Creative cultural connections: ‘A Conjoining of Ancient Song’ documentary now online


A special Yale documentary retraces the trajectory of a rapidly eroding form of congregational singing from Scotland into African-American, Native-American, and white-American religious song traditions.

The Yale Institute of Sacred Music, one of the film’s sponsors, organized a first screening at the university in April 2013, and has now posted it for all to view and share. Yale professor Willie Ruff and Gretchen Berland, a MacArthur Award winner and filmmaker who is now at the Yale School of Medicine, led the documentary team.

Ruff, a renowned jazz musician and ethnomusicologist, first began to study the cross-cultural phenomenon of congregational singing several years ago, when he followed up on his friend Dizzy Gillespie’s claim that some remote African-American congregations in the Deep South sang hymns in Gaelic.

Consulting The Massachusetts Bay Colony Psalm Book from 1640 in Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Ruff found that the form, in which one church member calls out the first line of a psalm and the rest of the congregation continues to chant the text in unison, had been a common worship practice in colonial America. Ruff discovered that this call-and-response service, chanted by descendants of African slaves in the American South and by white congregations in remote churches of Appalachia, was still intoned in Gaelic in its original form in Scotland’s remote and culturally isolated Outer Hebrides.

In 2005, Ruff organized an international conference at Yale, bringing together a few of the almost-extinct congregations still practicing the ancient line-singing tradition: 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. The congregation members came to Yale to perform a shared service that had adapted over generations to their diverse idioms. In the course of that conference, The Yale professor learned that the tradition extended to the Muskogee Creeks in Oklahoma as well, and two years later, Ruff, who traces his own lineage back to the crossroads of races and cultures that embrace the custom, organized a second conference at Yale to gather Native-American, African-American, and Appalachian line-singers together for the first time.

The 30-minute documentary “A Conjoining of Ancient Song” tells the story of Ruff’s journey connecting Gaelic psalm singing and American Music.

A professor in the Yale School of Music, Ruff is an author, lecturer, performer, 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. In 1959, the duo introduced jazz to the Soviet Union, and in 1981 they did the same in China. On the Yale School of Music faculty since 1971, Ruff is the founding director of the Duke Ellington Fellowship program at Yale.

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