Defining Southern Gospel, and Great Depression-era culture

Over the years, when asked to define Southern Gospel, I have typically said something like:

Southern Gospel is a genre featuring overtly Christian lyrics, and power harmonies rooted in the four-part male quartet tradition, where the second-highest voice sings the melody.

But is this enough to understand and define the genre?

I was recently talking with a Southern Gospel legend who was telling me stories of life in the rural South during the Great Depression. As I listened to the stories, I realized how little I know about daily life in the rural South during those years. I have read assorted autobiographies of Southerners who grew up in the era, but that only goes so far. I’ve talked at length with my grandparents about those years, but they experienced the Great Depression in urban settings like Cleveland and South Bend. Hearing these stories first-hand was like peeking into a culture so foreign that I suspect I would feel less out-of-place in modern-day Ireland or Australia!

With a fresh generation of fans discovering Southern Gospel, I doubt I am alone. In fact, just among my fellow bloggers, I would guess that half have as little (or less) familiarity with that culture.

Can Southern Gospel be defined and understood without understanding Great Depression-era rural Southern culture? Are everything from our theological emphases to our inside jokes so rooted in that culture that it must be understood to fully appreciate the genre’s music?

Whether it’s crucial or merely helpful, though, it certainly plays a role.

And with that in mind, faces come to mind: A college student in Minnesota, another in Northern Ireland, a young professional in Indiana, a new fan in Australia, and a twenty-something in Brazil who stumbled upon it on YouTube. What do we need to be doing now to preserve that heritage and legacy, so they can fully grasp and appreciate what the genre means and stands for?

One more question—and this one may be the most thought-provoking. If it did indeed define our genre in the past, but if you expect it to be increasingly less relevant in the future, what will define our genre in fifty years, when those pioneers are no longer with us?