Tuned Up in the Spirit

By  |  November 21, 2017
Art by Tom Martin Art by Tom Martin

THE OLD REGULAR BAPTISTS AND THE JOYFUL SOUND


  

May our hearts be tuned to sing 

On a hot June Sunday morning in a little country church by the North Fork of the Kentucky River, I sat among one hundred fifty or so Old Regular Baptists joined in song. We were gathered in the Mt. Olivet Church, a nondescript brick building with a humble sign that’s easy to miss (I did), just over a one-lane truss bridge off of State Highway 588 in the town of Blackey. The congregation was still shuffling in and greeting each other when a man sitting in front of me, thumbing through a songbook, was moved to sing, cutting through the quiet so suddenly that it startled me.

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.”

Jeff Titon, an ethnomusicologist whose field recordings of the Old Regular Baptists formed the basis of two Smithsonian Folkways recordings released in 1997 and 2003, wrote in the liner notes: “Each Old Regular Baptist singer is free to ‘curve’ the tune a little differently, and those who are able to make it more elaborate are admired. Outsiders are mistaken if they think the intent is singing with unified precision and that the result falls short; on the contrary, the heterophonic singing is in step but deliberately just a bit out of phase—and this, I think, is one of its most powerful musical aspects.” Amen.

Though I did not know precisely at the time, as I sat in that church in Blackey, my first daughter would be born a little more than two weeks later. The congregation prayed for my pregnant wife, as they prayed also for Sister Evelyn, who is coming along right good, the best color she’s had for a while, and Sister Dorothy, of course she’s getting old and still can’t talk and that’s got to be frustrating but she’s been a trooper and Sister Linda and Brother Merle, they’re still not doing no good, neither one, and Sherrie, she’s having a hard time and Tommy, he’s doing a little better, they said he blinked his eyes and nodded his head a couple times, and Billie Jean, she’s very sick, she needs prayer. We need to remember that.

The Lord sends rain on the just and the unjust, a point of frequent discussion among the Old Regular Baptists. “The world’s gonna have troubles and trials,” one preacher warbled, “and storms and sorrows!” The church murmured and shouted in affirmation. Some cried and some were silent, which is just the way the spirit is. And then they sang, and prayed, and sang some more. 

99 Feat Ramsey Lomax 100Elder Manus Ison preaching at a meeting of Mt. Olivet Old Regular Baptist Church in Blackey, Kentucky, September 1959. From the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity

 

I am going home to glory in the good old-fashioned way 

From the First Epistle of Peter: “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.”

The Old Regular Baptists are old-time foot-washing Baptists, they will tell you. If they speak often of being hillbillies, if they sing often of being poor pilgrims, consider that as metaphor: They are in the world but not of the world. They are wayfarers in this life—this light affliction, but for a moment, preparing them for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure. They speak in this way, ancient texts peppering plainspoken conversation. The bustle of modern distractions beckons, they hold tight to old wisdom. The world keeps getting noisier, which might make it harder and harder to hear those sacred whispers from beyond the world. They listen close.

“We’re a separated people,” one preacher told me. “We’ve been borned again. We have flesh like you, we talk like you, but the heart has been changed.”

They baptize in natural water—rivers, lakes, ponds, creeks, no matter the season, no matter the weather. They sing the old songs as they lead their new brother or sister down to the water. In winter, they will cut through ice with an ax if they have to. If someone has trouble walking, they hold them up. I heard one preacher tell the congregation about baptizing a woman in the Kentucky River when she was nearly a hundred years old: “She reached down and got a big handful of water, and said, this is good water.” 

They are of Calvinist lineage, though they split with the Primitive Baptists over predestination in the nineteenth century—they reckon that the word “whosoever” in the Gospel according to John is clear enough and that atonement is available to anyone who heeds the call. That lineage has too many branches and schisms to count. Calvin’s confessions stirred the world from his perch in Geneva, his followers fled to New England, there were splits and splits within splits between Separates and Regulars, Old and New, Arminian and Calvinistic, doctrinal debates in manner and practice, revivals and awakenings, there were migrations into North Carolina and Virginia and then into the mountain frontier, where the Old Regular Baptists would holler in the hollers far from the outside world.

