TODAY: Film about ancient ‘line-singing’ worship service debuts at Yale

A short documentary by Yale School of Music professor Willie Ruff about an almost-extinct tradition of Christian worship called “line singing” will make its screen premiere on Monday, April 22 at 7 p.m. in Battell Chapel, at the corner of College and Elm streets. 

This publicity image for the documentary shows the link between the Scottish and African-American traditions of line-singing.

The un-ticketed screening is free and open to the public.

The half-hour film, “A Conjoining of Ancient Song,” retraces the trajectory of this unusual congregational practice from its roots in Scotland to both African-American and Native-American religious song traditions.

Following the screening, Yale sociologist Kai Erikson and physician Gretchen Berland will join Ruff to comment on the work and invite questions.

In addition to playing French horn and bass, Ruff is an author, lecturer, and educator. After graduating from Yale, he joined Lionel Hampton’s band and soon collaborated with his friend pianist Dwike Mitchell,to form the Mitchell-Ruff Duo. The duo performed on the bill with major jazz figures, including Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie. In 1959 they introduced jazz to the Soviet Union, playing and teaching in Russian conservatories, and in 1981 they did the same in China.

On the Yale School of Music faculty since 1971, Ruff has also held teaching positions at the University of  California–Los Angeles, Dartmouth, and Duke University. He is the founding director of the Duke Ellington Fellowship program at Yale, and in 2000 he earned the Governor’s Arts Award for his work bringing jazz artists to New Haven public schools. In addition to teaching Yale courses in arranging, ethnomusicology, and folklore, Ruff has led many research projects exploring music’s wide-ranging impact. He organized an international conference on the neurophysiology of rhythmic perception and created computerized music based on the theories of 17th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler.

Ruff’s interest in congregational line singing led him to organize a 2005 conference at Yale comparing the traditions practiced in Alabama, Kentucky, and the Gaelic-speaking Free Church Presbyterians in the Scottish Highlands. In 2007 he organized another conference on line singing that included the Muscogee Creek Nation in Oklahoma. Ruff’s memoir, “A Call to Assembly,” published in 1991 by Viking Press, received the Deems Taylor Award for excellence in a book on music.

The premiere screening of “A Conjoining of Ancient Song” is sponsored by Yale Institute of Sacred Music (ISM).  For more information, call 203-432-5062 or go to the ISM website.