There may be far fewer Sunday churchgoers than a generation ago, but millions of Americans have been drawn to rural southern gospel music through the popular soundtrack of the film, O Brother Where Art Thou. Concert tours and ‘follow-up’ albums have found audiences eager to buy traditional songs about “old-time religion”. Is this just musical fashion or does their moral message resonate with today’s audiences? Interviews include Charlie Louvin and Grammy ® winner Ricky Skaggs and music by the Louvin Brothers, Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch.
Segment production: David C. Barnett

Sound Clips

Audio - Like many southern musicians, bluegrass star Ricky Skaggs says he used to feel conflicted by his desires to be a good performer...and a good Christian.

Audio - A striking vision of Hell marks the cover of the Louvin Brothers' 1959 album, "Satan is Real." The photo shows the brothers singing gospel music, surrounded by fire and brimstone, while a satanic figure rises behind them. Charlie Louvin tells reporter David C. Barnett how they created this legendary picture

Listen to Part 3

There is a great influence of shape note hymnals, hymnal publishers, itinerant singing teachers, and singing schools on country music. The harmonies still heard today in the contemporary singing styles of bluegrass and country artists including Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys, The Oak Ridge Boys, and Alison Krauss can trace their roots in part back to the four-part emphasis on shape note singing, singing schools, southern gospel quartets pioneered by J.D. Vaughan and other publishers of gospel hymnals, and to the singing in country churches of the south.

Humanities Themes

The Economics of Early Gospel Music As early as the beginning of the 19th century, publishing businesses drove popular music trends, creating demand for certain styles of music and filling it for economic gain, much as it does today. 

Social Bias and the Resulting Shift of Singing Schools from the North to the South

After the Revolutionary War, the singing-school tradition lost favor in New England, the victim of an influx of European-trained musicians who preferred more rigid rules. Armed with the first shape note book, The Easy Instructor (Little and Smith, 1801), itinerant singing-school teachers moved south and were well received.

Race and the Sacred Harp Tradition 

Though the Sacred Harp tradition is primarily a white phenomenon, there were isolated African American shape note singing congregations. This module takes a look at how the racial politics of the time affected the development of Sacred Harp singing schools. How did shape note singing influence the development of black gospel music, as we know it today?

Emergence of Singing School and Country Church Harmonies into Bluegrass and Country MusicExamples from The Delmores, The Louvins, Chuck Wagon Gang, Stanley Brothers, Clinch Mountain Boys, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Oak Ridge Boys, Alison Krauss, et. AL 


What is shape note singing? Where did it come from? Who invented it? Who popularized it? Where do we hear shape note harmonies in popular music today?

How did shape note singing influence subsequent singing styles in county music? 

We’ll look into the story of the “singing schools” created by itinerant singing teachers employed by music publishing companies such as Vaughan and Stamps-Baxter. These teachers––and, later, the gospel quartets formed by the publishing companies––roamed the South popularizing four-part harmony singing at country churches, schoolhouse concerts, and “singing conventions”: all-day sings with “dinner on the ground.”

We’ll also look at the life of Albert E. Brumley, who authored hundreds of gospel songs, including I’ll Fly Away, one of the most recorded songs in gospel music history. 

We’ll explore how The Chuck Wagon Gang is a link between country music and traditional sacred songs of the South.

We’ll see how Charlie and Ira Louvin were transitional figures between the old shape note singing schools and modern country music. 

We’ll also explore how Mitchell’s Christian Singers, an early African American gospel quartet, were transitional figures between Sacred Harp music and contemporary black gospel and doo-wop styles.

