Joe Ed Furr, Texas Normal Singing School
The summer of 2005 was a watershed moment. The following is a description of that moment.
I have taught the history of church music to every freshman student at the singing school for the past 35 years. Every summer I introduce song writers, tell their stories, and sing a line or two of some of their most famous songs. In the past all our students were able to sing the first line or two of the most famous songs from memory without having to look up the songs in a hymnal. That is our heritage.
In the summer of 2005 things suddenly change. When it came time to sing a line or two of the most famous hymns and gospel songs I witnessed a change in audience participation. The adult members of the class sang along with me, but the teens did not. It soon became painfully obvious that today’s teens can no longer sing a line or two of class hymns from memory.
Why? You can see a clear reason for this new situation by considering the following series of events.
We have a long-standing custom at the singing school of hosting a daily singing at 10 AM where the teachers lead the songs. Songs for that singing are carefully selected to encourage our students to sing all styles of songs. We blend classic hymns with gospel songs, southern gospel, spirituals, and songs of praise and worship. We then allow the students to vote for their favorite songs from that list of selections.
On the last day of the singing school we host a closing singing. In that hour we sing the top ten popular songs as determined by student voting.
Look at our top ten lists for the past ten years. Even though we sing the best of all styles of songs, the top ten lists never reflects all the diverse styles. Classic hymns and gospel songs are rarely found on that list. A few of the Stamps-Baxter southern gospel songs used to be found on that list, but not in recent years. Spirituals and songs of praise and worship are the dominant songs on the list.
Classic hymnals published for churches of Christ used to never print southern gospel, spirituals, or songs of praise and worship. Hymnals used to publish only gospel songs and a small number of hymns. Today’s young people are no longer interested in the songs that once dominated hymnals.
At the end of the nightly singing lab at the singing school we turn out the lights in the chapel and admire the huge stained glass walls that surround us. In the dark our young people spontaneously break into singing songs they can sing from memory. Almost all those songs are songs of praise and worship.
Years ago I used to read about how taste in church music changes from time to time, but somehow I never gave much thought to being an eye-witness to such a phenomenon. I suppose it was my absence of fore-thought that caused me to respond with a sense of surprise when I saw young people unable to sing a line or two of classic hymns and gospel songs.