On the fourth weekend of July 2019, a clutch of Southern gospel music faithful gathered in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. They’d been doing so for nineteen years now, just about long enough for the occasion to have picked up a rhythm that felt like a series of unbreakable traditions. These people—couples mostly—sat in the same spots, seats they had reserved at the festival the year before and the year before that. They’d spent so many years clapping along with the strangers around them that by now the strangers felt like friends. They looked for each other, and maybe even looked forward to each other, rushing through the Crockett Theater’s doors as soon as they opened, anxious to get in their socializing before the official start of the next James D. Vaughan Gospel Quartet Festival.
This year, though, people were missing. My presence was my neighbors’ first clue something was different. Why had there been an empty seat? Wasn’t Sarah supposed to be there? Did I know anything?
Sarah was okay, a woman the next row down said, turning around. Hadn’t they heard? Ever since that one November Saturday when her husband never woke up, Sarah had stopped going to gospel singings entirely.
The couple a row behind leaned forward to ask my neighbors about that foursome, the ones that were always there, sitting two rows down and three seats over. What were their names? This was embarrassing. After all these years. They’d call it senility, not bad manners. But never mind that. Anybody know where they were?
The tuxedo-clad emcee interrupted then, and everybody settled back in their seats, fellowship hour over. He warmed up the crowd, cracking the sort of family-friendly jokes that made the Baptists and the Nazarenes around me chuckle with appreciation. He sprinkled in a few teasers about special surprise guest appearances that might be coming later in the weekend. Then he ordered us all to stand up and sing along. And we fell into our parts of the harmony from the first measure.
Suddenly, I was back in my childhood church in a different small Tennessee town, Brother Rocky behind the pulpit, taking requests. “Number 462!” one of the men would shout. I’d find the page just as Miss Shirley, our accompanist, finished her abbreviated introduction. “I was sinking deep in sin / far from the peaceful shore,” I’d belt. Momma would pin her alto note against my soprano. “Very deeply stained within / sinking to rise no more,” I’d push against the beat, eager for the chorus. “Love lifted me,” I’d sing. “Lifted me,” echoed the basses, and the resonance of their line would run up my spine and give me the shivers.
Yep, the weekend was going so well, until I went to the library.
The festival included a number of Southern gospel music’s greats: The Inspirations, Gold City, The McKameys, Legacy Five, the Triumphant Quartet, the Blackwood Brothers, The LeFevre Quartet, The Chuck Wagon Gang, Tribute Quartet, Mark Trammell Quartet, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, and the New Speer Family.
Lawrenceburg, with its ten thousand residents, shouldn’t have been able to draw such an all-star lineup. But the quartets weren’t in town because of the people who live there today. They had come because in 1910, James D. Vaughan, a local music publisher, had put the first commercial gospel quartet on the road selling sheet music for his struggling music publishing house. All the groups that weekend would be singing in the style of music he had perfected, and many of them would even be singing songs he wrote.
But James Vaughan hadn’t started out to invent a new genre of music. That first gospel quartet had been a merchandising ploy. This was the era when sheet music was big business, and Vaughan’s key market was the monthly singings that happened across rural America. The musicians and singers at these gatherings demanded new songs, new lyrics, new challenges. To keep up, the Vaughan Music Company published at least two songbooks a year, but competition was fierce. Other publishers were also pumping out songbooks. The Vaughan Quartet helped the Lawrenceburg company stand out. The group toured the monthly singings, performing and schmoozing and selling. And their audiences loved them. Thus the Southern gospel music quartet was born.
Vaughan’s experiment revolutionized his business. In 1910, the Vaughan Music Company sold about thirty thousand books. In 1911, it sold sixty thousand. A year later, the company sold almost ninety thousand, and James Vaughan put more quartets on the road. At the peak of their popularity, sixteen quartets and an assortment of other groups carried the Vaughan imprimatur, and the Vaughan Publishing Company was selling half a million songbooks a year.
The success of the Vaughan Quartet meant that James could expand his musical empire. He opened the Vaughan Normal School of Music, training lay singers and musicians to lead congregations. He added the Vaughan Family Visitor, a newsletter and devotional guide. He harnessed new technologies. In 1922, he bought the rights to launch a commercial radio station, WOAN (Watch Our Annual Normal, a nod to the music school). The station reached all the way to Canada, and it was the first viable commercial station launched in Tennessee. But WOAN needed music to play, so the Vaughan Quartet headed into the studio, pressing records for Decca, Edison, Gennett, and Victor. As a prosperous businessman, James Vaughan was also a powerful figure in Lawrenceburg. By 1923, he owned one of the local papers and was mayor of the town.
