Ballads, Anthems, and the search for the right term for those highly orchestrated Somethings

In Southern Gospel, what do we call a rousing, dramatic orchestrated song?

We often call it a ballad. But we don’t use the term “ballad” for just that; we’ll use it for any slow song. So we have any number of qualifiers for the term:

  • “soft ballads” (“There’s Something About That Name”)
  • “big ballads” (a ballad with a massively orchestrated, climactic ending, e.g. “For God So Loved”)
  • “big fat ballads” (this is what you use if you’re a true Southerner)
  • “power ballads” (either an alternate term for a “big fat ballad” or a slow song with lots of electric guitars and synthesizers, as in “Lord of Life”)
  • …and any number of others

However, this understanding of the term “ballad” is unique to our industry. While average shelf dictionaries give a vague definition, Virginia Tech’s Multimedia Music Dictionary offers a fairly standard definition of how other musical genres understand the word:

A simple song of natural construction, usually in the narrative or descriptive form. A ballad usually has several verses of similar construction and may or may not have a refrain.

Translated into our genre’s jargon, other genres use “ballad” in the same way we would use “story song” (e.g., “Somebody Died for Me,” “Someone Had to Die,” etc.)

Granted, there is some extent to which every industry needs its own jargon (specialized terminology). But we don’t need the term ballad here, and using it in this fashion is unnecessarily confusing to newcomers. And as a genre with a significant evangelistic focus, one thing we don’t want to do is confuse newcomers!

So if we’re not going to use “ballad” for orchestrated songs that build to a big finish, what do we use?

“Anthem” may be our strongest candidate. Virginia Tech’s Multimedia Music Dictionary defines it this way:

A choral setting of an English religious text similar to a motet, usually used in church with or without organ accompaniment.

This technical definition misses an alternate definition popular since the 1960s or 1970s. For that, let’s turn to definition 3 from Merriam-Webster:

  • 1a: a psalm or hymn sung antiphonally or responsively
  • 1b: a sacred vocal composition with words usually from the Scriptures
  • 2: a song or hymn of praise or gladness
  • 3: a usually rousing popular song that typifies or is identified with a particular subculture, movement, or point of view

Both the VT Music Dictionary definition and definitions 1a, 1b, and 2 could comfortably coexist with this proposed Southern Gospel understanding of the term. The only definition which offers some difficulty is the third Merriam-Webster definition; pop, rock, and other genres will use the term “anthem” for a song that defines a generation or movement (e.g. “We Shall Overcome” for the Civil Rights movement), even if it has no Christian content.

At first glance, these definitions may appear to be mutually exclusive. Yet it is actually at the crossroads where they converge that we find our case for using “anthem” for dramatic, rousing, often orchestrated Southern Gospel songs. For these songs—songs like”Champion of Love,” “Midnight Cry,” “If You Knew Him,” and “I Will Rise Up From My Grave”—are among the only songs that would actually fit Merriam-Webster definitions 1b, 2, and 3.

Naturally, not every song which tries to be the next “Midnight Cry” quite succeeds. The ones that do succeed are the best candidates for the term “anthem.” The ones that make a valiant effort, but come up short (either lyrically or musically) do present somewhat of a problem for this proposition. Should they be called “anthem attempts”?

Is “anthem” the best option we have, or is there a one-word term other than “anthem” or “ballad” which is the best option for describing these rousing, dramatic, orchestrated Southern Gospel songs?

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