Conference and Concert of Line-Singing at Yale

On April 19–20, Yale Professor of Music Willie Ruff will host the second international conference on “line-singing,” a centuries-old a cappella church service still sung by far-flung congregations from the Scottish Hebrides to the Indian Territory of Oklahoma.

On April 19–20, Yale Professor of Music Willie Ruff will host the second international conference on “line-singing,” a centuries-old a cappella church service still sung by far-flung congregations from the Scottish Hebrides to the Indian Territory of Oklahoma.

Free and open to the public, the conference events will mainly take place in Battell Chapel, corner of Elm and College streets.

Several years ago, following up on a claim by his friend Dizzy Gillespe that some remote African American congregations in the Deep South sang hymns in Gaelic, Ruff made the startling discovery that an ancient call-and-response service still intoned in Gaelic in the highlands of Scotland was chanted by descendants of African slaves in the American South and by white congregations in remote churches of Appalachia.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony Psalm Book from 1640, which Ruff found in Yale’s Beinecke Library, indicated that the unusual form, with one church member calling out the first line of a Psalm and the rest of the congregation continuing to chant the text in unison, had been a common worship service in Colonial America. While the advent of hymnals, musical instrumentation and organized choirs in 19th century Protestant churches for the most part superannuated the a cappella service, the dirge-like chanting of Psalms continued to be practiced in some remote churches. These included, among others, congregations of descendants of African slaves whose Scots owners had introduced them to the service, white descendants of Scots settlers in the Kentucky hills and Scottish Highlanders, who continue the tradition original to their forebears.

Two years ago, Ruff—a renowned jazz musician and ethno-musicologist—organized an international conference at Yale, bringing together a few of the almost extinct congregations that still practice the line-singing tradition. Clergy members, journalists, documentary makers and scholars from a broad range of disciplines were invited to New Haven to listen, record and share their perspective. The Free Church Psalm Singers of the Isle of Lewis, Scotland; the Indian Bottom Old Regular Baptists of Southeastern Kentucky; and the Sipsey River Primitive Baptist Association of Eutaw, Alabama, came to perform a service they shared but that each had adapted over generations to their own idiom.

The opening day of the conference, Ruff was invited by NPR radio host Juan
Williams to talk about this ancient practice and to play excerpts of recordings of contemporary line singers.

Jane Bardis, a woman of Muskogee Creek descent who was listening to NPR from her home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, recognized the peculiar intoning of psalms as the same service congregants in her church sing in Creek.

Bardis contacted Ruff by e-mail with an historical explanation for this unique syncretism, tracing the Creeks from their homelands in Alabama, Georgia and Florida to Oklahoma. The forced resettlement of Native American tribes, known as the
Trail of Tears, was accompanied by mass conversions to Christianity. Traders who had lived and intermarried with Native Americans were, Bardis explained, predominately Scottish, thus accounting for the large number of Scottish surnames that are common among Creeks today. “I wish the Creeks could be represented at your conference …” Bardis wrote in her e-mail. “They come out of the same mix of culture that existed prior to 1836.”

Though it was too late for the congregants from the Little Cusseta Methodist and
Friendship Baptist churches of Tulsa to get to the Yale conference, Ruff accepted Bardis’ invitation to the line-singing churches of Indian Territory. One week later, Ruff was in Oklahoma, recording equipment in tow, listening to the traditional Scottish service sung in Creek.

Now Ruff, who traces his own lineage back to the crossroads of races and cultures represented in the unusual custom, has organized a second conference at Yale which will gather Native American, African American and Appalachian line-singers together for the first time.

“Scholars from Yale, York St. John’s University in Scotland, Rogers State University in Clairmore Oklahoma and other institutions, will gather at Yale to explore the history and migratory trajectories of the ancient but endangered form of Protestant congregational singing,” Ruff reports.

The Indian Bottom Old Regular Baptist Association from southeast Kentucky and the Sipsey River Primitive Baptist Association from Alabama will return for a 2007 reunion at Yale. This time, though, the white Appalachian and Deep South African American line-singers will raise their voices with congregants of the Hutchee Chuppa Indian Baptist Church from Oklahoma who intone the ancient Scots liturgy in their native language.

 “For the first time ever, Native American Baptists who originated from Alabama and Georgia will convene with their black and white counterparts in an academic setting to learn about the origins, background, similarities and differences in the singing heritage they share,” writes Ruff.

The conference will take place in Battell Chapel, corner of Elm and College streets. It will begin on Thursday morning with a keynote address at 10:15 by Howard R. Lamar, the Sterling Professor Emeritus of History, former president of Yale University and a leading scholar of the American West. An elder of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation will also greet conference participants.

Following the opening address, at 11 a.m., a documentary filmed at Yale and at Hutchee Chuppa will be screened publicly for the first time.

The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, 121 Wall St., will have a related exhibition, which will include the 1640 Massachusetts Bay Colony Psalm Book, the first book ever published in America, as well as other historical hymnals–two with words to the line-singing service in the Creek language. At 3 p.m., Friday, the three congregations will sing at the Beinecke from texts on display there.

At 8 p.m. the line-singers will once again “conjoin” in song and worship in Yale’s Battell Chapel.

Conference events are free and open to the public. For more information, visit the website.

Share this with Facebook Share this with X Share this with LinkedIn Share this with Email Print this

Media Contact

Dorie Baker:, 203-432-1345