America was experiencing a time of rebirth. A nation that had been literally torn apart from a brutal Civil War was now being rebuilt. The Southern States had suffered greatly and times were hard. The common denominators that most folks shared were their trust in God and a love of family and community. The local church was the gathering place, schoolhouse, and playground for these war torn communities. Inside these hallowed church walls came revivals, homecomings, camp meetings and singing schools.
Singing schools taught a form of music called Sacred Harp or most commonly referred to as shape note singing. For those who couldn’t read music, the shaped notes provided a way for the singers to quickly learn new melodies and sing in harmony. Each music note head on the music scale was assigned a specific shape and tone. By sounding the tone associated with each shape, the singers were soon able to sight read any song and blend their voices in sweet melodies. The books used for singing and teaching were from the Sacred Harp collection of songbooks and the term “sacred harp” refers to the instrument we are given at birth, our voice.
Equipped with the ability to sight read music, neighbors and friends gathered together and spent many hours singing and blending their voices with songs of praise to God and hope for better times to come. During this time of singing and fellowship inspired songwriters put their faith and pen to work churning out song after song to express their heartfelt emotions and love for a Savior. The soulful lyrics and hand clapping rhythms embodied in these new gospel songs were a source of joy, comfort, and inspiration. It wasn’t long before these songs were being put into songbooks and shared with other congregations and singing schools. The songs were sung acapella and later with whatever musical instrument was available, usually a guitar, banjo or piano.
In 1900 a young singer and businessman from middle Tennessee, James D. Vaughn, published his first collection of shape note hymns in a collection called Golden Chimes. The success of this book allowed him 3 years later to start his own music publishing business, the James D. Vaughn Publishing Company. According to the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, the James D. Vaughn Publishing Company based in Lawrenceburg Tennessee, averaged sales of sixty thousand songbooks a month! But Mr. Vaughn’s most notable contribution to a new genre of gospel music was in 1910, when he hired four men for a professional gospel quartet to travel the country to sing and sell his songbooks. In their first performance at the Cumberland Presbyterian Assembly in Dickson, Tennessee, the Vaughan Quartet sold five thousand songbooks to a crowd of fifteen hundred. Soon other music publishing companies would follow suit with their own quartets singing and selling songbooks. Along with church concerts the quartets would perform their music at fairs, conventions, camp meetings, and singing schools. They traveled primarily throughout the Southern states and audiences fell in love with this new style of music and its presentation.
The four part harmonies sung by a male quartet with just a piano gave birth to what was termed and recognized as Southern Gospel Music. Today Southern Gospel Music has broadened its scope to include soloists, trios and choirs with many different musical instruments and stylish arrangements. The one thing that hasn’t changed is the passion for the music and the powerful lyrical content about our God and His saving grace.