Background And Source Quotes

The singing-school tradition enjoyed some popularity in pre-Revolutionary War New England. But in the years following the war, trained musicians dismissed the idea. The shape note system was first published by William Little and William Smith in The Easy Instructor (Philadelphia, 1801). Armed with this system, singing-school teachers took the tradition south. There, shape note systems became the standard for publication of hymns, and the itinerant singing teachers and singing schools became the primary sales tool. In 1816, Ananias Davisson (1780-1857) and Joseph Funk (1777-1862), both of Rockingham County, Virginia, became the first Southern singing masters to compile and publish their own tunebooks. By 1860, more than 30 sacred tunebooks, all in shape notes, had been compiled by Southerners, although many of these were printed outside the South at Cincinnati or Philadelphia. (Source: Mississippi Arts Commission, and

“David Warren Steel, University of Mississippi” from Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, edited by William Ferris and Charles Reagan Wilson. Copyright 1989 by the University of North Carolina Press.) 

Once the singing schools went south, a major center of shape-note music promotion, education, and publishing occurred in Northwest Virginia. A key figure was Aldine Kieffer, who in 1877, published The Christian Harp. This tunebook specialized in songs for Sunday Schools and revivals. Kieffer also kept busy with “The Musical Million,” started in 1870. This was a monthly periodical devoted to rural music, singing schools and their teachers, songs, and songbooks in shaped notes. In 1874 he opened the Virginia Normal School of Music (in the Shenandoah Valley) to better train and educate singing-school teachers. One of the alumni from his Normal School was J. D. Vaughan, who in 1902 started the Vaughan Music Company, and in 1911 opened the Vaughan School of Music. (Source:

Country church singing, well into the 20th century, was not necessarily harmonized. Singers sang in unison or just let their voices follow their own undisciplined routes. But the extent to which harmony did exist, in the church or elsewhere, was probably a product of the Southern gospel quartets and of the four-part emphasis of the shape note singing schools. Pioneered by J.D. Vaughan, a successful publisher of shape note hymnals in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, the publishing-house quartets toured widely through the rural South in the early 20th century. Hawking songbooks as they toured, the Vaughan quartets along with those employed by the Hartford Company in Arkansas, the Trio Music Company in Waco, Texas, and the Stamps-Baxter Company in Dallas, popularized their style of harmony (usually 1st tenor, 2nd tenor, baritone, and bass) in country churches, at singing schools, at schoolhouse concerts and the famous all-day-singings with dinner on the ground. (Source: Bill C. Malone, Country Music U.S.A. (revised), University of Texas Press, Austin, 1985. p. 21) 

Albert E. Brumley was born in 1905 in Spiro, Oklahoma. At various times in his life, he worked as a cotton farmer, piano tuner, and grocery store clerk. Prior to his songwriting career, he attended the old Hartford Musical Institute at Hartford, Arkansas, and sang with the Hartford Quartet. Later, he taught singing schools in various parts of the Ozarks. Brumley was a staff writer for gospel’s famed Hartford and Stamps-Baxter publishing companies. In 1943, he established Albert E. Brumley & Sons Music Company. In 1948, he purchased the Hartford Music Company. It is estimated that the songs of Albert E. Brumley have been printed 15 million times in sheet music and hymn songbooks. Among the some 800 songs Brumley wrote: “I’ll Fly Away,” “Turn Your Radio On,” and “Rank Strangers.” (Source:

Founded in 1924, Stamps-Baxter Music and Printing Company was the largest gospel music publishing company in the world at one point. While most publishing companies produced one songbook a year, Stamps-Baxter published two convention books annually, beginning in the early 1930s. In 1936, V.O. Stamps of Stamps-Baxter Music and Printing Company approached Albert Brumley, furnished him a car, and paid him to produce four songs annually for Stamps-Baxter songbooks. (Source: 

The direct result of the publishing activity of Vaughan, Stamps-Baxter, and others are the dozens of community gospel singing conventions, both white and black, found throughout Alabama. The indirect result is the profound impact on the development of a whole variety of gospel styles. (Source:

