Watson on Shearon and Nichols, 'I’ll Keep on Singing: The Southern Gospel Convention Tradition'

Stephen Shearon, Mary Nichols, producers.
Jada Watson

Stephen Shearon, Mary Nichols, producers. I’ll Keep on Singing: The Southern Gospel Convention Tradition. Murfreesboro: Middle Tennessee State University, 2010. 55 mins. DVD. $15.00.

Reviewed by Jada Watson (Universite Laval) Published on H-Southern-Music (December, 2011) Commissioned by Kristine M. McCusker

Preserving the Southern Gospel Convention Tradition

Stephen Shearon and Mary Nichols’s documentary, I’ll Keep on Singing, is a welcome addition to the research and study of southern gospel music practices. Both professors at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), Shearon (School of Music) had been researching southern gospel singing for a couple of years before approaching Nichols (Department of Electronic Media and Communication) with the proposition of collaborating on this documentary. Perhaps fittingly, their conversation, as the documentary’s Web site reveals (www.mtsu.edu/music/keeponsinging.shtml), took place at MTSU’s campus memorial for Charles K. Wolfe (1943-2006), a man widely known for his contributions to research on southern vernacular music. Following in Wolfe’s footsteps, Shearon and Nichols’s collaborative efforts have produced an engaging documentary that unveils the world of seven-shape note singing of the southern gospel convention tradition.

The seven-shape note style of southern gospel singing emerged around the turn of the twentieth century out of all-day singing conventions. Singing conventions began as a way of learning music together, and the use of shape-notes became an educational method for teaching people how to read music. The seven solfège syllables are associated with a shape, a method that facilitated quicker and easier learning of music reading than having to learn the key signatures and basic music theory. This style of singing is used mainly for large congregations, but quartets have also been a popular feature of the genre. Conventions were a way of bringing together a group of people who shared a genuine interest in sight-reading music and in singing together as a community. Many confuse southern gospel convention singing with the sacred harp tradition, which developed in the 1840s and was also based on shape-note notation. Although the sacred harp and southern gospel convention traditions share the same four shapes for the same solfège syllables (so la ti do), the latter style is actually built on the major scale. (Of course, The Sacred Harp is also the title of the 1844 publication of Benjamin Franklin White and Elisha J. King’s shape-note book from which the music of the tradition is sung.)

Shearon and Nichols organize the documentary as a montage of interviews with members of the southern gospel convention community (composers, teachers, pianists, and publishers) that are intercut with footage of singing schools; conventions; and southern gospel quartets, like Hovie Lister and the Statesmen, the Blackwood Brothers, and the Speer Family. As a result of this editing style, the main focus of the documentary is not on outlining a chronology, but rather on presenting a narrative in which the interviewees tell the story of the southern gospel convention tradition through their experiences of being part of this music community. In this way, Shearon and Nichols are able to cover a range of topics concerning the southern gospel convention tradition from its origins to modern practice, including a description of the basic elements of convention singing as both a musical style and community event, and a comparison to the sacred harp tradition, as well as a discussion of quartets, the role of music in the church, publishing, songwriting, singing schools, and stride style of playing piano. The interviews feature prominent figures in the southern gospel community, providing a unique glimpse into the history and traditions of convention singing from those who have played integral roles in the evolution of the tradition. One of these figures, Charles Towler, is the recent recipient of the Tennessee Folklife Heritage Award for his contributions to teaching and songwriting, and is a publisher with the Gospel Heritage Music Company. The documentary also features publishers Eugene McCammon (Cumberland Valley Music Company) and Marty Phillips (Jeffress/Phillips Music Company), as well as singing school teachers, like Key Dillard (director of the Do Re Mi Gospel Music Academy in Lebanon, Tennessee) and David Armistead (director of the Tri-City Gospel Music Camp), all of whom have been participating in the southern gospel community since their youth. In addition to their work as publishers and teachers, many of those interviewed contribute to convention singing as songwriters, showing the depth of their involvement in the southern gospel tradition.

Community emerges as an integral element of this singing tradition: as the documentary reveals, participants in convention singing are dedicated to learning this style of sight reading and preserving the tradition for future generations. Convention singing is also about the communal experience of praying and worshiping through music together. As Towler reveals, “southern gospel convention singing is a unique way of expressing praise to God and sharing experiences about religious experiences. It focuses on congregational singing, where people get together and sing because they enjoy the challenge of sight reading and they enjoy singing together. It is not a spectator sport, it is definitely a participating kind of thing.”

Although several of those interviewed seem encouraged that attendance in singing schools is growing, and that more singing schools are forming, they also express concern over the future of the southern gospel convention tradition. Along with Towler, McCammon and Dillard reveal that the participants in singing schools have consisted mainly of adults, and that the involvement of children and youth has been on the decline. Despite the concern over the current lack of youth involvement, those interviewed seem hopeful that the tradition will return and continue to grow in the coming year.

I’ll Keep on Singing will be an invaluable resource for anyone researching or teaching about musical culture in the American South. This documentary comes on the heels of the “Farther Along” conference on the Southern Gospel Convention-Singing Tradition at MTSU (April 2008), organized by Kym Stricklin and Shearon. It also draws and builds on existing literature on southern gospel traditions, including James Goff’s Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel (2001), Michael P. Graves and David Fillingams’s More Than Precious Memories: The Rhetoric of Southern Gospel (2004), and the PBS documentary Awake My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp (2006). Shearon and Nichols can be applauded for a wonderful contribution to the field of research in southern gospel music and for helping to preserve the musical practices of a community that is often overlooked in music studies.

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=34447

Citation: Jada Watson. Review of Shearon, Stephen; Nichols, Mary, producers., I’ll Keep on Singing: The Southern Gospel Convention Tradition. H-Southern-Music, H-Net Reviews. December, 2011. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=34447

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