The Old Regular Baptists have developed some of their own traditions in the mountains, but they still have the Calvinist rigor, an austere belief and attention to the power of the text, no filter needed but the Holy Spirit, and a diligence and awe for salvation only possible through the gift of God’s grace.

There are more than ten thousand members of Old Regular Baptist churches today, and perhaps ten thousand more who haven’t yet joined as members but regularly attend—mostly in central Appalachia in Kentucky and along the border in southwest Virginia and West Virginia, but with outposts as far as Michigan and Florida. They are divided into seventeen associations, not all of which accept the fellowship or legitimacy of each other; they agree on core beliefs but in some cases have fierce disputes over particular practices and doctrines.

The Indian Bottom Association, whose members sang on the Smithsonian recordings, is one of the largest associations. This was the group I visited on two trips to Kentucky—at the Mt. Olivet church in Blackey and at the Indian Bottom Association’s annual gathering twenty miles up the road in Sassafras, which draws hundreds of Old Regulars from more than forty churches all over the area to a three-day event in early September, at the association’s headquarters in an old WPA schoolhouse building.

I attended half a dozen services, where I sat as unobtrusively as I could. But there was no use pretending that I didn’t stand out in this insular community (one Old Regular happily told me that, yes, he had noticed my long hair, but he was pleased that it was combed and not at all greasy). Still: I have never felt less a stranger. “Anyone is welcome,” one told me. “We say, come on.” That invitation extended to singing, too, but for the most part I stayed mum. One of the things I admire about Old Regular singing is how unafraid they are. I was tamed by self-consciousness, which the Old Regulars will tell you really has no place in church: “The Lord is no respecter of persons. Jesus said he don’t like a proud look.”

Although services have a recognizable liturgical flow, there is no program or prepared service. Things begin when a member is moved to line out a song. Old Regulars adhere to conservative Pauline doctrine; only men can lead songs, preach, or take part in church business. Ministers, known as elders, are unpaid, and there are typically a number of them ordained in a congregation. As with the congregational singing, Old Regulars believe that preachers are guided and gifted by the Holy Spirit rather than professional training. Around four will preach at a Sunday service, usually including a couple of visitors—while Old Regulars typically go to church every weekend, each church meets once a month and members travel around and visit nearby churches, a practice that once upon a time might have been the main point of connection between remote communities a day’s journey away on horseback.

Their worship is rooted in the ecstatic mode of the First Great Awakening’s revivals. Old Regular Baptist preaching is extemporaneous, chantlike, rhapsodic, intoned. Preachers begin quietly and often apologetically, promising not to take up too much time as members of the congregation shout out for divine encouragement: “Help him, Lord! Bless him, Lord!” Then, the flood of language, at times up to a couple hundred words per minute—scripture and personal testimony, calamity and hope, a narrative that seems to careen unpredictably with every great big gulp of breath. They shout and stammer, bellow and sing. If the spirit leaves them, or does not arrive, they will say so and sit back down.

Each preacher has his own style, or maybe it would be more accurate to say his own melody—moving wildly up and down the scale of the human voice, using guttural vowels or operatic oohs as rhythmic punctuation. The pace and manner and volume ebb and crescendo, often quite suddenly; within the space of several minutes, an Old Regular preacher might sound like a teacher in quiet dialogue, then a fire-and-brimstone drill sergeant, then an auctioneer, then a soul singer, then a hypnotic sage. People in the congregation shout back in affirmation, raise their hands, rock gently in rhythm, cry out in wails if they are moved, finish the familiar verses from the Bible along with the preacher. After a time, another elder may line out a song, so that the voices converge: the preacher’s final run, the shrieks from the congregation, the steadily growing hymn.

Prayers are delivered in a similar style, and it is impossible not to notice how vital sound is to message and supplication in Old Regular worship. A sound, perhaps, that is in the world but not of the world. The way they preach and the way they pray is a sacred music, no less than the way they sing.

There may be historical reasons that such a musical style of preaching developed, but several preachers told me that there is no mystery to the question of why they preach in a manner akin to their singing. “It’s the same spirit,” one said. “You preach in the spirit and you sing in the spirit. Same spirit. That’s the link! If you’re looking for a different link, you ain’t gonna find it.”

