64 Parishes

White Gospel Music

White gospel music, also known as Southern gospel, represents a widespread aspect of US culture.

White Gospel Music

Courtesy of Christopher Harris

Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart. Harris, Christopher (photographer)

White gospel music, also known as “Southern gospel,” represents a widespread but often overlooked aspect of US culture. Music historian James R. Goff Jr. points out two reasons for this oversight: an emphasis among contemporary cultural historians on African American gospel music traditions and the relatively informal network of white gospel practitioners in rural Southern churches. Louisiana’s significance in the world of white gospel is sometimes overshadowed by the vitality of the state’s other popular music traditions.

The term “gospel” historically referred to music associated with the rapidly growing Pentecostal movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. More recently, however, “gospel” has applied to broader evangelical Christian music of both white and African American traditions. It generally refers to religious music developed before the advent of the more slickly produced and commercially promoted contemporary Christian music that had emerged by the end of the twentieth century.

From Shape-Note Systems to the Rise of Quartet Music          

White gospel’s origins seem to lie in a uniquely American tradition: shape-note singing, also known as sacred harp singing. The shape-note tradition uses a series of geometric shapes instead of musical notes; each shape of the scale represents a corresponding syllable: do, re, mi, fa, sol,la, and ti. Shape-note singing in the United States originated in late eighteenth-century New England as a teaching device that proved an efficient way of coordinating participants in congregational and community singing activities. Once printed texts began to appear early in the nineteenth century, the practice became especially popular in rural evangelical churches of the South. By the end of the nineteenth century, the sales of shape-note songbooks supported a thriving music book publishing industry.

In the early twentieth century, live performances featuring small groups singing the latest compositions in rich, precisely executed harmony helped further popularize the music. This practice gave rise to the earliest commercial gospel groups, many of whom were quartets. A separate but parallel market for African American quartet music also began to emerge, and performers in both genres began to influence each other stylistically.

From Singing Conventions to the Return of Evangelical Politics

Profiting from the growth of phonograph recordings and radio, songbook publishers helped expand the popularity of white gospel music during the Great Depression by organizing large-scale singing conventions throughout the South. According to a 1941 Louisiana state guide, a singing convention held in Shreveport in 1937 attracted as many as 10,000 attendees.

During this era, songwriter and educator Baylus Benjamin “B. B.” McKinney, who was raised on a farm near Shreveport, became a prominent figure in the hierarchy of the mainstream Southern Baptist Church. In 1940 he oversaw the publication of a standard songbook for generations of Southern Baptists: The Broadman Hymnal, originally issued in both round-note and shape-note editions. In 1982 McKinney was inducted into the Gospel Music Association’s Hall of Fame, which was established in 1971.

Another famous Louisiana inductee is James Houston “Jimmie” Davis, who was twice governor of Louisiana. He was a recording artist and occasional movie actor whose music career over eight decades mirrors the development of white gospel in America. Best known for the classic 1940 composition “You Are My Sunshine,” Davis began recording country music in 1928 and turned exclusively to gospel during the 1950s. Davis often performed gospel numbers at campaign stops and other appearances throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, recognizing the growing popularity of white gospel music among rural white Southerners who had begun to identify the religious music as a symbol of their culture.

In the late 1950s, as Davis prepared for a second campaign for governor (having served his first term from 1944 to 1948), he joined forces with The Plainsmen Quartet, a popular Southern gospel group based in Baton Rouge. Running successfully on a pro-segregation platform in 1960, Davis capitalized on the emerging affinity between Southern gospel music and a conservative political movement based in evangelical Christianity, which would play a significant role in late twentieth-century American politics.

Spreading the Word in an Increasingly Diverse World

Following World War II, the white gospel tradition seemed more aligned with country music than with two emerging musical phenomena: the folk revival and rock ’n’ roll. Still, the folk revival’s reliance on Appalachian Mountain sounds and newer interpretations of old-time rural styles, such as bluegrass, made it easy to incorporate the long-established rural gospel repertoire. In the case of rock ’n’ roll, black and white performers alike—from Little Richard and Ray Charles to Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley—absorbed the musical abandon of highly emotional Pentecostal and Holiness worship practices into their own secular music.

Perhaps the most vivid example of these combined forces arose in Ferriday, where four cousins grew up listening to the music of Pentecostal churches as well as the secular sounds of the Mississippi Delta and rural Louisiana. The most celebrated of the four cousins, Jerry Lee Lewis, pioneered the rockabilly style in rock ‘n’ roll, then later recorded as a more straightforward country music artist. Another cousin, Jimmy Swaggart, rose to fame as a Southern gospel star and televangelist based in Baton Rouge during the late 1960s and 1970s before becoming enmeshed in a pair of sex scandals in 1988 and 1991. A third cousin, Mickey Gilley, forged a successful career as both a honky-tonk club owner and a country music artist. The fourth cousin, Reverend Gerald Lewis, established and maintains a Pentecostal ministry in the rural town of Swartz in northeastern Louisiana.

Classic Southern Gospel Draws from Classic Country Music

During the early 1970s the label “Southern gospel” came to distinguish the older style from newly commercialized forms of religious music that today fall under the industry term “Contemporary Christian.” Southern gospel continues today as a traditional genre via informal networks that operate below the radar of national media and entertainment markets. These include Internet communities and small-scale performances at community centers, local churches, and even campgrounds. Within this world, white gospel’s close-harmony and acoustic roots have spawned a substyle informally known as Gospel Grass, which merges Southern gospel aesthetics with those of bluegrass music.

Among the handful of notable north Louisiana white gospel performers are the Whitstein Brothers, Charles and Robert, from Pineville. They began performing as preteens, emulating the close-harmony sound of The Louvin Brothers, which was popular during the 1950s and 1960s. After the success of their first recording, “Louisiana Woman,” in 1962, the Whitstein Brothers appeared on The Grand Ole Opry and toured with Louisiana native Faron Young, among many others. They earned a Grammy nomination in 1989 for Old-Time Duets and continued to record and perform until 2001.

The Cox Family, from Cotton Valley in Webster Parish, came to the attention of bluegrass superstar Alison Krauss in the 1990s after recording locally and performing throughout the South for nearly two decades. The Cox Family drew on country, gospel, and bluegrass sources to create a distinctive sound reminiscent of old-time rural music. They experienced a solid decade of national success and acclaim, collaborating with Krauss and others on multiple Grammy Award-winning albums, including the soundtrack to the Academy Award-nominated movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Louisiana is also home to several successful contemporary Christian artists. Timothy Spell, of Baton Rouge, and The Southern Plainsmen Quartet, of Hornbeck, in west-central Louisiana, have established ministries in conjunction with their music careers. Since the 1990s Vicki Yohe, also from Baton Rouge, has maintained a recording career and international ministry. Lottie Collier, from Atlanta, Louisiana, grew up playing gospel bluegrass in church in the small town of Provencal with her sister and has found success as a prolific songwriter and occasional recording artist.