Honey Boo Boo and the Sweet By and By

It’s easy. It’s so easy to skewer the American South, to depict its denizens and cultural products and religious values as a homogenized clutch of deprivation and backwardness. It’s so easy that The Learning Channel is riding high in the ratings game these days with Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, the latest offering to confirm mainstream media’s deep investment in portraying a one-dimensional and abject South.

The old weary stereotypes slide down smoothly, like the creamy underlayer of a hashbrown casserole. It takes too much work to refract the South through a variegated interpretive lens; and besides, would consumers buy into this multifaceted vision anyway? Don’t they pay to be fed Othering narratives that package a simplistic version of Dixie for convenient consumption?

If ever there were a bullseye target for this kind of elitist and unhelpful framing, it would surely be Southern Gospel music. Emerging from the postbellum South, the music swelled from its roots in amateur shapenote singing to become a professionalized industry centered, by the 1940s, on superstar quartets such as the Statesmen and the Blackwood Brothers.

After dwindling in widespread popularity since midcentury, the tradition now flies under the radar of mainstream culture (whatever and wherever that may be). It appeals to its niche market—older conservative white evangelicals in the South and Midwest—through styles, performance practices, and rituals that might seem, to put it charitably, somewhat peculiar to outsiders. Until recent years, even scholars of American religion and vernacular music largely neglected Southern Gospel music, quite possibly due to ignorance of its existence.

What strikes one immediately about Douglas Harrison’s new book, Then Sings My Soul: The Culture of Southern Gospel Music, is how admirably it resists facile caricature and simplistic interpretation of a musical tradition which, although it has demonstrated global appeal, remains linked to rural white Southern fundamentalism. In fact Harrison’s entire thesis rests on his belief that rich inner lives flourish in contemporary evangelicalism as its practitioners struggle to confront cultural shifts while retaining their grasp on tradition. For Harrison, Southern Gospel music functions as a token of “surreptitious modernity,” its apparent social and religious homogeneity masking the pluralistic ways that participants use the music to creatively negotiate a path through a postmodern cultural landscape.

This big and powerful and counterintuitive argument relies on the author’s analysis of multiple cultural “texts.” However, the psychological impetus behind the thesis lies in the author’s multimodal identification with Southern Gospel culture, as former closeted preacher’s kid and gospel pianist and current fan, critic, blogger, scholar, gay man, and evangelical ex-pat.

The book’s self-reflexive inquiry is grounded in Harrison’s efforts to grasp the paradox of how this music can exert such a powerful aesthetic and spiritual hold over him (and by extension, over others) when its host culture opposes his ethical values on so many fronts. Writing himself visibly and self-consciously into the study allows for an empathetic, nuanced, yet honest rhetorical stance reminiscent of Randall Balmer’s tone in Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory.

To mix religious metaphors, Harrison kicks a couple of sacred Southern Gospel cows in the book, first by using the rubrics of gender and sexuality to more fully explore how this fundamentalist music can operate (subversively) in a heterodox fashion. Second, he locates the roots of the tradition in the psychological tensions between valorizing the past and carving out a cultural and economic future that animated the Southern spirit during Reconstruction. For him, these tensions still imprint the zeitgeist of contemporary Southern Gospel, constituting psychological continuities within the tradition that span more than a century. In contrast, the industry itself and scholars such as James Goff describe the music’s emergence primarily as an early-twentieth century phenomenon.

There are two possible ways to weigh in on the book: as a scholar and as a fan. As a scholar, I have to quibble over an occasional inclination to over-regionalize the interpretation of data. For instance, Harrison assesses the blood-and-gore texts common to Southern Gospel music as evidence of a distinct “propensity toward aggression and violence in the Southern imaginary.” But the use of visceral, brutal imagery in American hymnody flows in part from a much earlier and more formative force in American religious life: the widely influential hymns of Dissenting Anglican Isaac Watts (author of such graphic texts as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed”).

However, given Harrison’s hefty task of clarifying the significance of Southern Gospel music as part of the larger gospel family tree, an exploration of what marks the genre as distinctly and culturally southern is both understandable and necessary.

As for the other way of looking at the book, my hunch is that Then Sings My Soul will generate consternation among Southern Gospel fans via its engagement with gender and sexuality as an interpretive lens and its scholarly apparatus of critical theory with the accompanying rarefied terminology.

In fact, as a longtime follower of Harrison’s gospel music blog, I can pretty much guarantee that this will be the reaction of some Southern Gospel folks. But if Harrison’s thesis holds true—that beneath the smooth surface veneer of the industry there ripple manifold currents of individual and even resistant identities—then there will be fans out there who embrace, or at least willingly wrestle with, the book’s innovative approach to their beloved tradition.

Harrison’s ultimate contribution is to take seriously the value systems and social identities of a powerful demographic often misunderstood in contemporary society. In doing so, the project resonates with special relevance in a culturally-fragmented election cycle that has seen the POTUS declare his vigorous support for gay marriage (to resounding applause and boos) and the religious right declare its vigorous support of Chick-fil-A (to resounding applause and boos).

The old hymn “Sweet By and By,” beloved in Southern Gospel circles, promises that “in the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore.” During this crucial iteration of the culture wars, which never seem to be quite fully won nor yet fully lost, Harrison’s book complicates our sense of who “we” are and where that “beautiful shore” may be. He makes us believe that even within fundamentalist evangelicalism, these borders are not nearly so fixed as we might have supposed, and that they may yet be open to crossing.