 

Sweet glories rush upon my sight 

The first time I heard the singing of the Old Regular Baptists, I was in a college classroom, at Brown, where as it happens Jeff Titon—whose research led to the Smithsonian recordings—was a longtime professor. It was a class on country, bluegrass, and old-time music, lifelong fixations of mine. On the syllabus, it would have been just before the ballad singing of Jean Ritchie—who came from a family of Old Regular Baptists and grew up fifteen miles from Blackey—when Titon played us field recordings of the Old Regulars. I can’t say whether my classmates felt the same way, but it was one of those first encounters that still overwhelms me with immediacy in memory. The older I get, the less often this happens: I listened like a baby, as if discovering a new possibility. That shock of the strange. Yet it also felt deeply familiar, a sound that always was.

The lined tune, sung rapidly and also distinctively adorned by the song leader, is entirely different than the tune that follows in response, which the congregation unspools into a seemingly aimless melody. Musicologists have created transcriptions in Western notation, but the results are too complex to be of much general use in learning the songs. No matter, the tunes are remembered in oral tradition, and the few songbooks—used only by the song leaders—have only words, no musical notation (the Thomas Hymnal and Sweet Songster are Old Regular Baptist favorites). When Titon played recordings of the Old Regulars for a classical music composer friend, the composer was baffled that they didn’t have a conductor.

The Old Regulars sing loud. “You can’t whisper it, it needs to have zip,” one told me. Another: “If you can’t shout down here, what are you gonna do when you get to Heaven?” There is an orderliness to their singing, a formal quality—it has the shape and thrust of liturgy. But it is also indisputably wild. The communal tide is built on the unpredictable flourishes of each individual, on the human voice’s remarkable elasticity. They might be singing a song for the ten thousandth time, but it never sounds quite the same twice. The caw and bend of melismatic syllables can seem unmoored from melody to an outsider, as mercurial as the weather. And yet, they sing together. And together—if the spirit is right—their voices merge with incantatory power.

I would learn that this singing was somewhere at the trunk of the family tree for the musics I had been obsessing over. If the trill and cry can sound like bluegrass singers, this is no accident. Ralph Stanley grew up with lined-out singing. Turn on the radio and you will still hear country singers “curve” the melody, to use the Old Regulars’ term. The ethnomusicologist Sammie Ann Wicks described Stanley’s influential vocal style—those vowels at high volume up through the nasal passages—as an Old World tradition preserved in mountain churches (in seventeenth-century England, Wicks wrote, that nasal vocal style was associated with “an indwelling of the Spirit, and the sound was often referred to as the ‘nose of the saint’”). Wicks argued that traces of the melodic gestures characteristic of Old Regular Baptist singing—those yelps and shakes and portmanteaus—live on in American pop and rock as well as country.

When Titon first came across the Old Regulars when he was doing research in the area in 1979, he had an even deeper jolt of familiarity. He had the strange sensation that he had heard it before, had even sung it before, and came to realize that in some way he had been searching for these melodies and this way of singing all his life. When he was a teenager in Georgia, he used to wander alone in the woods. “Melodies would sometimes come to me and I would break out into song,” he said. “I don’t know quite why—a feeling of happiness. I didn’t know what these melodies were, but when I heard the Old Regulars sing, I had an extremely powerful feeling of recognition.”

Titon said that he had told this story to Elwood Cornett, the moderator (elected leader) of the Indian Bottom Association, who worked with him on the Smithsonian recordings. “Elwood thinks it’s quite significant,” he said. “But it’s up to me to determine the significance. I mean, he’s not going to tell me what it means—he can’t.”

So, I asked my old professor, what did it mean to him? We were speaking on the telephone, but I gather that he was smiling. “I don’t yet fully know,” he said. 

 

And shout salvation as I fly 

Titon put me in touch with Elwood Cornett, now eighty years old and still the moderator of the Indian Bottom Association. His contributions to the liner notes on the Smithsonian recordings are one of the project’s treasures. “The thing about being an Old Regular Baptist is the unspeakable joy of everyday life!” he wrote. “We Old Regular Baptists are a peculiar people. We sing differently. Some say our worship has a sad and mournful sound. But I’ve never heard a more beautiful melody, and the sound of the worship causes my heart to feel complete.”

