Some songs you never forget. They are written on your heart. In the rural South and beyond, many of those songs were sung on the Gospel Singing Jubilee. Thousands of people answered the invitation to the happy “jubilee” every week from the1960s to early 1980s to hear redback hymnal classics like “I’ll Fly Away” or “Amazing Grace.” And there were new classics sung by quartets and groups in matching outfits like The Happy Goodman Family “I Wouldn’t Take Nothing Journey Now” or the Inspirations from Bryson City, North Carolina who sang about “When I Wake Up to Sleep No More.” I was one of the many Southern children of the 1970s that knew when I heard the sounds of “jubilee” that it was time to get ready for church.
Those gospel songs were sung in churches big and small all across the country and still are being sung today. In the rural South were churches held concerts called “singings,” the songs were anthems of their faith and hope for a better day in they by and by.
The Southern Gospel Hall of Fame and Museum pays homage to the groups that sang those harmonious classics. For years it was located at Dollywood. This week it moves to its new home at the Biblical Times Dinner Theater in Pigeon Forge.
We visited the museum while at Dollywood a few years ago. Neither of us listen to Southern gospel music regularly now but oh, the memories that our visit stirred.
Some of us watched the Gospel Jubilee on a bit television set that looked more like a cabinet. On top you would often find pictures and what my mother called “whatnots.” My grandfather had a television set like this one that was adorned with “whatnots.” Those televisions were the rage in the 70s way before flat screens came along.
Gospel groups usually traveled in big buses. You know the choir probably wouldn’t be singing that day if you saw a bus in the church parking lot. Many of those groups played for homecoming services where they were lucky enough to be treated to “dinner on the ground” It’s not really a picnic much anymore (even though I plenty of homecoming lunches outside on long, concrete tables). Those Southern dishes like chicken and dressing (it’s nothing like stuffing for my non-Southern friends), deviled eggs and fried chicken are served in fellowship halls now. The museum has a replica of the bus taken by the well-known Blackwood Brothers Quartet. The group has changed lineups over the years but is still touring. Those members probably ate a lot of fried chicken over the years.
Much of Southern gospel music is written using shape-notes, a type of music that started in the rural South in the late 19th century. The museum has one of few typewriters used for shape-note music.
Many of the groups and singers have passed away but their memories are everywhere in the museum. Vestal Goodman of the Happy Goodman Family had a powerful alto voice that many still associate with Southern gospel music.
Les Beasley of the quartet The Florida Boys was the unofficial host of the Gospel Singing Jubilee. He passed away shortly after our visit to the museum.
A two-time governor of Louisiana, Jimmie Davis, was inducted into the hall of fame in 1997. Some may not have known he was governor but remember him only for songs like “Suppertime” and his best known song, “You Are My Sunshine.”
Bill and Gloria Gaither have played a big part in keeping the old Southern gospel songs alive. Their Homecoming series have brought together many of the artists seen in the Hall of Fame. They are known for written many classics sung in churches still today including “He Touched Me” and “There’s Something About That Name.” The Gaithers are honored throughout the museum for their contributions.
Southern gospel music is not everyone’s cup of tea. But it is woven into the fabric of Southern culture and faith. A visit to the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame and Museum brings back memories for some and will introduce some to a South they may not know.