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  • Writer's pictureAdam Stanford

Why Theirs Was So Great

Updated: Apr 21, 2022

On New Year’s Day of 2009, I felt God calling me into the ministry. I had no idea what that meant then, and the more I learn about myself and who God is, the more uncertain I have become. The one thing I knew for sure, it would have something to do with music. That summer, I was urged to attend the Next Generation Worship Leaders Camp. There I discovered the heart of Paul Clark Jr. and many of the other leaders in the Tennessee Baptist Music Conference. After that week, I was ready to change the world for worship. However, I quickly realized that this Ancient-Future way thinking would not fly in the churches I was raised in. With my high school naïveté, I asked one of the early Praise & Worship leaders, “How do I get all these old people to like our music?” He responded “First, you must understand why theirs was so great.” I thought I understood then, and as I progressed in my academic studies; I finally began to grasp it. Hymnody, Catholic liturgy, the reformation and psalmody, the Oxford Movement, the gospel and Sunday School songs, and many other styles and progressions of church music had great and lasting impact that should be remembered and utilized today. However, there was one lineage of church music I often looked over; the very line of hymnody that I was born from.

At the age of 10 years old, my mom began playing for a local southern gospel quartet. My parents met while her group was singing in a nursing home at which my dad was preaching. I was born in small country church that sang out of the “Red Book,” the Stamps-Baxter Heavenly Highway Hymns. This line of shape note/Southern Gospel music formed who I am.

Here, I intend to reflect on 4 reasons why “Theirs was so great.”

1. They Sang

From the early colonial days, the shape notes were seen as the lesser musical form. Termed “dunce notes” by the proponents of traditional music education, the shapes were criticized that the students of these singing schools only learned the shapes and not how to truly read music. This argument has some truth, but it doesn’t address the fact that they sang. If one were to listen to the fuguing tunes of the Sacred Harp or the intricate four-part harmonies of the southern gospel quartet, the music making abilities of these groups rival any formally trained ensemble, and the sheer volume of a shape note singing could rattle windows and be heard for miles. Those who had learned theses rudiments of music could simply open a shape note book, sing the shapes through once, and be able to skillfully sing a song, whether they had heard it before or not. So often we get tied up in the “correct way” of doing things, we forget the purpose was to get people singing.

2. They Were Pioneers in the Technology of the Day

The early publications began to sell rapidly in the South. The only issue was that the majority of the printing presses were only available in the colonies. Because of the need, shape note publishers began setting up presses across the country and by the beginning of the 20th century, small presses were scattered across the country to assist in the development of singing school books. One publisher, James D. Vaughan, desired to find a way to promote his books and singing schools and created Tennessee’s first radio station, in Lawrenceburg (only an hour from where I live!) It was at Vaughan’s singing schools that the Speer family met, and began their early career working with him. They left for Nashville solidifying the Southern Gospel recording industry and TV broadcasts. The Speers inspired Bill Gaither, who, at what he thought was the end of his career, kept the cameras rolling after a recording while many of the quartet era greats were in a room together, and revamped the whole Southern Gospel industry again with the Homecoming series. By their willingness to explore new technologies, they were able to continue to reach the world.

3. They Encouraged Each Other During Difficult Times

The greatest advances in the folk hymnody almost always during crisis. The Sacred Harp became the popular during the Civil War. Along with the camp meetings, these gatherings to sing these hymns became the focal point of rebuilding the communities. Publishers began to grow and by WWI and the pandemic of 1918-1919, it was the music the quartets and singing schools that helped the 1920s flourish. This movement was named “Give-the-World-a-Smile” music after one of the Stamps Quartet song. Following WWII, the Stamps-Baxter School of Music was able to become a more formal institution and help train veterans to lead music. After being distraught by the Vietnam War and injustices of the 1960s, fearing what life would be like raising his child in a world not much different than today, Bill Gaither penned the words, “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow. Because He lives, all fear is gone. Because I know who holds the future, my life is worth the living just because He lives.” During difficult times, the community rallied behind words of hope, written for them for that very moment, and carried them into the future.

4. They Focused on the Ultimate Prize

While encouragement of today is important, it is only temporary. Many songs of this line of hymnody focused on Zion, Canaan’s Land, crossing the Jordan, seeing their family again, flying away from this dark world, beauty of heaven, and meeting Jesus in the air. They did not forget that the ultimate prize awaited them in glory. When all seems to be going well, we do not like to think of death, but when troubles come, we need comfort for the hope to come. Sometimes we need to be reminded that “this world is not my home, I’m just a passing through.”

What’s Next?

Progressing forward is inevitable. I believe it was Bill Gaither who said that there is no such thing as a writing a “new, old song.” He is always dreaming to the next song to speak to the current moment. However, this does not mean we should forget where we come from. Many of these songs have stood the test of time and still have meaning and depth today. Others serve as a reminder of God’s faithfulness in the past. They can also act as a guide in how to lead the next generation in the song of their own. But first, we must understand why ours is so great.



You made it! I really appreciate that you put up with my rambles this week. Our history is important and make us who we are. The stories of my great-grandmother and how she survived the 1918-1919 pandemic have been great inspiration to my family over this past year. Many of the struggles we have gone through were not unprecedented, but were identical to the newspaper clippings from Lexington, TN of that era. One of her favorite songs that carried her though those days was “Wayfaring Stanger.” I wanted to share an arrangement of that I recorded.


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