Gospel music as a genre consists of two major categories, white gospel and black gospel. Both styles share similar musical roots that stem from the evangelical religious movements of the 1800s.
Musical practices that led to the development of white gospel originated in the shape-note hymnody of the early nineteenth century, when singing schools were established to teach this technique to settlers in the frontier regions of western and southern states, including South Carolina. In 1835 William “Singin’ Billy” Walker of Spartanburg published Southern Harmony, an important shapenote songbook that sold more than 600,000 copies during the next twenty-five years. Walker’s brother-in-law Benjamin F. White, who was born in Union County, published The Sacred Harp in 1844, and this collection also became a cornerstone of the repertory. While the singing school curriculum borrowed from previously established musical traditions, new music that incorporated secular styles and emotional appeal was being composed for the camp meeting revivals that took place at locations such as St. George and Indian Field.
By the 1920s the growing popularity of the music publishing companies (many of which featured shape-note hymnals) and the advent of radio began to bring consistent professionalism to the realm of gospel music. “Southern gospel” was launched with the appearance of the first male gospel quartets; the careers of these groups often began with performances at the intermissions between singing school classes. Although the term “southern gospel” would eventually encompass a variety of styles (country, bluegrass, etc.), the genre at this time was defined by the musical arrangements sold by the Vaughan and Baxter-Stamps publishing companies. Well-known South Carolina quartets from this era included the Hi-Neighbor Quartet from Belton (recorded by Alan Lomax during the 1930s) and the Palmetto State Quartet.
Southern gospel continued to proliferate during the two decades that followed World War II, but the social and political movements of the 1960s and 1970s began to marginalize the constituent audience for this genre. By the 1980s, contemporary Christian music had begun to compete with southern gospel for potential new audiences. In 1988 Charles Waller (who later founded the Southern Gospel Music Association) organized the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion in Greenville. This event brought together old southern gospel groups and served as an inspiration for the video series “Homecoming,” which was spearheaded by Bill Gaither. Modern southern gospel in South Carolina is a confluence of past and present musical currents, as heard in the performances of the Red White Family and Bill Wells.
Early black gospel in South Carolina evolved along a similar trajectory that included shape-note hymnody, singing schools, and camp meeting revivals (at locations including Shady Grove and Mount Carmel). Male quartets became prominent in black gospel during the traditional era (from ca. 1930 until ca. 1960), which featured a capella singing and acoustic instruments. Black gospel did not secure a permanent niche on local radio stations until the 1930s, when at least ten different gospel quartets including the Eagle Jubilee Quartet, the Silver Tone Jubilee Quartet, Capitol City Quartet, and the Seven Stars recorded for the Library of Congress from 1936 to 1939. Perhaps the best-known gospel quartet from South Carolina was the Dixie Hummingbirds, one of the most influential groups of the traditional era.
The contemporary gospel era is separated from the traditional era by the addition of multiple lead singers and expanded instrumentation (including electronic instruments). The Brown Brothers of Columbia began singing as an unaccompanied quartet but had added electronic instruments by the 1960s. Louis Johnson of Spartanburg recorded with the Swan Silvertones as an added lead singer; additional recordings that feature two or more leads include those by Charles Brown and Solomon Daniels with the Six Voices of Zion or recordings by the Fabulous Golden Tones of Mullins. Other notable contemporary gospel performers are the Seniors of Harmony from Greenwood and the Spiritualettes.
Black gospel musicians from South Carolina continue to reexamine stylistic practices associated with the traditional era while remaining in sync with cutting-edge musical developments. The Together As One Hymn Choir from Rock Hill revives the earlier styles that provided an early foundation for black gospel. The Gospel Music Workshop of America, the preeminent national organization for black gospel, has several chapters in South Carolina. South Carolina groups such as the Low Country Mass Choir perform songs that reflect the most recent trends in contemporary gospel.
Cusic, Don. The Sound of Light: A History of Gospel and Christian Music. Milwaukee: Hal Leonard, 2002.
Goff, James R. Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans. 3d ed. New York: Norton, 1997