Before Churches Had Songbooks, There Was 'Lined-Out' Gospel Hidden deep in the hills of Appalachia, there's a tradition of worship music that has not changed since the 18th century. The hymnody is still practiced by congregations of the Old Regular Baptist Church, where a leader calls out a line and the people respond in a mournful, soaring chorus.

Before Churches Had Songbooks, There Was 'Lined-Out' Gospel

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One of the reasons I love working here is the chance to hear people, like the people we'll hear next. We're going to travel into the mountains of Appalachia this morning to hear church music that has not changed since the 1700s. The hymns of the Old Regular Baptist Church are sung in a style that was brought here by British colonists. It's called lined-out singing. And today, that music becomes part of our series, Ecstatic Voices: Sacred Music in America.

NPR's John Burnett reports from Sassafras, Kentucky.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The town of Sassafras is hidden in a hollow between mountainsides covered with sugar maple and yellow buckeye, and shot through with veins of bituminous coal. On this Saturday morning, several hundred men and women - solidly built with square faces - have gathered in a Depression-era building to worship and sing. They settle into green-cushioned pews in a large, well-lit sanctuary. One of the men sitting behind the pulpit, under the picture of a kneeling Jesus, feels moved to start a song.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) (unintelligible)

BURNETT: He sings a line of a hymn; once the congregation recognizes it, they repeat the line in unison - their voices rising in a minor mode. This is what's called lined-out hymnody.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) (unintelligible)

CONGREGATION: (Singing) (unintelligible)

BURNETT: Unlike the Southern a cappella tradition of sacred harp or shape-note singing, lined-out hymns have no musical notation. People listen and they sing. The tradition began when churches didn't have songbooks.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) Waiting until I see my father's face...

BURNETT: You can hear in this singing the same mournful quality you hear in the voice of bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley. He grew up in this very musical ecosystem just across the Kentucky/Virginia border.

Geraldine Ison drove to this service from Blair Branch Old Regular Baptist Church in Letcher County, Kentucky.

GERALDINE ISON: I've grown up all my life hearing these songs. And when I was younger I didn't like them.


ISON: I thought they were too sad. But now I love them.

BURNETT: She's here for the annual reunion of the Indian Bottom Association, the largest group within the various branches of the Old Regular Baptist Church, and the one that has worked hardest to preserve these old songs.

ISON: And my mother, I can remember her singing, like, "Little Bessie," something real sad. And I begged her not to do that, not sing.



BURNETT: JoAnn Copley and Gertie Ison remember "Little Bessie," too

JOANN COPLEY AND GERALDINE ISON: (Singing) Hug me closer, closer mother. Put your arm around me tight for I'm cold and tired, dear mother...

BURNETT: Church members don't consider this music sorrowful. Danny Amburgey is a retired state road inspector.

DANNY AMBURGEY: As far as being just a mournful, sad singing - and a lot of people look at it that way - but it's not really. If you know the song, know what we're singing about, we're giving praise to God.

BURNETT: Don Pratt is a retired assistant school superintendent.

DON PRATT: It's been a part of my life from the beginning. And it's a joyful sound. It's a sound that touches your heart.

COPLEY AND ISON: (Singing) Why it is I cannot rest.


ISON: I still think it's sad.



BURNETT: At noonday, after the Saturday morning service, the ladies of the church have laid out a feast: fried chicken, ham slices, field peas, deviled eggs and cornbread; Banana pudding, dirt pudding, cherry pie, apple pie, vanilla cake and dump cake.


BURNETT: This is southeastern Kentucky where the morning mist settles in valleys, like milk in a bowl; where a quarter of the population lives in poverty and whose isolated communities are bound by food, family and faith.

CONGREGATION: (Singing) I have been reborn (unintelligible).

BURNETT: This is from a recording released a decade ago by the Smithsonian Folkways label. The songs of the Old Regular Baptists are considered the oldest English language religious music passed down, orally, in America. But the tradition here in Appalachia is more than sacred song. The music is part of the moral universe in which the Old Regular Baptists dwell; a vivid faith life of baptism in cold-water creeks, repentance and salvation.

PRATT: (Singing) Yes, I want to go to heaven some day. I want to hear him say when the gates swing wide, Come in, you (unintelligible). Amen, and God's (unintelligible). Oh, what a day it's going to be...

BURNETT: On Sunday morning, the Baptists are back in their pews. A succession of pastors, called moderators, steps up to the pulpit for spontaneous sermons.

PRATT: (Singing) Let everything...

BURNETT: That was Brother Don Pratt.

The preacher who brings the service to a crescendo is Elwood Cornett, a 76-year-old retired school administrator who heads up the Indian Bottom Association.

ELWOOD CORNETT: (Singing) Whoa-oh, but the key is Jesus.


CORNETT: (Singing) Glory, glory, glory, let now God rejoice...

BURNETT: According to attendance records announced at this year's reunion, there are 1744 Old Regular Baptists in 41 congregations that make up the Indian Bottom Association. But their numbers shrink a little each year. The room is mostly gray heads. And Elwood Cornett worries about continuity. He says they need more young families.

CORNETT: My grandfather was born a hundred years before I was. My mother said that he sang this very way and I sing this very way. And I'm committed to doing what I can to keep this sound alive. I want it to be around a hundred years from now.

BURNETT: While the Old Regular Baptists wait on the Lord to return, they sing their sacred songs here in the mountains, living, as they say, in the world but not of the world.

John Burnett, NPR News.

CONGREGATION: (Singing) (unintelligible)

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