December 10, 2017


TUNED UP IN THE SPIRIT (David Ramsey, November 21, 2017, Oxford American)

They are a peculiar people, the Old Regular Baptists will be quick to tell you. And they have a peculiar way of singing. It is an old way, unchanged--nearly gone but for the stubborn insistence of churches like Mt. Olivet. First a single voice: "The time draws nigh when you and I." Then many voices, repeating the line unaccompanied in a wobbly melody, only much slower, more elaborate, quite loud, spreading out two or three tones along every syllable. The process continues, the songleader "giving out" or "lining out" each line in a brief and piercing call, which is then decorated by the congregation in a dirgelike swell. They sound like a high-lonesome battalion, marching home through billows of mist.

Lined-out hymnody, the scholars call it-- the oldest English-language religious-music oral tradition in North America, a tradition with roots stretching back to parish churches in England in the early 1600s and perhaps further still. Some people find it a strange sound. One researcher who went hunting for descriptions of lined-out singing from turn-of-the-century travelers in Appalachia told me that a few words kept popping up: mournful, wailing, confusion. Other people, me among them, are overtaken. The Old Regulars say it has a "drawing power." Sitting there surrounded by the swoon and sway of those voices, I could feel it in my teeth. I am tempted to say that my reaction was physical. But those who were singing would say that it was precisely the opposite. I cannot claim to know. It felt like the blood in my body was a river.

There are no instruments in an Old Regular Baptist church save for the human voice. The lined-out hymns have no pulse beat: Try to clap your hands or tap your feet, and you'll find no beat to land on. The musicologists say that the rhythm is governed by breath time as opposed to metronomic time, and is remarkably consistent--sixteen seconds for six-syllable lines and twenty seconds for eight-syllable lines. That is very, very slow. There is a deliberative concentration to the way that the Old Regular Baptists sing, a special attention to sound. Which makes sense: They are about the hard work of attention to the spirit, a patience for revelation. Several women and several men wept openly that Sunday as they sang. Some sat in silence and waited for the spirit to move them. Others gripped the pew in front of them and sang as loudly as distressed birds.

There is no harmony in the singing, only melody. The tunes are elusive to newcomers, buried in the lilt and cadence, which can sound like chanting. The Old Regulars sing together, but they are not a chorus; each voice is distinct. Each is moved, less or more or not at all, in their own way. As one later explained to me: "It's just the way the spirit is."

Before Churches Had Songbooks, There Was 'Lined-Out' Gospel (John Burnett, 10/15/13, NPR Morning Edition)

Deep in the hills of Appalachia, there's a mournful, beautiful style of church music that hasn't changed since the 18th century.

The hymns of the Old Regular Baptist Church are sung in the so-called "lined-out" style brought to America by British colonists. It can be heard in the town of Sassafras, Ky., hidden in a hollow between mountainsides covered with sugar maple and yellow buckeye and shot through with veins of bituminous coal.

On a Saturday morning in September, several hundred men and women -- many 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.

"Let milk and honey flow..."
He sings a line of a hymn. Once the congregation recognizes it, it repeats the line in unison, its voices swelling in a minor mode. This is what's called lined-out hymnody.

"When shall I reach that happy place..."
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.

Posted by at December 10, 2017 9:20 AM