When James Vaughan died in 1941, he’d written more than five hundred hymns, taught thousands of students, and sold six million songbooks. Some of his students and songwriters had launched their own popular gospel quartets. He’d even trained his most powerful rival; V. O. Stamps of the Stamps-Baxter Publishing House in Texas had started out as a Vaughan Quartet member and a Vaughan Music Company representative.
James Vaughan’s influence continues today. The music he and his employees wrote has been sung by Bob Dylan, the Judds, and the Oak Ridge Boys. Songs written in Lawrenceburg appear in hymnals across the globe. And the Southern gospel quartet tradition flowed into contemporary Christian music, seeded country music, and was one of the foundational influences of Americana music, as well as being one of the roots of rock & roll.
But James D. Vaughan wasn’t just a good businessman, everyone who knew him agreed. He had remained a man of remarkable faith. When the coroner asked his family why he had callouses on his knees, they’d replied he’d just spent that much time in prayer. His Christianity had written itself upon his body.
Knowing Vaughan’s background and influence, I’d come to the festival to revisit the music of my childhood. Maybe I could even pull a nostalgic essay out of the weekend. Then I went to the Lawrence County Public Library to sift through their clippings files. “I’ve always suspected James D. Vaughan ran the local Klan,” the librarian said as he handed me a stack of manila folders. So much for my fun, easy story.
Ishould’ve known the Ku Klux Klan would pop up. Not only was I in Tennessee, where racism punctuates our historical narrative, but this was Lawrenceburg, some scant eighteen miles from Pulaski, the Klan’s birthplace. And the Lawrenceburg folks had been some of the first to join in terrorizing African Americans, carpetbaggers, and scalawags. Still, sitting in the Crockett Theater on a prickly velvet seat surrounded by 1,049 Southern gospel quartet fans, I thought the Klan would stay safely out of this essay.
Yes, I thought I could avoid talking about racism even knowing that the “Southern” in Southern gospel is a euphemism for white.
The librarian had ended that naiveté. One Google search later, I found my first evidence he was right: a piece of digitized sheet music in Yale’s Beinecke Library. In 1921, James D. Vaughan had published “Wake Up, America and Kluck, Kluck, Kluck.”
The cover of “Wake Up, America and Kluck, Kluck, Kluck” is printed in steel blue. In its illustration, a horned devil looms over a rural church, blood dripping from his pointed nails as he reaches toward an obese, cigar-smoking white man in an armchair. The man’s jacket is monogrammed u.s., and he resembles the Uncle Sam who had ordered men into the Army a handful of years earlier—well, the resemblance is there, but only if Uncle Sam had spent the intervening years carousing. Sam’s eyes are closed to the danger, but that’s okay. A cavalcade of masked Klansmen ride to his defense, bearing a burning cross. “But the right will surely win,” the lyrics promise, “we’re winning day by day, Each night thirty thousand put on the K.K.K.”
Vaughan wasn’t the only hymnist from my childhood implicated by my discovery. The tune of “Wake Up, America” was by Adger M. Pace, who spent seventeen years as the Quartet’s bass. He also worked for the publishing house, writing classic gospel pieces like “Walking With My King,” “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem,” “Jesus Is All I Need,” “Peace, Sweet Peace,” and “Give Me Oil in My Lamp,” a song I sang at every Vacation Bible School growing up. He would go on to be the first president of the National Singing Convention, and he’d spend thirty-seven years as the music editor for all Vaughan publications. The lyrics of “Wake Up, America” were by Walter B. Seale, a singer with both the Stamps and Vaughan quartets who had written a number of now-forgotten pieces for the Vaughan Music Company’s songbooks.
Also included in the booklet was an advertisement for a saccharine ditty called “Sweet Little Girl of Mine.” The lyrics were by James Rowe, the author of “Love Lifted Me.” The advertisement may have been created without his knowledge, but I doubt he would’ve objected. In 1914, he’d written “I Knows Bettah Now” about a Black father who “used to starve mah children for jags” until he embraced the temperance movement. Now, the father says, “Tho’ black my face mah spirit is white. . . . Ise jined de ranks, Ise ready to fight.”
I shoved the folders aside and went into research mode. How integral was this racism to the rest of James Vaughan’s music? After all, the man was publishing two songbooks a year plus sheet music. Had he even signed off on “Wake Up, America”? Maybe his trusted songwriters were allowed to do what they liked.
