Still Captivated by Southern Gospel

What inspired you to write Then Sings My Soul? What sparked your interest?

The very first of line of the book comes about as close as I can to a succinct answer here: “In some ways, I have been preparing to write this book all my life.” So there’s not really one single catalyst that’s responsible or an isolatable person who inspired me. I grew up the religiously devout but deeply closeted gay son of a fundamentalist Southern Baptist preacher. At a certain level, the book is my scholarly effort to measure the psychospiritual distance I’ve traveled from there and then to here and now.

More plainly, the book is the result of my asking a deeply personal question—why is a gay secular humanist academic who left the world of orthodox fundamentalist evangelicalism half a life time ago still singularly captivated by Southern gospel music? Why, in the book’s terminology, have I been a Southern gospel sissy lo these many years since evangelicalism ceased to otherwise be a functional worldview for me? And why am I still proud and happy about it? Turned outward, the question becomes: What is it about the music that supports so many various affections and attachments?

I’ve been pursuing these questions for a long time in various forms—for the past eight years now on a blog I maintain about Southern gospel. And many of the more orthodox readers there would say the answer to my questions is simple: unrepented sin. But in the book, I’ve tried to provide my own answer in a scholarly register that might have a broader appeal than a primarily autobiographical or confessional approach (incidentally, some of those more orthodox readers have already weighed in on the book).

Similarly, I can’t narrow it down to any one person. But when I think about the earliest influences or memories that evoke the strongest feelings, two people and tableaux consistently come to mind. One is my paternal grandmother, Maude, singing gospel in church and at home in the rural Ozarks of Missouri where I grew up. As Maude would have said, she couldn’t read a lick of music, but she had an excellent ear for how to bend the curve of a melody line and for providing powerful yet subtle harmonies. Before she’d sing a solo at church, she’d write the lyrics to the song out in thick black marker on the blank backs of cardboard box tops and rehearse at home, accompanying herself with the guitar until I became old enough to provide the accompaniment on the piano.

And then there’s Maude’s friend Maxine, who had a smoker’s rich throaty alto but who made her biggest impression on me as a pianist. Maxine played in this capaciously graceful, wide-stride gospel church-lady style that was almost completely improvisational and entirely intuitive, and it mesmerized me from my earliest recollections. 

I’m not sure what Maude or Maxine would make of the book, but both of these women, I now realize, were galvanizing examples for me of gospel’s open-hearted sensibility and the way it dispenses with the confinements of the notated score or the precisely placed arrangement and trusts the musical self to be guided by the soul’s intuitions as they unfold in vernacular sacred song.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

Am I allowed to quote myself again? This is from the final chapter, “Southern Gospel In the Key of Queer”: “The singers up there on stage movingly harmonizing about the straight and narrow path may themselves be neither, and they may mean something quite different than you assume.” The take-away point here isn’t that everyone in gospel is gay (though a lot more are than is commonly acknowledged, and a lot of the rest who aren’t are a little bit queer nevertheless… Anthony Heilbut sees it too, though he comes at it from a different direction than I do). Rather, the point is that the music and its meanings exceed the narrow limits of orthodoxy. And this point is important for both orthodox fans and outsiders looking in on the music.

A musicologist friend of mine wrote me recently to say he thought of the book as my cri de coeur to the rejectionist world of evangelicalism from which I descend but can no longer comfortably call home. And that’s probably true. But it’s equally true that the book is also a plea to other academics and scholars to take this seemingly unmodern part of the post-modern world seriously, to not assume that the apparently simple is necessarily simplistic. Southern gospel is a fascinating example, I think, of a certain kind of orthodox fundamentalist discourse that, as I say in the epilogue, manages to contain multitudes.

The music’s ability (and here I’m quoting myself again) “to transcend orthodoxy’s efforts to control what [the music] means or put limits on the transformational work it accomplishes”—its surreptitious capacity to appeal simultaneously to Maxine and me, if you will, on the very different ground we each in our own turn came to inhabit as adults—that’s what I want people to take away from the book.

Anything you had to leave out?

The biggest—and most painful—surrender I had to make was on direct citations of songs.

I always knew this would be a problem, but not for the reasons it turned out to be. I thought there’d be resistance from traditional quarters of southern gospel when I asked for the rights to reprint lyrics. But I was refreshingly wrong; I had little trouble in this regard. 

Instead, the difficulties came elsewhere. Some songs were just too administratively complicated to access. The chain of custody on many copyrighted but forgotten or unfashionable songs that no one sings or records any more can go cold easily, since no real money is at stake to keep a legal custodian’s attention.

