Southern gospel

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I reckon Lamar County was the absolute center of  the musical genre known as Southern Gospel.  Amazingly, I still run into people in Alabama who don’t know what Southern Gospel is. It is perhaps easier to describe what it is not.
It is not Bluegrass Gospel. No. Southern Gospel singers look  slightly down their noses at the rawness of Bluegrass.  Not Spiritual, although little  bits  of Spiritual songs might be borrowed by Southern Gospel. It is not Barbershop singing, although four-part harmony is certainly used.
Southern Gospel is basically convention-type, congregational singing, although quartets, for instance, might become stars of the music.
By the 1930s, essentially every country church in the Lamar County had a day, a certain Sunday, for its  all-day singing. The first Sunday in May, the second Sunday in June, the third Sunday in August, and so on. Mt Harmony, Pleasant Hill, Oak Hill, Mt. Pisgah, Shiloh (North and South), Pin Hook, Shake Rag …
Tied in with the singing, like part of it, would be Dinner on the Grounds.
There would be a moderator. Uncle Jeff was often in that spot. He would call out leading singers in the area to come up and direct a song, and Daddy or somebody would say something like, “All right, let’s turn to page 47 in the new Stamps-Baxter book. Adene, would you play, please?” (Mrs. Adene Cross was kind of the “go-to accompanist” for most of the leaders.)
The Stamps-Baxter Publishing Company was the heart and soul of these singings. They put out about two books a year. These books contained church songs, so they could be used as hymnals by the churches; but they also contained many new songs written by S-B’s staff .
Now, where did one learn how to be a singer and/or leader at these singings? Well, every year after lay-by time, there would be singing schools at churches around the area. Somebody like Lester Crowder or Zenith Stapp or Hollis Collins would teach a two-week school in which a body could learn a little bit about the rudiments of music.
How much soaked in depended on the individual. They were kind of fun. You took your lunch with you and played horse shoes or washers during the noon break. You were at least exposed to sight-reading. Shaped notes, of course. Round notes, or lines and spaces, were probably the works of the Devil.
Stars arose. The first ones included the Stamps Quartet and the Stamps-Baxter Quartet, and the John Daniel Quartet. And along came the Blackwood Brothers and the Statesmen and the Speer Family, to name only a few.
They would put on concerts. It usually worked like this: some famous group would put on a concert  Saturday night then hang around to do a few special numbers at the singing the next day.
Oh, these were stars. They often added a little humor, a little show biz, to the concert. Big Jim Waits, for example, did a thing with a tiny harmonica – acting like he’d swallowed it.
And Ben Speer was about my age; when he was 14 or so, all the girls thought he was oh, so cute. Humphhh.
The ultimate singing school was the one at Stamps-Baxter’s headquarters in Dallas. Daddy sent me to it. His dream was that I would become a singer with one of the name quartets.
I failed him completely. But I got to be on the radio. Yes. At the end of the school, there would be a huge concert/singing/everything in the Cotton Bowl. I was there, and Daddy heard the whole thing on our Silvertone  radio, which  could pick up KRLD, a Dallas-Ft. Worth station that often carried Southern Gospel programs, especially the original Stamps Quartet singing their theme (now a classic Southern Gospel) song, “Give the World a Smile Each Day.”
Bob Sanders is a veteran local radio personality, columnist, author and raconteur of note. He can be reached at bobbypsanders@netscape.com.

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