My first clue was the publication date on “Wake Up, America.” The song had come out in 1921, but the sheet music in the Beinecke Library was from 1924. “Wake Up, America” had hung around after its release, enough of a crowd favorite to merit re-release. The piece was so popular that on April 8, 1924, the Vaughan Quartet, now managed by James’s son G. Kieffer Vaughan, went into a Gennett studio to record it. They released it with a B-side recording they’d made the day before, “Hold ’Er, Newt (They’re After Us).” I’ve not found the lyrics to the second song, but newspapers advertised it as being an excellent record for any Klansman to own, worth every penny of the $1.10 sticker price.
As I dug deeper, I discovered that James Vaughan and his musicians weren’t just making money off the Klan. They used his media empire to spread its message. I found a newspaper article reporting that on March 16, 1924, an estimated fifteen hundred people—or about sixty percent of Lawrenceburg’s residents—gathered in the high school auditorium to hear the Reverend Otis L. Spurgeon give a two-hour pro-Klan lecture. The moderator was Mayor James Vaughan, and the musical entertainment for the night was the Vaughan Quartet accompanied by the Vaughan Radio Orchestra. Vaughan broadcast the rally on WOAN, beaming the racist nonsense to listeners in Pittsburgh, D.C., and Ontario.
That wasn’t the Vaughan Quartet’s only Klan performance. In May of that year, “a Klan quartette from Lawrenceburg, Tennessee” entertained an audience of more than ten thousand gathered to award fourteen “hero crosses” to notable Alabama Klansmen. The newspaper reported that, as they sang, “the mystical Fiery Cross of the Invisible Empire cast its wierd [sic] and sacred glow.” Their white supremacist songs—especially “Wake Up, America”—were such a hit that the crowd demanded “repeated encores” from the foursome. A year later, they were the featured musical performers for an expected sixty thousand Klansmen at a rally in Bowling Green.
I sat in the Lawrenceburg library, staring at my laptop, shaken by what I had learned about the music of my childhood. I didn’t know how to handle the questions raised by James D. Vaughan and his colleagues. What should I do with this knowledge? Avoid the offensive songs? That was easily done. I couldn’t imagine singing “Wake Up, America and Kluck, Kluck, Kluck.” If the answer was so easy, though, wasn’t it a cop out? If I didn’t make any changes, I was saying I was happy with today’s racial status quo.
I could take this a step further and excise James D. Vaughan, Adger M. Pace, James Rowe, and Walter B. Seale from my hymnbook and my playlist. That would be a little more challenging but not by much. But what about all the other songwriters who composed for the Vaughan Music Company? Or the songwriters influenced by the Lawrenceburg team? That could stretch far beyond Southern gospel. I opened my most recent playlist, the one I’d been streaming via my phone on the drive down to Lawrenceburg, the one filled with my favorite Americana artists whose harmonies harkened back to the Vaughan Quartet. I didn’t want to delete them.
For the past handful of years, a debate has raged over how to purge the history of racism from our culture and our institutions. Most of the conversation has focused on clearly defined targets: statues and monuments and flags and slogans and building names. But our legacy of inequality and hatred goes deeper than that. It’s woven into the fabric of our national identity, running its poison through our schools, our government, our art, our food, our neighborhoods, our churches, and our hymnals. My festival weekend had plunged me into the middle of this cultural battle. I decided to reach out to an assortment of people I knew had been thinking—and in some cases praying—on these issues.
Ketch Secor, the founder, fiddler, and singer for Old Crow Medicine Show, has spent his career studying the roots of American music, a pursuit that won him a lead role in last year’s Ken Burns documentary, Country Music.
I met Secor in the nave of Christ Church Cathedral, my Episcopal parish in downtown Nashville. I chose the site because it was close to some of his other meetings for the day, but it also encapsulated my questions. Our formal style of worship, full of smells and bells and chanting, is a long way from the gospel hymns I was raised on. Politically, too, Christ Church has little in common with my childhood church. We pride ourselves on our liberalism, seeing social justice as part of the gospel’s message. Parishioners and priests are part of the local fight for equal housing, gun regulations, and prison reform. But our gothic structure of granite and glass was funded by the buying and selling of human bodies. As I turned to face Secor that afternoon, I could see shards of light from our rose window refracted across the stones of the altar. That window was dedicated to Jane Smith Washington, wife of the largest slaveholder in Tennessee. How does my parish handle that part of our history? That’s a conversation we as a congregation have yet to have.