Radio was a major factor in the spread of gospel music's popularity. One feature of the 1936 Texas Centennial celebration in Dallas was a series of radio studios in glass booths erected in hexagonal shape at the fair grounds. Rural folk were fascinated. They had heard radio broadcasts but had never seen one. Stamps-Baxter Quartets performed several live broadcasts at the state fair and KRLD in Dallas. Impressed with the reception, they decided to try a noonday program in the fall of 1936. V. O. Stamps entreated listeners to write in if they like the music. Within a week KRLD was deluged with mail. The KRLD broadcasts, sponsored by American Beauty Flour, became noontime staples in Texas. Eventually, live gospel singing expanded into the morning hours at 6:45 a.m. and occupied a 10 p.m. evening slot. At noon during the summertime, it was possible to walk down any street in Texas within broadcast range of KRLD and hear the Stamps-Quartet singing. By 1938 the Stamps-Baxter singers became so popular that V. O. Stamps hosted an All Night Singing at the end of the three-week class session in June. KRLD carried the first broadcast that was held in the Cotton Bowl. At midnight, FCC limitations were lifted. KRLD turned up the wattage, and the broadcast went international. Soon, V. O. Stamps and his quartets were traveling to Del Rio and providing wire recordings to radio station XERA for national broadcast. (Source: The Handbook of Texas Online, a joint project of The General Libraries at the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas State Historical Association. 

Charlie and Ira Louvin, who would become one of the great singing duos, grew up in Henagar, Alabama. “Where we were raised, Sacred Harp was famous.” Charlie Louvin remembered that a singing-school teacher repeatedly pestered their dad to enroll Charlie and Ira in singing school, and although the family had no money, their father (driven by pride) gave the teacher $12.00 for two weeks tuition. “We were to take the money and give it to the singing-school teacher,” Louvin goes on. “Instead, Ira and I and two or three other boys we were raised with went by the store a quarter of a mile from our house and we bought Moon Pies, RC Colas, Baby Ruths and cigarettes. Then we drifted off into the woods and played all day. We knew what time singing school let out. At about that time we went back home. It was about the fourth day we done this that my daddy ran into the singing-school teacher ... ” (Source: Nicholas Dawidoff, In the Country of Country, Pantheon Books, New York, 1997, p. 136.)

The Chuck Wagon Gang provided an important link between country music and traditional sacred songs of the South. “Dad” (David Parker Carter) was raised in Clay County, Texas. He attended singing school, where he met his future wife. The couple had nine children. In 1935, after one of the children became very ill and the family was left destitute, Dad Carter, with three of the older children, organized the Chuck Wagon Gang. They were sponsored by Bewley Mills of WBAP, Fort Worth, Texas, for over 12 years beginning in 1936. In 1937, Don Law and Art Satherly of Columbia Records visited WBAP studios and signed them to a record contract. Among the songs recorded by the Chuck Wagon Gang: “If We Never Meet Again,”  

“I’d Rather Be an Old Time Christian,” “Camping In Canaan's Land,” “I'm Bound For the Land of Canaan,” and “I’ll Fly Away” –– songs written by singing-school teacher turned songwriter, Albert E. Brumley. (Source: artist/artist.cgi?ARTISTID=334923&TMPL=LONG#bio and

Interview Subjects:

Robert Brumley, son of gospel composer Albert E. Brumley. Robert Brumley is current owner and CEO of Albert E. Brumley and Sons Inc., and Hartford Music Company.  

Bill Ivey, former National Endowment for the Arts Chairman. Previously, Ivey served for 25 years as Director of the Country Music Foundation and Hall of Fame in Nashville. He holds degrees in history, folklore, and ethnomusicology, and is on the faculty of Vanderbilt University, where he teaches, writes, and conducts research on cultural policy.

Kip Lornell, Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology, is a professor of African Studies, Music, and American Studies at George Washington University, and he serves as a Research Associate at the Smithsonian. He is the author of Happy in the Service of the Lord: African-American Sacred Vocal Harmony Quartets in Memphis, originally published by University of Illinois Press in 1988. 

Charlie Louvin, who, with his late brother, Ira, became one of the finest vocal duos in the history of country music. 