Elwood lives on the same plot of land where he was born, in Blackey, on a country road that bears his name. Letcher County is coal-mining country and the country of Old Regular Baptists, dotted with even tinier towns with luminous names: Defeated Creek, Beefhide, Jeremiah, Kingdom Come, Neon, Little Colly, Skyline, Red Star, Carbon Glow.

“I think there is a relationship between man and God that touches the heartstrings of virtually everybody at some time or other,” Elwood said. “It just so happens that the way we sing at least intersects with that.”

Describing their worship, he said, “We obey the spirit, whatever it bids us to do— and yet there is a pretty good sense of orderliness. The singing represents what we are quite well: a seriousness, a genuineness, and sometimes a kind of overwhelming spiritual high.” Elwood places great value on the way that catching the line allows everyone in the congregation to get involved, but the euphonic effect goes well beyond function. Old Regulars who sing these songs when they’re alone will often sing both parts, back and forth, lining out the song to themselves.

In my two trips to Kentucky, I spoke with dozens of Old Regular men and women about lined-out singing. A preacher who grew up in Pike County told me about his memories of his parents lining out songs on the front porch. In adulthood, he met a man who he had never laid eyes on before but had lived on the other side of the mountain from him growing up. As a boy, this man would hike all the way up the mountain just to hear the singing.

The preacher began to weep as he told me the story. “Can you imagine that drawing power, to climb a mountain to hear people singing on their front porch down in the valley? You see? There’s something. There’s a drawing power. It’s a soulful sound. I think it’s a heavenly sound.”

“It just sets up a godly sorrow,” another Old Regular told me. “It just stirs the soul. Seems like you just want to fly away.”

Another: “There’s something about that sound. And the Bible says, blessed are they that know the joyful sound. The world don’t have this sound.”

Another: “It’s just a blessing: you can close your eyes, clear your mind, and ask the Lord to help you. And let it be anointed from on high—and if that song is anointed from on high, I could howl it like a dog, somebody out there would get something out of it because it’s from the Lord. You can feel peace and love and joy in your heart in singing them old songs. It’s beautiful. I can never find that in the world.”

Some Old Regulars talk of communicating with God through their singing, some talk of the sound of their singing channeling the voice of God. But, they say, it doesn’t happen all the time. Transcendence comes only when the group that is singing is tuned up. At first I thought they meant tuned in, or in tune, with each other. That might be a byproduct, but they mean something larger. “We believe in being tuned up with the grace of God and His Holy Spirit,” explained the late preacher I. D. Back in an interview on the Smithsonian recording.

I heard versions of this again and again: “It makes a world of difference singing in the spirit and not in the spirit. When it’s tuned up in the spirit, there’s nothing like it.” 

Tuned up in the spirit. They would try to explain it and then after a time they would use a favorite expression, the same expression they use to describe the experience of being saved and accepting the Lord into your heart: “Better felt than told.” 

 

Go on brethren, go rejoicing

Lining out, the theory goes, had a utilitarian purpose in an era when songbooks could be scarce and significant portions of the congregation were illiterate in any case. In 1644, the Westminster Assembly of Divines, called by Parliament to sort out Reformed worship practices for the Church of England, stated that it was the duty of Christians to praise God publicly by singing psalms together in the congregation, and that everyone who could read ought to have a psalm book. “But for the present, where many in the congregation cannot read, it is convenient that the minister or some other fit person appointed by him and the other ruling officers, do read the psalm line by line, before the singing thereof.”

In the late 1600s and early 1700s, lined-out singing would have been heard throughout the American colonies, and it soon made use of hymns as well as psalms, set to a small stable of tunes drawn from folksongs in oral tradition. A characteristic style developed, wrote the historical musicologist Nicholas Temperley, in congregations that sang hymns without musical direction: “The tempo becomes extremely slow; the sense of rhythm is weakened; extraneous pitches appear, sometimes coinciding with those of the hymn tune, sometimes inserted between them; the total effect may be dissonant.” Not everyone approved. Congregational singing, by ear and without formal training, had a populist edge that struck some religious elites as unmannered and unlovely. A number of contemporaneous accounts complained of the “unnatural” and “disorderly” singing and its “discord” and “quavering.”

