"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 Media Arts, 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 at http://gospelsingingconventions.com/.

Order your DVD(s): Ill Keep on Singing

  1. Send an email to Stephen Shearon ( sshearon@mtsu.edu), 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.)

  2. Write a check for $15 per DVD payable to "Middle Tennessee State University" or "MTSU":

  3. Send your check to:

Stephen Shearon
School of Music, Box 47
Middle Tennessee State University
Murfreesboro, TN 37132

Screening History

  • 2009November 14 -- 74th Annual Gospel Singing Convention, Nashville, Arkansas, USA
  • 2010October 16 -- 122nd Annual Meeting of the American Folklore Society, Nashville, Tennessee, USA

Scheduled Screenings

  • 2011March 10 -- 37th Annual Conference of the Society for American Music, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA
  • 2011July 13-19 -- 41st World Conference of the International Council for Traditional Music, Memorial University, St. John's, Newfoundland, CANADA

Broadcast History

  • 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 ground.

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)
From www.averyfineline.com
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, Alva, Oklahoma
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
Dear Stephen,
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 this project!

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 of music.

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.