Bill C. Malone, author of Country Music U.S.A., University of Texas Press, Austin, 1985. 

Thomas Wilmeth, Associate Professor of English at Concordia University (Mequon, Wisconsin) and author of The Music of the Louvin Brothers: Heaven's Own Harmony, Edwin Mellen Press, 1998. 

Charles K. Wolfe, professor of English and folklore at Middle Tennessee State University and author of In Close Harmony: The Story of the Louvin Brothers, University Press of Mississippi, 1996.

Significant Historical Recordings:  

“I’ll Fly Away” - The most recorded song in the history of gospel music, “I’ll Fly Away” was composed by one-time singing-school teacher Albert E. Brumley in 1929 and published in 1932. It was first recorded by the Chuck Wagon Gang, circa 1941.

Recent artists who have recorded “I'll Fly Away” include Aretha Franklin (Princess Diana Tribute Album), Wynonna Judd, and Gary Chapman (Soundtrack for the movie The Apostle).  

“Christian Soldier,” sung in 1936 by the Denson Quartet on CD Before the Blues, Vol. 1 Track 23. (Yazoo 2015)

“Sweet Rivers,” sung by the Allison’s Sacred Harp Singers (a group from the Birmingham area) in 1928. From CD Times Ain't What They Used To Be, Vol. 3 Track 11. (Yazoo 2047) 

“I’ll Stay on the Right Road Now,” sung by black group, Fa Sol La Singers, Atlanta, 1931. From CD Times Ain't What They Used To Be, Vol. 3 Track 23. (Yazoo 2047)

Checking with WBAP, Fort Worth for The Chuck Wagon Gang material. 

Louvin Brothers material from Mike Seeger Collection Inventory (#20009) 1955-1967, Manuscripts Department, Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Resources, Bibliography, Discography, Archival


Archival materials from Albert E. Brumley and Sons/Hartford Music Company. 

Bealle, John. Public Worship, Private Faith: Sacred Harp and American Folksong. University of Georgia Press, 1997. This is a 320-page book. The publisher's catalog states (in part): "Bealle surveys definitive moments in American musical history from the vantage of the distinctive musical idiom [of the Sacred Harp]: from the lively singing schools of the New England Puritans to the dramatic theological crises that split New England Congregationalism, from the rise of the genteel urban mainstream in frontier Cincinnati to the bold "New South" movement that sought to transform the Southern economy, from the nostalgic culture writing era of the Great Depression to the rise of the post-WWII folksong revival. The distinctive thrust of Bealle's book is the presence of an unassailable traditional discourse that has prevailed through these definitive and sometimes perilous encounters with cultural America.

Cobb, Buell E. Jr. The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music. University of Georgia Press, 1978 [paperback edition, Brown Thrasher, 1989]. Author is an Alabaman who was drawn into Sacred Harp in his college years and later wrote a Master's thesis on the subject. Whereas other scholarly studies by musicologists examine the tradition from the outside, Mr. Cobb observes and analyzes the musical and social aspects of the Southern tradition from the inside, yet with objectivity and perspicacity. 

Dawidoff, Nicholas. In the Country of Country. New York: Pantheon Books, 1997.

Malone, Bill C. Country Music U.S.A. (revised). Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985. 

Stamps-Baxter Music and Printing Company. Precious Memories of Virgil O. Stamps. Dallas, 1941.

Stanley, David H. “The Gospel Singing Convention in South Georgia,” Journal of American Folklore (95) (January-March 1982).Walls, Chiquita. “Mississippi’s African American Shape Note Tradition,” published in the La-Miss-Ala Shape Note Newsletter (November - December 1999), edited by Regina Glassat. Availiable 

Walls, Chiquita. The African American Shape Note and Vocal Music Singing Convention Directory, a special publication of Mississippi Folklife (27) (1994), available from Mississippi Folklife, Center for the Study of Southern Culture, University of Mississippi, Hill Hall, University, MS 38677.