One anonymous New England busybody fretted thus in 1725: “Where there is no rule, men’s fancies (by which they are governed) are various; some affect a quavering flourish on one note, and others upon another which (because they are ignorant of true musick or melody) they account a grace to the tune; and while some affect a quicker motion others affect a slower and drawl out their notes beyond all reason; hence in congregation ensue jars and discord, which make singing (rather) resemble howling, and drawing out the notes to such lengths is the occasion of their tittering up and down as if the tunes were all composed of quavers.”

The historian of American music will note that all this quavering turned out to be addictive, and a while hence Dolly Parton would drawl out her notes beyond all reason and Little Richard would titter up and down as if his tunes were all composed of quavers. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

A reform movement arose in the first half of the eighteenth century to replace what became known as the Old Way with what became known as Regular Singing, which meant singing with musical notation rather than singing by ear. By the nineteenth century, singing schools—sight-reading vocal lessons taught by traveling masters—were spreading their diatonic evangelism into the American frontier, armed with shape-note tunebooks. And here we must imagine some of the old dissenting Baptists, tucked in the mountains, dissenting once again, resisting the entreaties of singing-school masters promising to improve their singing, steadfastly refusing the introduction of “notebooks” into their congregation, insisting that their old-fashioned way of worship was not in need of modern tinkering. They might have cited the Book of Jeremiah, as they still do: “Ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein.”

These dissenters were few in number. Music did what music does: it changed. Innovations intervened—European and cosmopolitan influences, harmonies and shape notes, gospel and the radio. Lined-out singing mostly died out, surviving today only in a few enclaves—the Old Regular Baptists in Appalachia; a parallel tradition, often known as Dr. Watts hymns, in black churches, mostly Baptist and predominately in the South but scattered throughout the country; Gaelic psalm-singing in the Scottish highlands. Two conferences at Yale some years back brought together groups from all three of those traditions, as well as a Muskogee Creek Indian church whose ancestors converted to Christianity on the Trail of Tears and who today line out songs in Creek. The Old Regulars were astonished at the similarities; they couldn’t make out the words, but the sound was unmistakable.

Before their first Smithsonian recording session, Titon gave a talk on the history of the music to the group of around seventy Old Regular Baptists who participated.

“It would not be wise,” Elwood Cornett told them, “if we were known as the generation that lost this way of singing.” 

99 Feat Ramsey Lomax 106From the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity

 

My burdens went I knew not where 

“I was the backwardest fella there ever was,” one Old Regular told me. “But the Lord got ahold of me and turned me around.”

The Old Regulars do not have Sunday school; the children come to church and are permitted, to a rather remarkable degree, to be children, sometimes playing in the aisles while the adults worship. Such is the Kingdom of Heaven. The acceptance of God’s grace typically happens as an adult, a total spiritual upheaval that is taken extremely seriously. The Old Regulars give great care to their decision to join the church, often attending for many years before getting saved and becoming members in their thirties or forties, or older still. They do not believe in backsliders. Once saved and baptized, the Old Regular is born anew and is expected to live a Christian life. “Those who have been born again, God dwells within them and guides them,” Elwood explained. “We would not tolerate in our membership people committing adultery and fornication and stealing and lying and so forth. We would say, you need to start over and get the real thing.”

Old Regular beliefs about atonement and grace are complicated. Though they are not predestinarians, salvation is not as simple as human choice. It can only come in response to a genuine call from God.

After the Sunday service in Blackey in June, I struck up a conversation with a man named John who told me about his own experience. We walked just outside to the town’s main loop, a street that runs around a railroad track. Blackey, where parts of Coal Miner’s Daughter were filmed, was once a flourishing coal town—Mt. Olivet Church stands where a movie theater used to be—but there’s not much left, save for churches.

“The Lord saved me when I was forty-three years old,” John told me. “There was things happened in my life that kept me from turning fully, giving the Lord my whole heart. I went on in life, and from time to time I could feel the Lord knocking on my heart’s door. But I would turn Him away. All the time, I was going to church, I was trying to repent. I was probably trying too much on my part instead of just turning it over to Him.

“We’re into the world too much. We’re all involved in what old Satan gets us involved in. And we enjoy sin for a season. And came to the point that I realized that if I didn’t change, I was heading for Hell.

