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The Blackwood Brothers Quartet

CLOSE HARMONY: A History of Southern Gospel Music
Volume 1, 1920 - 1955  (Dualtone)  •  Various Artists

Of all the common threads that bind the contemporary roots music styles we lump together as Americana, southern gospel is probably the least analyzed and understood from a historical perspective. One suspects that gospel's soul-deep religious underpinnings limit its interest in the eyes of those who aren't receptive to the music's fervent message of Christian salvation. Hard to say for sure. In any case, even a casual familiarity with the careers of mid-century masters such as Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash reveals the gospel tradition's momentous impact on a remarkably broad secular scale. For listeners curious enough to explore the connections, Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel Music, an anthology compiled as a companion piece to the new book of the same name by Appalachian State University history professor James R. Goff, offers a valuable introduction to the music's century-old origins.

Focusing on the white vocal quartet tradition that traces its heritage back to early-20th century evangelical singing schools and singing conventions, and the shape-note singing of even earlier times, Close Harmony features seminal performances by the Stamps Quartet, the Chuck Wagon Gang, the Homeland Harmony Quartet, and other genre pioneers. The story continues with later landmark recordings by the Blackwood Brothers and the Statesmen Quartet, groups that rose to prominence in the post-World War II era, when the widened availability of quality recordings and television greatly expanded gospel's audience.

It's also essential to note that, despite widespread segregation throughout the South, the gospel scene fostered racial cooperation and generous stylistic give-and-take between black and white artists. Represented here is one of the pre-1955 period's most influential black outfits, the Golden Gate Quartet. As for gospel's indelible mark on pop music to follow, it's impossible to listen to rollicking selections like the Statesmen Quartet's "Somebody Bigger" or the Golden Gate's "Swing Down, Chariot" and not hear the approaching rock 'n' soul revolution. Good God, y'all!  • Mike Thomas

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