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LETTER FROM AMERICA: Rural American congregational singing

October 2016 | by Ben Wilkerson

Over the last few hundred years since the American Revolution, ecclesiastical music and singing in America have not changed as much as one might think.

Many of the colonies were founded for religious freedom, especially New England, where the Pilgrim Fathers and Puritans settled. During that time, the foundation for American church music and singing were laid in liturgy, psalmody and hymnody brought from Europe, especially England and Scotland.

Many of the denominations in the United Kingdom had their counterparts in America and we sing many of the same hymns. For the most part, modern day American church music is not too different from that found in British churches.

However, new kinds of singing arose in the rural backwaters of America, both in white and African American communities: singing that was largely different from the music found across Great Britain, though some had their origins there.

Line singing

One of those forms of congregational singing is known as ‘line singing’ and is used among white, black and Native American congregations in the southern and western regions of the country.

In its most basic form, a precentor chants the first line of a hymn or psalm. The song is then sung by the congregation in a dirge-like but impassioned manner without musical accompaniment.

One scholar describes it this way: ‘[As] is usual in oral tradition, the tunes were altered according to the individual singer’s interpretation and abilities. This style of singing featured extremely slow tempos, with notes added to the melody by each individual singer.

‘In addition, since the singing was unaccompanied, people who were not sure of the melody would wait until the leaders sang the next note before joining them’ (The regular singing controversy, Linda Ruggles).

While this form of singing was once popular during the 16th-18th centuries in Europe, it is now only practiced in Europe by Gaelic Presbyterian churches in the Outer Hebrides.

Many of the Gaels and other British emigrants first brought line singing to the American colonies. This form was widely adopted across the colonies, from Plymouth to the Carolinas. The Scots migrated in the 17th and 18th centuries to the American colonies and took their Gaelic Psalm singing with them and taught it, not only to their children, but also their slaves.

While the use of hymnals structured the main form of hymnody in America in the 19th century, more remote churches in the south-eastern United States still used line singing in both white and black churches.

Initially, slaves sang in Gaelic along with their masters, but it did not take much time (though no one really knows when) before the use of Gaelic faded out in American churches. However, the form of singing still was passed on and each denomination had its own variation.

Cultural connections

Professor Willie Ruff, a renowned jazz musician in his own right, researched extensively the connection between African American line singing and Gaelic line singing. He also found white congregations in Kentucky that did the same type of singing and brought them together for a conference at Yale University (‘The line between Gaelic psalm singing and American music’,

The 2005 conference featured the Sipsey River Primitive Baptist church from Alabama, the Indian Bottom Old Regular Baptists from south-eastern Kentucky, and the Free Church Psalm Singers from the Isle of Lewis, along with many other professors and speakers.

Their music blended marvellously, as there were many similarities between the tunes they used. Even some of the hymns sung by the Alabama and Kentucky churches were the same. Later, someone brought to Prof. Ruff’s attention that this same style of singing was done among the Creek Indians.

During the time of the ‘Trail of Tears’ (forced relocations of Indian nations in the United States, following the Indian Removal Act of 1830), many Indians in the South came to Christ, and some, having intermarried with Scots, learned to line sing the Psalms in their own language and took it with them to what is now Oklahoma.

So, in 2007, Ruff initiated another conference, which featured the African American line singers, the Kentucky line singers and the Creek Indian line singers.

Once again, the singing was very similar between the three congregations and great fellowship was had. When asked about his theory that African American line singing came from Scotland, Ruff replied, ‘We as black Americans have lived under a misconception. Our cultural roots are more Afro-Gaelic than Afro-American. Just look at the Harlem phone book, it’s more like the book for North Uist.

‘We got our names from our slave masters; we got our religion from slave masters, and we got our blood from slave masters (‘Black music from Scotland’, Scotsman newspaper, 31 August 2003)’.

This remarkable style of music is still practiced in the South, though it does not have a large following.

Sacred harp

‘Sacred harp’ singing is another type of a cappella rural church singing that really did originate in the American colonies.

While line singing is a call-and-response sort of singing, sacred harp or shaped note singing is more choral in nature. While the origin of shaped notes is much older than the American colonies, the use of it as church music started in the colonies with the Bay Psalm Book, written in 1698.

Shaped note singing uses a specific type of notation in the hymn or Psalm book, where the notes are not merely round dots on the staff, but take the shape of squares, triangles and diamonds as well.

While shaped note singing may have been widespread throughout the eastern US at one point, it soon became almost extinct in the northern US, due to Lowell Mason’s better music movement. However, churches in the South were still taken with shaped note singing, particularly in rural areas, and continued to use shaped note singing.

The Sacred Harp was a hymn book first printed in 1844 that uses a four-note system (fa, sol, la, mi). Churches would have singing schools, where the congregants would come and learn to read the music and share life and fellowship together.

Sacred harp singing begins with singers seated or standing in a hollow square, with one member standing in the middle to lead. The square is arranged in alto, treble, tenor and bass sections. A leader will stand in the centre and guide the congregation through the song, with the entire group singing together.

This style of singing is democratic and singers take turns leading in song. He or she will call out the number of the hymn from the book and then sing up the scale to find the right pitch to start the hymn.

Everyone sings their own part through, by actually singing out the notes ‘fa, sol, la, mi’. Then the congregation will sing out the words to the hymn in English, having sung the tune once before. If you listen to sacred harp music, you will recognise well known hymns, tunes, and metres, as well as many unfamiliar ones.

It is also interesting to note that The Sacred Harp book does contain many more hymns about heaven than most hymnals I have sung out of, which is pleasing.

Heavenly worship

Having been to one of these singing schools, it is quite an impressive and fun experience. This type of singing is still fairly widespread among Primitive Baptist churches, some Southern Baptist churches, Churches of Christ, and some Pentecostal churches in the South.

Both line singing and sacred harp singing, while not commonplace, have a rich heritage worth preserving and participating in. Singing praises to God is, and should be, one of most joyous experiences for the Christian. The Scriptures are full of songs to the Lord, and we even have a songbook (the Psalter) printed within its very midst!

From the time of temple worship to the present day, God has ordained singing as a way of offering praise and thanksgiving and giving him all the glory. And since those ancient days, as the church has grown and spread throughout the world, brothers and sisters in Christ lift their voices in their own way to praise God.

It is eye opening to go to a different culture and sing praises to God in that culture, whether Creek, Gaelic or English. It is a beautiful foretaste of what it may be like in heaven, when peoples from all cultures and languages join in song (Revelation 7:9-10).

Farewell, vain world! I’m going home!

My Saviour smiles and bids me come,

And I don’t care to stay here long!


Sweet angels beckon me away,

To sing God’s praise in endless day,

And I don’t care to stay here long!


Right up yonder, Christians, away up yonder;

Oh, yes, my Lord, for I don’t care to stay here long.

(Hymn 282, The Sacred Harp)

Ben Wilkerson served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is a Christian writer residing in the USA.

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