“My mom was laying corpse. She had died suddenly, Friday night, preparing food for church time. The thought come to me, I want to get right before they put her in the ground. That Sunday, when we had church I was sitting in the back of the house, and I was praying and I didn’t feel the Lord forgive me.”

His voice trembled into crying as he told me the story, and he paused to collect himself. We could hear the redbirds calling to each other in the trees and the low fuzz of conversation behind us, but also the big quiet stretching before us, down the river and up to the hills. In the mountains, the silence has a presence, echoes implied.

When he got back home from church, he said, something stopped him suddenly.

“There was a voice spoke. I looked up and it was like the face of Jesus. That light, it was a tremendously bright light. And it came down and just covered me. And I heard a voice say, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’” He resolved to tell the church at his mother’s funeral that evening, but even then, “ol’ Satan was present too, I had the awfulest time getting up there.” His brother held him as he walked to his mother’s casket. “I felt the Lord forgive of me of my sins, borned me again.”

“The sky hung low in the ancient world,” Shirley Jackson Case wrote of the Mediterranean world where Christianity was born two millennia ago. “Traffic was heavy on the highway between heaven and earth. Gods and spirits thickly populated the upper air, where they stood in readiness to intervene at any moment in the affairs of mortals. And demonic powers, emerging from the lower world or resident in remote corners of the earth. All nature was alive—alive with supernatural forces.” There are still places, even in our modern world, where the sky hangs low.

After one conversation with a few Old Regulars waiting in line for the prodigious dinner-on-the-ground spread at the Association building in Sassafras, I thanked them for their time. “It’s nothing,” one said, shaking my hand. “We’re glad you’ve come. All time belongs to God.”

“He created it,” his buddy agreed. “He’s soon going to call an end to it and there ain’t going to be nothing left—” They finished the sentence together: “—in this world.”  

 

I long to see the seasons come 

O

n the theology of Calvin, Karl Barth wrote, “We need to ask ourselves how it has come about that something that did speak once will no longer speak to us. We certainly should not suppress the historical truth that it did speak once.”

There is something characteristically and beautifully human about our capacity to peer at mystery and arrive at mysticism and metaphysics. That deepest intuition, that wily and enduring old way of ours, is worth listening to. Worth cherishing and preserving and celebrating. A way of being that seems to me (even leaving aside the particularity of any given religious tradition) to be at the heart of this strange thing we do—get together and sing songs.

When I am asked about my own religion, I never know what to say. I do not have a one-sentence answer. I do not regularly go to church. My paternal great-great-grandfathers were rabbis in the Ukraine, but my grandparents’ generation determined that the whole business was an opiate for the masses and that was that. My mother’s family was Episcopalian; she grew up devout but lost her faith sometime around college. My parents raised me in the Unitarian Universalist church, which is a venerable old tradition but which in my own experience was more a kindly community of hippies than what most people mean by religion. I was brought up in a secular household and I live a mostly secular life. But.

The thing is, the secular knowledge of my secular life seems to me inadequate to the experience of being alive. For now we see through a glass, darkly. Yes, precisely. Let’s say that my wife made noises I had never heard before, and our daughter was born. Let’s say that light traveled ninety-three million miles from a dying star and fell at a certain angle in the window the first time I looked at her face. I do not claim to understand the specific joy that true believers feel. But these lives we are gifted—I am thankful.

I love this bit from the poet Andrew Hudgins: “Dear Lord, / we lurch from metaphor to metaphor, / which is—let it be so—a form of praying.” Story of my life. We are all seeking something. I’m mad for signifiers, the unleavened bread and the fruit of the vine; the Old Regulars are keyed to the object itself, the body and the blood.

We both, for whatever reason, are drawn to the very same sound. 

 

When the way is rough and rugged 

When I was traveling in Appalachia, I noticed that people said “be careful” for goodbye. A relic, perhaps, of what was once dangerous country—and which then became home to one of the most dangerous industries in the country. And now the coal-mining industry is dwindling a little more with every passing year. The unemployment rate in much of the region has been around ten percent, and sometimes a good deal higher, for nearly two decades; the rates of opioid addiction are among the highest in the nation.

In a wonderful 1983 article on the Old Regular Baptists, former Berea College religion professor John Wallhausser relayed what a youngster he met had told him: “If ever, if ever you find yourself in trouble in the mountains, the first place you want to go is to the church.”

