Search Adorate

Nobody Does My Traditional

Missionary Baptist Church, Rawhide, Virginia
       "Why don't you play some worship music I like?"
       This normally should be translated to mean, "Why don't you play some worship music I grew up with."
       That's understandable.  Most people will always have a special affection for the worship music of their childhood.  A melody, even a style of music, can transport anyone to different places in the story of their own faith journey.  This is what Randy Garris has called our musical heart language. 
       So, everybody likes music from their childhood.  So, what will be it?  The 1970s?  Hey, let's do something by the Gaithers.  Or, maybe the 1950s?  Let's see, maybe something by George Beverly Shea.  The 1930s?  Wow, that's really getting back there, grandpa.  
       But, what if your "traditional" is a style and sound you're pretty sure no one in the church but him had ever heard?  

       All right.  Confession time.  Talk about your geezers.  When somebody around my age complains to me about not hearing enough "traditional" worship music, I know what they're talking about.  But, I wonder just what they'd think if they could hear what "traditional" meant to me?  I wonder if they realize I have to live with the fact that I will never hear my traditional worship music in church.  Until now...

A Journey to Another World... 

Old Regular Baptist Hymn Page
       For me, the music that touches me most deeply is rooted in the rural roads and coal camps of the southern Appalachians.  I'd like to use this post to share my own musical heart language that is almost certainly very different than the worship music you know and sing.
        In the mid-eighteenth century William Williams, the great Welsh hymn writer, penned Arglwydd, arwain trwy'r anialwch. Peter Williams (no relation) translated this into the English Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah. 
       In a contemporary musical setting, the hymn has been recorded by Indelible Grace: Contemporary Setting: Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.  For those of you younger than middle aged, this will be at least a familiar musical sound.
       For those who grow up in music still dominated by traditional hymns and gospel songs, you might have used the tune Zion.  But, most likely, you would have sung it to the Welsh hymn tune Cwm Rhon­dda and it would have sounded like this: Traditional Hymn Tune: Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.
       Although I love both of those approaches to the hymn, the one that echoes most deeply in my own heart is in a style usually called Appalachian lined out hymnody.  The liner, sometimes called the clerk, lines out each phrase of the hymn just before it is sung.  Originally, this was because many people in the church might not have been able to read. As you can hear, it sounds nothing like either of other two kinds of hymn singing: Lined Out Hymnody: Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah. And that, my friends, is my traditional.  A worship in which that kind of music filled the air would make it hard for me not to hear my grandparents' voices somewhere in those sounds.
Primitive Baptist Church Interior
       I always cringe a little when I play this for a worship class of young adults.  The sound is so foreign, I'm sure some of the students suppress giggles.  In addition to the completely different melodic style, the sound of Appalachian singing sounds nasal and somewhat harsh to modern ears.  It does not take much imagination, though, to recognize the basic tonal sounds are rooted in Celtic culture.  Listen to this brief excerpt. 
Coastal settlement, Lewis Island, Outer Hebrides, Scotland
       To this day, if you venture on to the isolated villages of Lewis Island in the Outer Hebrides, off the northwest coast of Scotland, you can hear virtually identical singing, except it is sung in Gaelic.  Psalm 79 Excerpt
       So, the strange (and, at least to me, deeply moving) sounds of Appalachian lined out hymn singing are nothing less than an almost pure preservation of the sounds of hymn singing among the Scots in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the ancestors of the Appalachian Scots crossed the Atlantic to settle in what was then the western frontier.  Like I said earlier, the worship music of two and half centuries ago.
       Finally, listen to some of the people of this unique musical tradition of lined-out hymnody still heard among a scattering of Old Regular Baptists and Primitive Baptists in the southern Appalachian mountains. Let them tell you in their own words how this music truly is their musical heart language.  And, as you listen, imagine you are also hearing an kind of bridge between the music of Alexander Campbell's childhood in eighteenth century Scotland and the your own time and place.

Maybe I Can Find My Traditional...

       If you've read the post and listened to the other links, let me conclude this post by inviting you to the Appalachian ridge of South Carolina.  Watch and listen (if you can, turn the volume up to get the full experience) to the Mt. Moriah Baptist Church as they sing Wesley's Father, I Stretch My Hand to Thee.  I wonder if it's too far to drive for Sunday worship?

In all of theses, new and old,
lurking behind the notes,
just beneath the melodies,
unchanged by the ongoing evolution of styles,
you can hear the steady unmistakable rhythm of human hearts
reaching upward toward God. 
If you listen long enough,
it all begins to sound the same. 
It sounds like worship.

No comments: