Daniel Quartet appeared on the Grand Ole Opry in 1942, the Homeland Quartet had a national hit with “Gospel Boogie” in 1948, and such groups as the Blackwood Brothers Quartet and the Jordanaires gained widespread popularity as performers and recording artists. Gospel music introduced solo artists, larger groups, and a variety of instruments, ultimately entering the mainstream of pop music. In the 1960s the all-night jamborees, begun in the late 1940s, became quite popular. The folk music movement of the 1960s produced contemporary Christian music artists such as Bill Gaither. Later groups such as the Imperials bridged the gap between the contemporary music world and the southern gospel world. By the 1980s, gospel rock music had emerged. Rural Tennesseans still prefer the southern gospel music that combines barbershop harmonies and country music performed by a variety of groups–quartets, mixed groups of male and female performers, and solo acts–and varied instrumentation. Traditional amateur family and community gospel groups still get together for singings, perform for fees, and sell self-produced recordings.

African American religious music has had an important place in American culture from its beginnings in nineteenth-century Negro spirituals to the development of twentieth-century black gospel music. Most scholars agree that the roots of Negro spirituals can be found in the white camp meeting songs, but that the performance style and the changes in songs reflect the cultural heritage of Africa and the black experience in the South. Whites placed emphasis on the words of religious songs, and blacks generally emphasized the music over the words. Black religious music has been characterized by vocal effects difficult to indicate by standard notation, elaborate vocal ornamentation, frequent melodic interjections, extreme freedom and individuality in performance, strong kinetic factors in performance (e.g., shouting and dancing), heavy improvisation, complex rhythms, and call and response/solo and chorus style. Black college singers such as the famous Fisk University Jubilee Singers firmly established the Negro spiritual during the later nineteenth century. These jubilee singers and all-black minstrel shows, along with the rise of the holiness movement at the end of the nineteenth century, constituted the roots of twentieth-century black gospel style. Black gospel music came into its own in the 1930s with such composers as Thomas A. Dorsey adding gospel lyrics to the blues and jazz traditions. Two nationally prominent black gospel composers–Lucie E. Campbell and the Reverend William H. Brewster (“Surely God Is Able”)–were from Memphis. Black gospel quartets began to flourish in the 1940s at the beginning of the golden age of gospel music (1945-60), and Tennessee was prominent in the movement. Black quartets usually consisted of four to six voices, one of which was the lead singer. As black gospel flourished, quartets were all-male, all-female, or mixed. In addition the tradition included larger gospel choirs. As with white gospel music, modern technology and commercialization expanded the choirs’ influence after World War II. Even as secular music influenced gospel music, gospel music influenced much of secular music–jazz, blues, and soul.

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  • Article Title Vernacular Religious Music
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  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date July 20, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018