Wilmeth, Thomas. The Music of the Louvin Brothers: Heaven's Own Harmony. Edwin Mellen Press, 1999. 

Wolfe, Charles K. In Close Harmony: The Story of the Louvin Brothers. University Press of Mississippi, 1996.


Old Harp Singers: Hymns, Anthems, Fuguing Tunes from Tennessee. Folkways 2356.  

A 1951 recording of ten songs from the seven-shape tunebook, New Harp of Columbia, sung by seventeen traditional singers from the cultivated mountains of eastern Tennessee. Many of the songs are found in the Sacred Harp tunebooks. The tempos are rather slow compared to those typical of a Sacred Harp singing. The singers sing the notes before proceeding to the words.

FASOLA: 53 Shape-Note Folk Hymns. Folkways 4151. 

Recorded at an all-day Sacred Harp singing at Houston, Mississippi by Amelia and Frederick Ramsey, Jr., and issued as a Folkways box album in 1970. Highlights include vigorous singing, rapid tempos, and a large number of songs. Features extensive liner notes.

The Louvin Brothers’ Satan is Real, Capitol Nashville Records 37378 Features liner notes by Charles Wolfe and Joe Allison.From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music (Warner Brothers) 

Mitchell’s Christian Singers, Volume 2: 1936-38, compiled by Johnny Parth, Document Records DOCD 5494, Austria

Mike Seeger Collection Inventory (#20009) 1955-1967Manuscripts Department, Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Contact Information: Manuscripts Department, CB#3926, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC 27514-8890, Phone: 919/962-1345  

Southern Folklife Collection - During the 1950s and 1960s, collector, folklorist, and traditional music performer Mike Seeger recorded interviews and performances of many legendary old-time and bluegrass musicians. The collection consists of open reel tape audio recordings from 1955 to 1967, along with supporting logs. The audio recordings include both live performances and Seeger's interviews with many notable bluegrass and old-time musicians, as well as master tapes from various LP recording projects. Of particular interest are live concert recordings featuring such musicians as the Stanley Brothers, Alex Campbell with Ola Belle Reed, Lester Flatt with Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe with Charlie Monroe (the Monroe Brothers), Buzz Busby, the Osborne Brothers, The Louvin Brothers, J. C. Sutphin, Ernest V. Stoneman, Don Reno, E. C. Ball, Wade Ward, Kilby Snow, Sam McGee with Kirk McGee (the McGee Brothers), Elizabeth Cotten, Red Smiley, Grandpa Jones, Hazel Dickens, Mac Wiseman, the Lilly Brothers, Mississippi John Hurt, Dock Boggs, Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Maybelle Carter, Cousin Emmy, Merle Travis, Tony Alderman, and Seeger's own New Lost City Ramblers. There are also recordings from the New Lost City Ramblers' European tour with the Stanley Brothers, Adam Landrenau and Cyp Landrenau, Cousin Emmy, and Roscoe Holcomb. Performances were recorded at large and small venues, including New River Ranch near Rising Sun, Maryland; Sunset Park, Pennsylvania; and the Union Grove Fiddlers Convention in North Carolina. Seeger recorded in-depth interviews with many of these musicians, including Kirk McGee, Sam McGee, Wade Ward, Clarence Tom Ashley, Ernest V. Stoneman, the Benfield family, Kilby Snow, Charlie Bowman, Dock Boggs, Eck Robertson, Leslie Riddle, and Maybelle Carter. Of particular interest is Seeger's interview with Columbia Records talent scout Frank B. Warner. Supporting documentation includes Seeger's logs for all of the audio recordings and an artist index. (Source:

Web Sites:

Web site of the Mississippi Arts Commission, 

Web site of Univ. of Mississippi, Sacred Harp Singing,

Web site of Brumley Music 

Web site of Gospel Music Hall of Fame

Web site of The Handbook of Texas Online, a joint project of The General Libraries at the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas State Historical Association. 

Web site of MUSICMATCH.

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