One thing I came to admire about the Old Regulars is how, for all their focus on eternity and resurrection, on a glory beyond this world, they are utterly unflinching in their descriptions of the tragedies and pains of the world we’re in for now. They take great care and precision in detailing afflictions, their own and their brethren’s. They are a joyful people who speak frequently and frankly of sorrow. Perhaps it is easier to be clear-eyed and honest about suffering if one has faith in redemption. Be that as it may. All of us gather up griefs and aches and worries. There is something breathtakingly decent about taking note of that, together.

“The Lord gives us breath and we breathe and He takes it away and we die,” one preacher, nearing eighty, told the congregation in Blackey.

“I’ve had a heart attack, I’m on my second pacemaker, I’ve had cancer twice, and I’ve had both knees replaced,” he told me after the service. “Had gall bladder surgery, about killed me. But I’m thankful I’m doing as well as I am. The Lord never said it would be easy, He just said He’d always be there.” The only thing that got him down, he said, is that after the knee replacements he could no longer kneel to pray.

“For when the time comes to cross the river to lay this body down—it’s coming,” Elwood preached in Sassafras. “It can be a fearful thing. And sometimes I have some fear, and sometimes I don’t. Ain’t that strange?” And then he spoke of how blessed he was that the Lord had given him another day. “We are blessed to live in a goodly land, we are blessed to be able to come together to join our voices together and sing praises . . . and shake one another’s hand in the name of the Lord, and feel the love that flows from breast to breast.”

The Old Regulars love to shake hands, and hand shaking and other forms of embrace are built into the liturgical flow of the service. They shake hands upon arrival at church, walking up and down the aisles so they don’t miss anyone. There is hand shaking at times during the singing, preachers may walk around and shake hands as they preach, and at the end of the service there is more hand shaking still. You might shake hands a hundred times or more. It is the dearest ritual. We have been conditioned to think of the handshake as the ultimate formality; in the Old Regular Baptist church it functions instead as a mindful and deliberate expression of fellowship and love. In the multitude of counselors, they say, there is safety.

Once a year, each Old Regular Baptist church has a service at which they take communion, and also take part in another sacrament they believe they are commanded to do by Christ: They wash each other’s feet. Wallhausser described attending one of these services. An elder initiated the sacrament by coming to a severely disabled man who always sat in the front row. He sang a prayer to the man as he washed his feet, detailing the pain of the man’s body and the transfigured body to come. The man wanted to wash the elder’s feet in return but his gnarled hands were unable to do the task, and so another man came and knelt between them and helped him wash the elder’s feet. “The three were kneeling together, singing, crying, holding each other,” Wallhausser wrote. “All of us are maimed in one way or another. . . . On that Sunday, I believe I saw a glimpse of the resurrection of the body.”

One of the most exuberant moments I witnessed came toward the end of a memorial service in Blackey, which had opened with the reading of the names of all past members who have passed away. The final preacher that day recalled some of those members, some of whom he had watched die in pain, and he began to recite from Second Corinthians, and of course the congregation knew the words as common wisdom and they said them, too, a sudden chorus: We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed.

After the service, when I spoke with this preacher about lined-out singing, he said, “It’s about love. It’s about hope. It’s about joy, and happiness. I think what makes it probably so effective is everybody has problems in life. Does that make sense?” It made so much sense that, once again, I shook his hand. 

 

Death will soon disrobe us all of what we here possess 

“You like that old kind of music, do ya?” an Old Regular in Blackey asked me. “The Lord’s working on you, isn’t He? Working on you through those songs.”

The Old Regulars hope that their words and actions will touch people and move them to accept the Lord in their hearts, to see the way and the truth and the life. But they are not pushy. The idea is that God will stir your soul, not that men will twist your arm.

That said, one can only play the neutral observer so long on the earnest and urgent subject of souls. There I was with my notepad, on assignment, a visitor from the secular world asking the Old Regulars about how they felt about their singing. And they are a deeply sincere people and would immediately tell me as openly and thoughtfully as they could about a power of the spirit of God that could never be described by the words I scribbled on my pad. And they would ask me, naturally, whether I was moved as well, and I would tell them that I was, that in fact I was overwhelmed.

