"I'll Keep On Singing": The Southern Gospel Convention Tradition
About I'll Keep On Singing:
I'll Keep On Singing is a comprehensive documentary of the contemporary southern gospel convention tradition,
an amateur Christian-music-making and educational tradition that developed in rural
America following the Civil War. It was a continuation of, and eventually displaced
in popularity, the four-shape-note sacred-music tradition that flourished prior to
the Civil War (known by many today as the Sacred Harp tradition). Gospel convention
music is written in a later, more-popular musical style, employs seven-shape notation,
and uses instrumental accompaniment — in particular stride piano. The tradition's
songwriters have produced many excellent songs over the years ("I'll Fly Away"; being
the best-known), and professional southern gospel developed from it in the 1950s and
'60s as amateur activity declined.
Southern gospel convention singers today live generally in an arc running from West
Virginia south and west to Texas. Most singers encounter the music in their home churches
- mostly white, Protestant, evangelical Christian churches in small towns and rural
areas - and then reinforce that contact with instruction at the many singing schools
supported by the tradition. The documentary includes sections on convention singing,
convention music, the use of this music in churches, the connections with professional
southern gospel, singing schools, songwriting, convention piano, dinner-on-the-grounds,
and the current state of the tradition.
About the genesis of the documentary:
I'll Keep On Singing is the result of Stephen Shearon's research into the world of southern gospel convention
singing and singing schools, a tradition that uses seven-shape notation in almost
all its publications and educational curricula. Having been a Sacred Harp and Southern
Harmony singer since the mid-1970s, Shearon was familiar with the world of four-shape
notation and its music. In the summer of 2003 he attended the first annual Camp Fasola,
a four-shape, Sacred Harp singing school outside Anniston, Alabama. He thought he
knew the world of shape-note singing. But he was stumped the following fall when a
music student, Joey Wilburn, visited him in his office in the MTSU School of Music
and said, "I understand you're interested in shape-note music; I teach at a singing
school in Lebanon."; (Lebanon, Tennessee, is just 30 miles north of Murfreesboro,
where Shearon lives and works.) Incredulous, Shearon responded, "There's a singing
school in Lebanon?"; From that chance encounter, he was led to investigate the singing
schools of the seven-shape tradition, which are quite numerous, and then the convention
tradition as a whole.
One of the few who previously had done research into southern gospel was folklorist
Charles K. Wolfe, a legendary scholar of the vernacular music of the American South
and a professor at MTSU. Dr. Wolfe passed away in February 2006. By that time, Shearon
had been doing his research for almost two years. At the campus memorial service for
Wolfe, Shearon approached Mary Nichols, a video producer who had produced several
music-related documentaries. He asked if she would be interested in collaborating
on a documentary about the tradition. She agreed, and the result is I'll Keep On Singing.
About the producers:
Stephen Shearon and Mary Nichols are professors in the MTSU School of Music and Department
of Electronic Media Communication, respectively. Shearon is a musicologist who has
been studying the southern gospel convention tradition since 2004 and has done numerous
presentations on the subject in recent years. With Paul Wells and the Center for Popular
Music, he organized the 2008 conference "Farther Along";: A Conference on the Southern
Gospel Convention-Singing Tradition. Nichols is a documentary video producer whose
music-related works include Schoolhouse Sessions: Community Music from West Tennessee, Schoolhouse Sessions 2: The Music Continues, and Stories and Songs of the Tennessee Music Box with David Schnaufer.
You can find out about gospel singing conventions and singing schools on the Internet
Order your DVD(s):
Send an e-mail to Stephen Shearon ( firstname.lastname@example.org), request the number of DVD(s) you would like to receive and provide your postal
address. (All DVDs are sent via the US Postal Service.)
Write a check for $15 per DVD payable to "Middle Tennessee State University" or "MTSU":
Send your check to:
School of Music, Box 47
Middle Tennessee State University
Murfreesboro, TN 37132
- 2009November 14 -- 74th Annual Gospel Singing Convention, Nashville, Arkansas, USA
- 2010October 16 -- 122nd Annual Meeting of the American Folklore Society, Nashville,
- 2011March 10 -- 37th Annual Conference of the Society for American Music, Cincinnati,
- 2011July 13-19 -- 41st World Conference of the International Council for Traditional
Music, Memorial University, St. John's, Newfoundland, CANADA
- 2011 January 14 -- WNPT (Nashville Public Television), 7:00 and 11:00 P.M.
What People Are Saying About I'll Keep On Singing
Rev. Barnwell and Mrs. Annabelle Anderson, Jacksonville, Texas
April 2, 2010 - "Keep On Singing"; arrived Tuesday and we viewed it the same day.
It was every bit as good as we remembered it from the national convention in Arkansas.
Again, many thanks for a superb job.
June 4, 2010 - We have viewed I'll Keep On Singing several times, and it gets better
each time we see it. You did an excellent piece of work.
Dr. Richard Colwell, New England Conservatory and Professor emeritus, University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Thanks for the DVD. There is much to learn as well as to enjoy. The narrators were
correct that many educated musicians know little about the work of the conventions.
