Celebrating Congregational Line Singing
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
This week, academics have been tracing the history of a unique musical tradition. It's called congregational line singing. You can hear it among Appalachian whites, Mississippi blacks and Scottish Highlanders. A conference at Yale University is exploring that music, and so is NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.
(Soundbite of a group line singing)
JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:
Line singing is essentially a call-and-response format.
Professor WILLIE RUFF (Yale Music Professor): Perhaps one of the most complicated and intriguing forms of call and response.
Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Sweet angels beckon me away.
Congregation #1: (Singing) Sweet aaangeeels...
WILLIAMS: Yale music professor Willie Ruff is a host of the conference. He says there are no instruments, no hand clapping, no stomping in line singing. The leader sings--or precents--the first line.
Prof. RUFF: And the congregation then will respond in a very elaborate and very much embroidered working out, where there's this long dirgelike transaction with every syllable being giving several notes.
Congregation #1: (Singing) Ooooone...
WILLIAMS: Ruff, an African-American, was familiar with line singing from his childhood in Alabama. He heard it in his family's Missionary Baptist Church and later in the Delta's primitive Baptist churches. A clue about the cross-cultural roots of line singing came to him from an unexpected source.
(Soundbite of Dizzy Gillespie playing trumpet)
WILLIAMS: That's Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet. Professor Ruff, a bass player, first heard from his musical collaborator, Gillespie, that slaves in the Carolinas sometimes spoke and sang hymns in Gaelic. That prompted Ruff to begin exploring the connection between line singing among slaves and the singing of psalms on the Scottish Hebrides Islands.
Unidentified Man #2: (Singing in Gaelic)
WILLIAMS: In Scotland he encountered Calum Martin, elder of the Presbyterian Free Church.
Mr. CALUM MARTIN (Elder of Presbyterian Free Church): That was the granddaddy, if you will, of what has developed into what our daddy would call gospel music and over here we might call praise and worship or whatever.
WILLIAMS: That form of praise and worship was apparently brought to the Americas by Protestant slave masters. Black slaves with their African tradition of call and response began to make line singing their own. That leads some critics to question whether the small number of Gaelic immigrants could have had such a strong cultural influence on the slaves. Anthony Pinn is a professor of humanities and religious studies at Rice University.
Professor ANTHONY PINN (Humanities and Religious Studies, Rice University): The tradition of call and response--the significance of oral traditions within the context of West Africa--would have made line singing familiar. So what they produced was something uniquely their own.
WILLIAMS: Despite the debate, the three different traditions of line singing are meeting to explore their similarities and their differences. Scots still sing psalms in Gaelic.
Congregation #2: (Singing in Gaelic)
WILLIAMS: The old regular Baptists from remote parts of Kentucky sing hymns with an Appalachian flavor.
Congregation #3: (Singing) Myyyyy souul...
WILLIAMS: And the black primitive Baptists of Alabama perform what they call lining-out, with their own distinctive style.
Congregation #4: (Singing) Ohh-ohhhh...
WILLIAMS: The three practitioners meeting at Yale represent small and dwindling congregations that still engage in line singing. The conference culminates tonight with a combined rendition by members of the three groups. History, faith and music will merge as they perform the psalms of David. Juan Williams, NPR News, Washington.