Unlike me, Secor hadn’t grown up listening to white gospel quartets. Late-twentieth-century Southern gospel was too polished for his taste. Every recording was a production layered with synthesizers and pitch correction and digital sampling until the rawness of the experience was erased, replaced by an airbrushed, soft-focused version of itself. “And it’s just too damn many voices,” he said.
Secor was also turned off by Southern gospel’s tie to a mythical white identity. “The musics that I gravitated towards, they’re all musics that reflect the miscegenation of the American South,” he explained, and white Southern gospel had been created to hide those influences. Given the genre’s determined whiteness, Secor wasn’t the least bit surprised to hear about Vaughan’s past. “The 1920s?” he said. “The rural, pre-electrification South? And you’re shocked that there’s a hood in the attic? Then you don’t know your history.”
He reminded me that James Vaughan may have had some power in his community, but he was a rural white man from an impoverished background. “The Klan offered this false sense of security and power,” Secor said.
The Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s was hard for white men to resist if they wanted to be community leaders, especially in the South. In 1923, Hugo Black—an Alabama lawyer and Southern liberal who would go on to be one of the Supreme Court justices who voted to end school segregation—joined his local klavern because he believed doing so would aid in his political advancement. He lived just a few counties away from Lawrenceburg.
The 1920s Klan made itself palatable to men like Black through a careful public relations campaign—hosting Independence Day fireworks shows, putting on circuses, giving money to poor white widows, donating offerings to white pastors they liked.
White supremacy in Lawrenceburg did not hide behind these benign façades, however. The Klan James Vaughan praised was openly violent. One weekend night in 1922, four local white farmers, at least two of whom were brothers of known Klansmen, went to Lawrenceburg to “have fun with some negroes.” They kidnapped a young Black boy and then, while he watched, they shot Jack Linam, a Black man, as he came home from church. The defense attorneys never spoke in court, but all four white men were acquitted. The group’s violence continued while Vaughan was Lawrenceburg’s mayor and stumping for the KKK. In 1926, gangs of masked and robed nightriders—gatherings of fifty to seventy at a time—flogged more than four men in the county for unknown crimes.
“He fell far short of the things that he preached about,” Secor said of Vaughan. “He screwed up. But he was just a man. He was a man wrestling with his relationship to God.”
Secor wasn’t saying we should ignore James Vaughan’s actions, but we should see them within their greater context. America isn’t an unequal place today because of James Vaughan specifically. Millions of our ancestors also put on white hoods, and each of us must deal with the hate stored within our own family’s attics. “Mr. Vaughan’s kids, Mr. Vaughan’s grandkids, they got to do the reckoning,” he explained.
Institutions must also change, but “I’m not an institution,” he told me. “I’m a white Southern man. And I’m a banjo player.”
Today, he uses music to teach his audience about the many cultures that went into creating it. His banjo is especially useful. “When I play it to African American kids, I say, ‘See this thing? Your great-great-great-great-grandmother brought this over in her mind, because she wasn’t allowed to bring anything with her.’”
I understood Secor’s emphasis on personal responsibility. Changing institutions is a plodding process. But don’t we individuals make up and support and fund the institutions around us? If we don’t take them on, who will? I now had more questions than before.
Iran into Malinda Maynor Lowery the first weekend of January at the 2020 American Historical Association’s annual meeting in New York City. She was at the conference to discuss Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, a 2017 documentary she’d been part of. Hoping she’d have some insight for me, I told her about “Wake Up, America.”
“Wow,” she said. “I need some time to think about all this. Can we talk in a couple of weeks?”
When I caught her on the phone one snowy February afternoon, I jumped straight to my big question: “How do we go about uprooting this heritage out of our culture?”
“It’s a Stone Mountain–scale problem,” she said.
Lowery had earned a PhD in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill the year before I started my graduate school training there. When I was a research assistant at the Southern Oral History Program, I processed interviews she had conducted documenting the Lumbee tribe’s fight for equality in education. These days, Lowery is back in Chapel Hill, directing the Center for the Study of the American South, and she was one of the professors who had supported the group of students fighting to unseat Silent Sam, the university’s Confederate monument.
Southern gospel music had been a part of how Lowery’s Lumbee relatives understood their lives. As a child, when she’d visit her extended family, Southern gospel was like the wallpaper that flowed around the edges of the room. One of her grandfathers would sit at his piano, working his way through the Broadman Hymnal and an assortment of shape-note songbooks. “The music is a way for us to understand ourselves and each other,” she said. “Socializing, there’s always singing.” In Sounds of Faith, Lowery’s 1997 film documenting her tribe’s musical traditions, one of her relatives echoes this sentiment. “Experiencing singing together, and the moving of what we felt like was God in our midst with our family together, it was a kind of an intimacy.”