And the rights to even more songs were just too expensive. For this, we can thank hydra-headed corporations that have bought up thousands of songs and catalogs of songs and then turn around and charge licensing fees on comparatively obscure gospel music as if it were “I Will Always Love You” being licensed for The Bodyguard… Ok, I’m exaggerating a little, but the corporatization of cultural productions is not just frustrating; it potentially poses a serious challenge to a more comprehensive cultural studies.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

This one’s easy: that “gospel” always already means black gospel.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

To the extent that “other academics of religion, music, and American culture” and “non-academics who participate or are interested in Southern gospel” constitute specific audiences, I guess so. But that’s probably not very satisfying.

For me, audience can be inferred to some extent through method: how one goes about one’s scholarship helps determine the audience(s) who can or will find the work valuable. Methodologically, the book is necessarily and purposefully eclectic, because in some ways what I’m doing is hacking my way through a thicket of concerns, questions, and dynamics that haven’t really received much meaningful scholarly treatment and so must be approached with a variety of tools at hand.

I’ll let the reviewers decide how successful I was at this, but I’ve tried to leave a path behind me that is wide enough to accommodate scholarly colleagues from a constellation of related fields, while also leaving room for the sort of readers I’ve been writing to and conversing with on my blog for years now.

Are you hoping to inform readers? To entertain? To piss them off?

Yes. Though your mileage may vary depending on where you fall in the continuum of the book’s readership.

What alternate title would you give the book?

Well, I gave the book several horrendously self-important and nearly unreadable titles (which I hope will be lost to history or memory and which self-mortification prevents me from repeating here) before landing on Then Sings My Soul, an apt and effective choice, at least to my mind. And by and large I’m still pretty happy with it, for reasons I explain in the introduction.

The only other option that comes to mind is actually one I used several years ago in a journal article that served as a kind of précis to the book: “Why Southern Gospel Music Matters.” It still strikes me as the most straightforward explanation of what I’m up to in my research. I guess my long game needs some work, though.

How do you feel about the cover?

Love it. Covers (and perhaps authors in general) are a constant source of struggle for presses in the production process, and the folks at University of Illinois were astonishingly long-suffering with me as I fussed over finding exactly the right image (the U of I Press is a first-class operation top to bottom, I should add). I put a call out on my blog for cover art submissions from readers and the winning image came from Jeremy Bell, who generously supplied the rights for its use. I was actually at the concert in 2009 when this image was taken (though Jeremy and I have never met and didn’t know of each other until last year), and I remember the moment vividly: it was just as outrageously wonderful as Jeremy’s photo suggests.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one?

Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club. He tells the best scholarly stories without relinquishing any of the depth or nuance. 

What’s your next book?

It’s another Southern gospel book, this time built around original research data generated by an ethnographic survey I conducted in the research phase of the first book project. Right now, it’s titled The Gospel Sensibility: Faith, Fallibility and Feeling in American Sacred Song, and it deals with all the data amassed by the survey that I couldn’t use in Then Sings My Soul—over 700 fans and professionals responded, generating more than 3,000 separate prose-based responses to various prompts.

The Gospel Sensibility is grounded in listening to and analyzing the voices of Southern gospel music. In the process, the book aims to provide the first sustained critical account of how people collectively and individually use Southern gospel music to make sense of their given fields of experience. In contrast to the first book, this one is less about surfacing the latent cultural functions of Southern gospel, and more about giving back to respondents and other scholars of the music something they do not already know about the collective knowledge and experience within the world of Southern gospel.

I’m particularly interested in how the patterns of using and responding to Southern gospel really challenge some common assumptions about today’s evangelical fundamentalism—namely, that it’s unswervingly dominated by these epistemologically frigid and intellectually inflexible blocks of absolutist truism. When you listen closely and carefully to what ordinary evangelicals say about their experiences with Southern gospel, it’s not that there isn’t some truth to this conventional wisdom. But what you also see is that those foundational blocks of fundamentalist culture are generously marbled with rich veins of alternate habits and processes: in this case, a sophisticated vocabulary for confronting—or shifting the epistemological ground on which to make sense of—contradictory responses about the self as discovered in the experience of vernacular sacred song.

So if things go as planned, the book will use Southern gospel as a lived religious culture through which to reimagine the way gospel music has shaped, and been appropriated by, the American religious experience, and at the same time, to recalibrate scholarly understandings of fundamentalist thought and action.