Southern gospel singing schools see their own revival

The revival of Southern gospel singing schools is rivaling the Sacred Harp singing schools that have flourished among more secular Americans, writes Brooks Blevins in the journal Southern Cultures (Winter). Both kinds of singing schools train laypeople to sing hymns and other traditional sacred music based on shape notes, which replace standard round notes with shaped ones that correspond with tones or pitches on the musical scale. The gospel singing schools first started in post-Civil War America but became concentrated in the South. They tend to stress their Christian identity and are not very open to religious outsiders, whereas secular academics and the media studied and promoted the acapella Sacred Harp schools, which middle-class Americans with little connection to southern Christianity attend. Interestingly, this divide between the two types of schools has theological roots. The Sacred Harp schools are based on the Primitive Baptist tradition, which is strongly Calvinistic and against evangelism (believing conversion is God’s work), thus allowing those of different or no faith to participate without facing “witnessing” and pressure to convert.

In contrast, the gospel singing schools come from the broad evangelical tradition of Southern Baptists and Pentecostals, and “even if the proselytizing isn’t overt, the evangelizing tone of the songs, prayers, and stage banter remind the visitor that her soul is a subject of communal concern,” Blevins writes. The rise of Contemporary Christian Music during the 1970s and 1980s overshadowed the gospel singing schools, but they have made an unexpected rebound in recent decades. Of the 18 schools in the Southern U.S., only three were in existence during the Reagan era; no fewer than eight were founded in the current century, with two traditional gospel music publishing companies recently started. Blevins concludes that the gospel music schools’ revival is a sign that Southern evangelicals and fundamentalists, known for their “eager adaptability and disregard for the past” are gaining a historical consciousness, even as it reveals an anxiety about sustaining a conservative Protestant culture in contemporary America.
(Southern Cultures,