May our hearts be tuned to singOn 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.
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.”