Wayne W. Daniel, author of Pickin' on Peachtree: A History of Country Music in Atlanta, Georgia
I would keep on singing if I could sing. Especially after watching your DVD. My wife
and I just got through watching it and enjoyed it very much . . . . It brought back
a lot of childhood and teenage memories of the annual all day singings with dinner
on the ground that I attended. For some reason we didn't say grounds. Perhaps because
early on, to provide a place for the food, folks actually spread table cloths on the
Shawn Degenhart, GospelFest Ministries, Metamora, Illinois:
Hello! I received my DVD yesterday in the mail and watched it last night. Thank you
so much! I really enjoyed it. Great job.
Key Dillard, director, Do Re Mi Gospel Music Academy, Hartsville, Tennessee
A thank you for the DVD and the many hours of labor that went into the production
of a fine quality product telling the world of our shape note music. My family and
I have viewed it and enjoyed it immensely. I'm sure its message will have a positive
impact on our music for years to come. I sincerely appreciate you and your interest
in preserving and promoting our shape note music. Again, Thank you.
Harry Eskew, hymnologist, retired, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary
Thanks for the documentary. I enjoyed watching it last night. Although it was good
to hear from the publishers, I would have appreciated learning more about what this
singing tradition means in the lives of ordinary singers. Do you have plans for further
exploration of the southern gospel music tradition? I hope so, for it deserves the
attention of scholars like you.
Dr. Douglas Harrison, Assistant Professor of English, Florida Gulf Coast University;
moderator of www.averyfineline.com; and author of Then Sings My Soul: The Culture of Southern Gospel Music (forthcoming, University of Illinois Press)
If you want more convention-singing fix, make sure to get a copy of Stephen Shearon
and Mary Nichols' just-released documentary, "I'll Keep On Singing,"; which prominently
features the Phillipses and Towler, among others, talking about and performing convention
music. My copy just arrived in the mail this week, and I screened it in my Gospel
Music and American Lit course Thursday. It was a big hit. My students wanted to do
some singing afterwards!
Dr. Jere T. Humphreys, Professor of Music, Arizona State University
It is very, very good, Stephen. Being from Tennessee I'm used to the slow talking,
but [my] class will find that interesting! And one of the gospel quartets in particular
is using so much syncopation that it seems to have been influenced by the black music
performance practice, if not the music itself. Interesting! We used to hear the Blackwood
Brothers on radio at home, but my family didn't much like country music for some reason.
Dr. Mike Knedler, Dean of Arts and Sciences, Northwestern Oklahoma State University,
Stephen: I received the DVD in the mail yesterday. I have already watched it and
found it very informative. I'll have to admit that I really didn't know much about
the southern gospel convention tradition. Although I am primarily interested in the
a cappella tradition, you have renewed my curiosity about singing schools and my interest
in investigating that tradition in Oklahoma.
Dr. Bobbie F. McLemore, Jasper, Texas
Bro. Anderson received the two copies of "I'll Keep On Singing" and forwarded one
on to me. We both thank you for your generosity and enjoyed viewing it, very much.
I think everything that was said was "right on" and agree with the statements made.
As you may, or may not know, Pauline Pate is now deceased. Also, Curtis Doss is in
very bad shape. Neither we or the Andersons travel any more, and we miss the conventions
greatly. Again, thank you so much.---Bob.
Eloise Phillips, pianist and singing-school teacher, Roswell, Georgia
I just wanted to tell you what a great job you did with the project!! It is SO GOOD
and there was a lot of very interesting material contained in the video. I learned
a lot from watching it!! CONGRATS!! . . . (I finally got to see the video as of today!!
I waited w a a a y too long.!)
B. L. Reid, D.Ph., Music Editor, Leoma Music Co.
I'd like to go ahead and request a signed autograph of you two, so when you win your
Oscar for best documentary in 2011, I'll already have a picture! Best of luck with
Dr. Travis Stimeling, Assistant Professor of Music, Millikin University, and author
of Cosmic Cowboys and New Hicks: The Countercultural Sounds of Austin's Progressive Country
Music Scene (forthcoming spring 2011, Oxford University Press)
Keep on Singing offers much-needed insight into the rich, yet often overlooked, world
of southern gospel convention singing. Filled with the voices of convention singers,
composers, and educators, Keep on Singing promises to stimulate classroom discussions
about the relationship between music and religious experience and the ways that participants
in music-cultures define "music" itself.
Jerry and Carol Sue Willcutt, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma
I have just finished watching the documentary, "I'll Keep On Singing". You have done
a super job and hopefully it will get into some hands that will help get rid of this
"Praise and Worship" that is corrupting our young people in churches. I intend to
try to do my part in this. Thank you for such a good job.
Shearon also recommends the following related video documentaries .
Blue Ridge Shape Notes: Singing a New Song in an Old Way (2004, 28 mins.) -- http://www.watauga-arts.org/pages/shapenote.html
About the tradition of sight reading, singing and teaching gospel songs and hymns
from seven-shape notation in Watauga County, North Carolina. Very informative. Lots
Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp (2006, 75 mins.) - http://awakemysoul.com/
Described as a film by its makers, Matt and Erica Hinton, this feature documentary
is perhaps the best work of its kind on the Sacred Harp tradition: a tradition in
which singers read from four-shape notation and a repertoire that dates from before
the American Civil War or written thereafter in the style of same.