For Lowery, James Vaughan’s local Klan associations weren’t the most serious charge against him. It was the music he published. His company and his songs “are inextricably tied to the belief systems that people have adopted, in part because of the songs, because they’re so stirring, right?” she said. “Because they’re so moving.” People who had been harmed by white supremacy, people like her family—for them “the music served as a balm to those repeated injuries.” But he was also using his music to cause that damage.
For her, the first step to unraveling the racist heritage of the music was to bring stories like this to light not for the purpose of tearing down Southern gospel but to begin a conversation about the fraught legacy contained within the lyrics and melodies. Studying men like James Vaughan, “those figures and their histories,” lets us “appreciate the necessary complications of life in a compromised democracy,” she said.
The second step was to create spaces for those who have been harmed by the gospel music written for the Klan to speak for themselves. “And in your case, of course, you’re talking about arguably whole communities of people that are not even aware that the harm has been done,” Lowery said. A daunting prospect.
She then reminded me that in the end, the practice of history “engenders some sympathy from us” for the historical actors—“not to absolve them at all or excuse them,” but we have to remember they were humans. She paused. She needed to clarify what she was saying. She wasn’t calling James Vaughan a product of his time. There were people alive in the 1920s—poor, rural Southerners—who were Black and white and Lumbee—who believed in equality, justice, and civil rights. The songwriters in Lawrenceburg could have chosen a different path.
So could we, she reminded me. Think of all that’s happening around us right now in our culture. It’s a cliché, but we have to remember that one day future historians will be judging us.
My final conversation was with the Most Reverend Michael Curry, presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church. Over the course of his career, he’s broken down a number of barriers. In 2000, he became the bishop of North Carolina, and he is now the first African American to hold the post of presiding bishop. Of course, most folks outside the Anglican communion know him as the preacher at Harry and Meghan’s wedding.
“You’ve blown my mind,” he said when I explained James Vaughan’s white supremacist past. “I had no idea.”
He paused a beat.
“I keep saying I’m surprised, but that’s not true,” he said. “I’m shocked, but I’m not surprised.”
Like Lowery, Curry believed that the first step to reckoning with our hate-filled heritage was to uncover these stories. “You tell stories like this and look at how far racism has gone into our lives and our music and our art and our politics,” he said. “You start with the truth.”
“Jesus said, ‘If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’ Everybody always forgets the first half of that verse and focuses on the second. But the Truth will set us free, the big T truth. So we just keep telling stories like this.”
The other reason to keep telling the painful stories is to wear people down. Some folks only need one time and they’re ready to fight for change. Others take repetition. “Most people have a moral compass—I have to believe that—so if they keep hearing the truth, eventually they will respond and change,” he said.
And the next step? For that, Curry saw guidance within how he imagines Black congregations handled the hymns written for the Vaughan Music Company. “They definitely knew what he was up to,” he said. “Black folks always knew what these folks were up to.” Those who decided to sing the hymns “may have in essence baptized and converted him, or his music.” Other congregations might have said, “Nope. Not this guy.” Now we each have to do the same thing as individuals, communities, churches, denominations, and nations.
Singers and musicians also have a responsibility to reevaluate what music they use, assessing the value of the song and weighing it against the creator’s hate. “You have to look at every piece and say, does the art here or the deeper truth here overcome whatever other history this music or this writer has?” Curry said. “That’s a hard equation.”
Whenever a denomination or publisher begins to compile a new hymnbook, they will have to decide what their response will be. Should they include hymns written by James D. Vaughan, Adger M. Pace, James Rowe, and Walter B. Seale? “I don’t know,” Curry said. “If we were putting together a hymnal today, we’d have to have that conversation.”
Americans aren’t good at having this type of conversation right now. Maybe we never have been. Talking through these things means we must act against the moral certainty that has characterized us since John Winthrop ordered us to be “a city upon a hill.”
We can’t jump to solutions because we have yet to find the right questions. We can’t trust the answers our guts give us because all of our guts—every last one—have been acclimatized to a world of inequality and injustice. We must be more interested in learning about the silenced parts of our history than in writing a cohesive narrative, more anxious to listen than to speak, more eager to give grace than to cast judgment.
Only then can we begin to disentangle the hoods from the relics in our attics, the laws written by our governments, the lessons taught in our schools, and the songs of worship canonized in our hymnals.
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