Southern gospel music grew in rural churches
Willis Webb

Chances are, if you grew up in the rural Texas or the South, you’ve had some exposure to southern gospel music.

While out- in- t he- countr y Christian churches sort of developed gospel music over the 19th Century and early 20th just by singing hymns in their own style, the music has a following somewhat outside organized worship. It became a genre of and unto itself. Then, that group of musicians began writing music specifically intended to fill this niche.

Growing up in a one-room, frame Missionary Baptist church in East Central Texas, southern gospel was the only religious music I knew until I got into high school choir. There we learned hymns and anthems I hadn’t heard in our fundamentalist worship service of those times.

Most rural Texas church-goers in the 1940s and 1950s couldn’t read music. However, 25 years earlier an enterprising gospel music group developed shape note hymn books and church singers could more easily learn four-part harmony thanks to Stamps Baxter Music and Printing Company. Stamps Baxter was an offshoot of one of the first widely known gospel singing groups, the pioneering Stamps Quartet.

People like my mother, who were lovers of this style of music, were big fans of The Stamps Quartet. V.O. and Frank Stamps, the brothers who founded the quartet and thus the music and printing company, had almost a movie star-like following.

This music group was on radio regularly, at noon on weekdays, and then early Sunday morning, before church naturally.

Stamps established a weeklong gospel music school, which if memor y ser ves was in the early summer. It concluded on Saturday night with an all-night radio broadcast of the school with, as country folks termed it: an all-night singing. Much of the songfest involved all the several hundred attendees of the school but out of that group, many ensembles emerged and performed during the 8-10 hour session.

At that time every year at our house, we sat around that 3.5-feet tall Western Auto Truetone Radio and listened to that all-night chorus from the Stamps School.

When I got old enough to drive, one of my regular chores was to drive my mother to various “singings” around our home area. Some churches in small communities would host Sunday afternoon song sessions. The owner of our hometown funeral home, Ernest Ham, hosted a gospel singing every Monday night. I kept that night open to drive Mother to the event.

Of course, she loved the Stamps Quartet and, as I said, tried to never miss a broadcast. And, it didn’t hurt her following of the Quartet that V.O. and Frank Stamps’ brother, a veterinarian, lived catty-corner from us. V.O. and Frank visited once in a while and that created a bit of a stir. In those times, small town residents like us regarded gospel quartet “stars” as we might a rock star today. A couple of times Dr. Stamps brought his “famous brothers” over to shake hands with Mother.

With all the exposure to that music style I received, naturally I became something of a fan, not nearly as intense nor as knowledgeable as my mom, but a devotee none the less. And, I even try to sing bass although I must confess I really can’t read music, not even those shaped notes the Stamps folks developed.

For a number of years, I’d try to make a singing once in a while or go hear a noted gospel quartet in concert.

A few years back, in Fort Bend County, I attended a quartet concert and I was particularly impressed with their bass singer. I hung back after the concert while the group signed autographs. When they finished, I walked up to him and told him I really enjoyed his bass voice. I said something about my mother describing herself as a “ timid alto” and I guess I’d have to label myself a “closet bass.”

“Well, I don’t think I’d phrase it quite like that,” he said.

Now, I’m a timid bass.

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2011-06-30 digital edition

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