"Happy in the Service of the Lord": African-American Sacred Vocal Harmony Quartets in Memphis, by Kip Lornell

October 1, 1996

Happy in the Service of the Lord"Happy in the Service of the Lord": African-American Sacred Vocal Harmony Quartets in Memphis, by Kip Lornell. Second edition. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1995. xx + 250 pp. ISBN 0-87049-877-0.


In a new edition appearing six years after initial publication, Kip Lornell's Happy in the Service of the Lord remains one of the few book-length publications to apply a multidisciplinary approach to the study of gospel music. Over the past several decades, gospel research has been relegated to a variety of academic disciplines, and scholarly efforts to coordinate complementary aspects of the corresponding methodologies have been surprisingly infrequent. The first edition exhibited the possible rewards of this undertaking as well as some of the perils, as Lornell endeavored to develop an ideological framework to accommodate both the consistencies and disparities of his chosen methodologies: cultural geography, folklore, anthropology, and historical musicology. Accordingly, the most extensive revisions occur in sections that focus on contextual issues, particularly the first chapter (a survey of the history of gospel quartet singing) and a newly added fifth chapter (the influence of gospel composers and spirituality on gospel quartet performance practice). What emerges is a clearer perception of the ties that bind the Memphis quartet scene to the continuing evolution of the African-American musical aesthetic.

The first chapter, "One Hundred Years of Harmony Singing," has been expanded by half, largely due to new sources that clarify the roles of several turn-of-the-century genres in the early history of the gospel quartet. Lornell discusses the possible influence of minstrel show groups (such as the Excelsior and Cyclone Quartets) and the African-American musical (a quartet that performed in Bert Williams's 1909 show, Mr. Lode of Koal) on the development of the quartet during this era; to this end he also includes recent research by Lynn Abbott on the barbershop quartet and by Doug Seroff on the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Lornell notes similarities in musical style between these secular groups and that of the college jubilee quartets "in part because both groups performed for a popular, racially mixed audience" (p. 7). This observation underscores a perennial dilemma for African-American musicians of this epoch: though the music of the jubilee groups and the minstrel show "sprang from the same wellspring of musical culture," African-American musicians were engaged in a struggle to distance themselves from the abhorrent stereotypes of the blackface musical productions. The creation of a quartet repertory based on religious music—that of first the university quartets and then the gospel quartets—was an integral part of this process of separation.

The effect of migrations from rural to urban areas on African-American musical culture is examined in the communities of Hampton Roads (Norfolk, Newport News, Portsmouth, and Virginia Beach), Virginia; Birmingham, Alabama (Jefferson County); and briefly, New Orleans. Colleges, churches, and corporations all contributed to the establishment of gospel quartets in these cities from about 1920 to 1940, and similar interactions may have taken place in Atlanta, Dallas, and Jacksonville. While the musical implications of African-American migrations from the rural South to the more urban North and West have received considerable ink, the consequences of migrations within the southern region merits a more prominent niche in gospel research.

Lornell has made a slight but significant modification of his views on the relative influence of the record industry and radio on the ascent of the gospel quartet during the 1920s. In the first edition, he stated that records and radio were of equal importance in the dissemination of gospel quartet singing (p. 22); in the second edition he determined that the record industry was more influential in this process. The available data seems to support Lornell's most recent conclusion, though this section leaves the impression that additional information on matters such as the format and frequency of radio broadcasts is required to substantiate either position.

Chapter 5, "The Forces That Shape Spiritual Quartet Singing," is an ambitious but inevitable supplement. The task of describing gospel quartet aesthetics is the focus of this section, with attention to the roles of the gospel composer and "spirituality." Lornell begins with a discussion of how early twentieth-century cultural ideologies influenced the repertory of the gospel quartet, notably the "Progressives (those who wished to distance themselves from the era of bondage by advocating the performance of Anglo-American hymns and concertized spirituals)" and "traditionalists (those who desired to maintain musical practices that had been in use for some time, especially those with strong ties to African or African-American culture)." These observations link gospel to the contemporary debates over assimilationism and separatism usually associated with Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois.

The impact of traditional and progressive forces on the quartet repertory is epitomized by the gradual acceptance of gospel compositions by two Memphis songwriters, Lucie Campbell (1885-1963) and Rev. William Herbert Brewster, Sr. (c. 1897-1987). Campbell and Brewster were viewed as Progressives, but their works also embraced traditional subjects of the folk spiritual. Though geographically distant from New York City, the compositions of these two Memphis composers—artistic expressions rooted in the African-American experience, written by African-American composers—espoused aesthetic objectives similar to those of the Harlem Renaissance.

Unlike the college jubilee ensembles, the gospel quartet sprang from a musical environment where spiritual communication to an African-American audience was the paramount objective. As Lornell writes, "while they (Memphis Quartet Singers) did not fancy themselves to be proper preachers, the singers knew that their message of Christian salvation paralleled that of their minister" (p. 152). Subsequent innovations in musical style, such as the repetitive "drive" and "vamp" sections, provided the singers with malleable vessels of artistic spiritual expression.

The most timely contributions of the first edition—interviews conducted with performers form the Memphis quartet community—are retained in the second edition. Chapters 2, 3, and 4, which contain the majority of the interview material, remain intact. The time frame in which gospel scholars will be able to obtain first-hand accounts of events from the genre's early history is rapidly constricting, placing gospel historiography in a position comparable to that of blues and ragtime a generation or so ago. Lornell writes that beginning a study such as this one in 1995 would be difficult; most likely it would be impossible.

Lornell's forecast for the future of gospel quartet singing is rather pessimistic; he doubts that the genre will ever again approach its mid-century apogee. Perhaps not, but the musical heritage of the quartet is assured by groups such as Take Six and the numerous popular ensembles whose artistic and cultural foundations are certainly indebted to this tradition. The expansive musical nexus that encompasses the sacred and the secular may be the final legacy of the black gospel quartet, and the second edition of Happy in the Service of the Lord serves as a testament to the contributions of the Memphis quartets to the present musical milieu.


Second edition. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1995. xx + 250 pp. ISBN 0-87049-877-0.

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