One preacher I met in Sassafras, named Terry, put it to me directly, as we sat in lawn chairs by his camper in the parking lot of the association building: “You’re asking a lot of the questions, let me ask you a question. If you were moved today, what do you think moves you?”

I told him I was trying to figure that out. Terry, smiling, tugged at his tan suit and gave me a certain look. When I was a kid and those Magic Eye puzzles became popular, I could never make out what I was supposed to see. As I would angle my head, befuddled, I can remember the way that people who had seen it looked at me. That’s the look that Terry gave me.

“Are you moved by our differences, by our peculiarities?” Terry asked me, and I said that I was.

“Moved in what sense? Are you moved naturally, or do you think there’s a spiritual movement?”

Earlier that day, Terry had preached on this very topic: “The natural man receives not the things of the Spirit, for they are foolishness unto him, neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

I told him that I honestly did not know.

Elwood, who had joined us around this time, said gently, “There’s a way of knowing about something. And you’re interested in knowing about this. And I guess what he’s getting at is, what is your interest in knowing it?”

“Let me tell you how to write your copy better,” Terry told me. “When men wrote the Bible, when did they write?”

Another preacher in the next lawn chair over, Junior, jumped in: “As the spirit moved upon them.”

“They were inspired to write by the spirit of God. The best you can write this copy down is to be in the same spirit you was in up there,” he said, pointing back to the building where he had just been singing and preaching. This was good advice, and I told him so. It’s true: Writers have to be tuned up, too.

I told Terry’s wife, Rita, that he was a good preacher. “The Lord blesses him,” she said. “He’s the one who always has a smile on his face, don’t know if you noticed that.” I had noticed it, although at this point Terry was, not for the first time, tearing up. “What a great life it is,” he said. “What a great life it is.”

“I hope that you found more than a story,” he told me, leaning forward with his hands on his knees. “The money that you get from the piece you write will fade, but the story that’s written in your heart can never be taken away.”

“That spirit will never leave,” Junior said. “It leaves an impression.”

After a while, the conversation turned to a topic familiar to all denominations: Things are not like they used to be.

“If you’d come here fifty years ago, the singing as a congregation was greater than it is now,” Terry said, and everyone agreed. “People were more attentive. There was a better volume, a better sound. Fifty years ago, it was something, wasn’t it?”

Elwood made a point I heard a lot: That when the churches had put carpet in, despite significant opposition from some older members, it had deadened the sound.

According to Terry, however, there was a bigger problem than the carpet. “The desires of the people have made more of a difference than anything else,” he said. “People were more interested in God and God’s word than they are now.” Not a natural matter, in other words, but a spiritual one. 

 

Roll on, roll on, the wheels of time 

Two thousand years ago, give or take, a charismatic preacher in the eastern outskirts of the Roman Empire gained a following and was put to death. That much we know. The Gospels are sparse in detail. But they spend a great deal of time on certain points. For example: He was a healer. This emphasis seems to me important, a simple wisdom very old about our precious, fragile, sacred lives. That we are broken and need to be healed, that we are fallen and need to be lifted.

We shake hands and we sing songs and we peer at the heavens. We grow old and we comfort each other. Some of us see a particular light, and some of us don’t. Some of us see it some of the time.

Elwood told me that he had often reflected on Jeff Titon’s story of familiarity, of having sung something like the Old Regular Baptists when he was a boy.

“I suspect there’s something innate about this sound,” he said. He knew it was a heavy word, innate, knew that it might mean one thing to me and another thing to him. I thought of Terry’s question—if it was innate, was that natural or spiritual? “Could be both,” Elwood said.

When I said goodbye to Elwood on my last day in Kentucky, I shook his hand for what must have been the fiftieth time. I drove down highways snaking through mountains that formed nearly five hundred million years ago, and I passed by cemeteries and volunteer fire departments and churches, passed by tin-roof shacks and mining operations and ghost towns where mining operations used to be, and the fog rolled in off the mountains, and the sun in its glory cut through the fog, and there in the car I sang. I sang as loud as I could. 


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David Ramsey is a contributing editor to the Oxford American. His work has been anthologized in Da Capo Best Music Writing, Best Food Writing, and the Norton Field Guide to Writing. He lives in DeLand, Florida.