Tempus faciendi, Domine.
I will start this out in the Worship thread, but other moderators may move it to the EP thread if they see fit. I thought this piece by David Robertson was useful for (1) pointing us to a new CD that you'll want to investigate; (2) for further explication of Prof. Willie Ruff's thesis on the origins of Black Gospel music; and (3) for some insights on worship in a Gaelic context (will make you want to learn Gaelic!)
I located audio clips from Salm, vols. 1 & 2 here:ridge records
I located audio clips from Salm, vols. 1 & 2 here:ridge records
Salm in Salem
Posted Sat, 05/29/2010 - 14:08 by darobertson
You do know that everything good was invented or originated in Scotland? Apparently it appears that even Black Gospel Music came from the Highlands. Read on to find out why.....
Salm in Salem
There was a look of wry amusement on the faces of the onlookers. The Bonar hall in the University of Dundee had a number of media luminaries (and yours truly) who were being entertained and fascinated by a lecture given by Prof. Willie Ruff. Prof Ruff is a professor of music at the University of Yale. He is a noted jazz musician, having played with Dizzy Gillespie and been the first musician to introduce jazz into the USSR and the Peoples Republic of China. An African American of Alabama roots, his story is fascinating. His performance in the Bonar Hall was brilliant – none more so than when he showed how African Americans can tap out rhythm on their legs. It was hard to believe that he is 74 years old. However the enjoyment of his lecture gave way to a look of incredulity when Willie (as he wanted us to call him) suggested that there was a link between Black church music and Gaelic psalm singing. The Scottish media of course picked up on this and took great delight in running stories along the lines of Black Gospel music comes from Lewis! These statements were usually accompanied by pictures of exuberant African Americans singing and dancing, alongside pictures of Free Church Gaelic psalm singing which was, shall we say, somewhat less exuberant!
Prof Ruff explained that he was visiting a Black Presbyterian church in Northern Alabama and was surprised to hear them singing in the old Black Baptist way – lining out the hymns. ‘Where did you learn to sing like that?’ he asked. The response surprised him – ‘we’ve always sung that way – its part of our Presbyterian tradition’. So he decided to discover if there were any white Presbyterians who sang accapella. His search was fairly fruitless until someone suggested to him that he visit the Outer Hebridies in a far away land called Scotland. Willie had traveled all over Europe but had never been to Scotland – despite the pleas of his friend Dizzy Gillespie, who had told him that there was something special about Scotland. He even informed Willie that his great grandparents had spoken this strange language called Gaelic.
So off went the good professor – first of all to Benbecula and then to Back on the Island of Lewis. When he heard the Gaelic psalm singing he was blown away. To him it was very similar to the old style of Gospel music in the Black churches back home. It was at this point in his story that the looks of incredulity on some of the faces were evident. But then came one of those special moments. He played a track from the latest CD of Gaelic psalm singing from Back. It was spine chillingly wonderful and you could sense that everyone there was greatly taken with it. In fact the broadcaster Lesley Riddoch declared that it made the hairs stand up on the back of her neck and that she found it very moving. He then played a track of the Alabama African Americans singing. Believe it or not it was not easy to tell the difference!
It was a different language (English v. Gaelic), different words (Hymns v. Psalms), different melodies and yet there was so much that was similar. The emotion, the ethos and the style of lining out, adding lots of grace notes and singing slowly. How did this happen? Was it just coincidence?
The basic thesis is this. Many Gaelic speaking Scots went over to the US – especially the Carolina’s and the South. Some became slave owners and as a result their slaves were taught Gaelic. In those early days there were no Black and no separate White churches - Blacks and Whites worshiped together – although not on a equal basis (the normal custom in the South was for the Blacks to sit upstairs in the Church). As a result the African Americans were, as Prof Ruff put it, introduced to the ‘Jesus Faith’ through the medium of Gaelic preaching and Gaelic psalm singing. The slaves ‘blackened’ the process and eventually were thrown out of the churches (for their exuberance) and started their own. Prof. Ruff told of the section of the mixed church which was known as the ‘Amen Corner’ because of the noise that came from it. He also told us of the noted Confederate leader Andrew Jackson, going to church with his slaves and being told that they should sit upstairs. Jackson refused with the words ‘no, my family sits with me’.
There is no doubt that some slaves would have learnt Gaelic. Nor that there was some amount of interbreeding – Prof Ruff suggested that the prevalence of red hair amongst some African Americans today was due to Scottish blood from a couple of centuries ago! He also told us the delightful story of two sisters from Lewis who had just arrived in America after a long and lonely journey. They were surprised to hear Gaelic being spoken and rushed to the side of the boat to meet their countrymen – but were astounded to see that the speakers were Blacks. In panic they wrote home suggesting that they should return as quickly as possible because the sun was too hot and did terrible things to people!
But does that prove that the slave practice of lining originated from the Gaelic? One delegate at the conference , Billy Kay, was adamant that it was just coincidence and that anyway the practice of lining out came from England. But whilst that is the case there is no doubt that Gaelic psalm singing is uniquely different in its musical style and that just as the Blacks ‘blackened’ the practice so the Gaels had earlier ‘Gaelified’ the English style. You could argue that the fact that both the Gaels and the African Americans ended up with a similar style was co-incidence but I think the explanation offered by Prof Ruff makes more sense and fits the historical context better.
Why is this singing so powerful? What makes it unique? I am sure there are musical reasons but not being musical I cannot comment. However I do think there are similarities in terms of the circumstances of the people. Is it really that far from the cotton fields of Alabama to the peat bogs of Lewis or the straths of Sutherland? Is it not the case that both groups of people, the African Americans and the Highland Gaels have been victims of poverty and institutionalized injustice? And did not both groups generally find their refuge and hope in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the robust spirituality that stemmed from that believing in the midst of suffering? Furthermore, as Prof. Ruff pointed out, both styles of singing only work in the context of worship. This is not concert material to be performed by choirs for peoples entertainment. This is spiritual music sung by an oppressed people longing for redemption and praising the only God who can bring that.
If you want to hear more of the gaelic psalm singing then let me highly recommend the best CD of that style that I have ever heard. Calum Martin from Back has produced a double CD entitled Salm. The difference beween this and other similar CD’s is that this one concentrates on the congregation rather than the precentors. Around 600 people gathered to sing God’s praise and record this CD. It is really quite special. As one caller to the Lesley Riddoch programme said – ‘I did not know that Scottish men could sing with such emotion’.
Speaking of which I wonder why it is so emotionally powerful. Personally I find it wonderful. It does sound a lot to me like the Pibroch style of piping – something which I cannot hear without thinking of mountains and glens, clearances and injustice. Some say that the Scots are not very emotional – that we are dour etc. I think that they are confusing us with the stereotype of the stiff upper lip approach of the English aristocracy. Anyway that most certainly does not apply to the Gaels (of whom I am not one). I witnessed an extraordinary occasion once in a house meeting in Lewis. We had the worship in ‘the english’ because yours truly in his ignorance cannot speak a word of the gaelic. It was fine – the usual psalm, prayer, reading, psalm. But then they switched to gaelic and what a difference – the women were swaying, two at least were crying. It was as emotional as any Pentecostal service I have been in.
A couple of thoughts to finish. Gaelic psalm singing is great when it is done well and when it is done in Gaelic! It is awful when it is done in English. To sing English words to a Gaelic style comes across as loud, slow, dull and to be frank, ludicrous. The only emotion it induces is laughter and depression. Let the Gaels have their way of praising God and their way of expressing their emotions but please can those of us who are not Gaels be allowed to express emotion as well! After all, we are, or we aspire to be, a multi-cultural church. To be restricted to one cultural style in the name of uniformity of worship would be quite contrary to the NT teaching on the church and worship. Willie Ruff tells of going to visit another Black Presbyterian church in Selma, Alabama where they tried to sing metrical psalms in four part harmony in a Gaelic style. They were great people he said but the singing was awful (not aweful).
I remember telling the above story of how African American Gospel music was really from the Gaelic speaking Highlanders, at the Twin Lakes Conference in Mississippi. Terry Johnstone, minister of Savannah IPC, is one of the stalwarts of that conference and a renowned advocate of psalm singing in the PCA. One of our African American brothers declared that he always knew that Terry was a ‘soul brother’. It was a disgrace that so many of the Gaels who themselves had been dispossessed and exploited became slave owners and thus the exploiters. But it was a matter of huge significance that many at least passed on their Christian faith – a faith that was to be such a source of inspiration and comfort. And it is interesting that music was to play, as it so often has done in the history of the church, such an important part.