A Yale professor documents the ancient origins of religious singing — and causes a debate over the roots of gospel.
All Willie Ruff was seeking was a tasty catfish supper when he wandered into a church near his hometown of Sheffield, Ala., a decade ago. But the Yale professor’s visit led to a quest that has drawn interest from music historians, spawned a cross-cultural controversy, and recently became the subject of a new documentary.
What Ruff saw at the Baptist church was called “lining out,” the powerful hymn-singing style of 19th century slaves that is still practiced at a dwindling number of black Southern houses of worship. He remembered hearing it decades earlier as a child, but had forgotten about it. His subsequent research convinced him — and, in turn, many scholars — that the style was the direct progeny of “presenting the line,” the unaccompanied singing of psalms in Gaelic by Presbyterians of the Scottish Hebrides.
An acclaimed African-American jazz musician, Ruff believes “lining out” evolved into the call-and-response of spirituals and gospel music that influenced other American musical styles. “The basic stuff that would be spirituals, blues, ragtime, jazz, bebop — everything else that came later — has some of this genetic DNA,” he said. Put another way, it means those musical forms have an antecedent from somewhere far from the slaves’ native Africa.
His research has stirred debates on the Internet; on one site, an anonymous commenter wrote dismissively, “Ruff’s next announcement: Harlem jazz brought to America by Polish polka musicians.” It has drawn considerable attention in Scotland, where numerous news accounts said it proved the Scots “invented” gospel. Ruff considers that a gross oversimplification, and, partly out of disenchantment with it, decided to tell his version of the story on film.
The new 30-minute documentary, “A Conjoining of Ancient Song,” received its premiere at Yale in April. Ruff, who is 81, is now trying to ensure it can receive a wider audience to appreciate a musical form that is slowly becoming extinct.
“It’s almost inevitable that it’s going to die,” he said of the style. “Some of the leaders who really knew the whole repertoire are now gone.”
In traditional line singing, a designated person sings a line from the Book of Psalms, inviting congregation members to follow in their own time and with their own harmonies. The result is an echoing, surging chorus that Ruff describes as “very dirge-like and emotional.”
Line singing evolved into “lining out” after immigrants from Scotland settled across the South. When they worshiped, Ruff and other scholars believe, their slaves sat in church balconies while they sang below. The slaves then absorbed what they heard and put their own spin on it. (To listen to the Scottish form, go to this YouTube clip; the black version can be heard here.)
Ruff’s research has led some scholars to hope it can enable blacks to better understand their cultural heritage. “It’s important for black people in the American South who don’t know the history [of line singing] that well,” Calum Martin, a Gaelic singing teacher in Scotland, told Newhouse News Service in 2005. “Everything that’s been written about their connection with the people from Scotland has always been written from a white perspective, rather than a black perspective.”
Part of the new documentary deals with two conferences on the subject that Ruff held at Yale. The second conference featured three disparate groups: One was from a church on Scotland’s Isle of Lewis, and another was drawn from churches in Alabama and Kentucky. The third group was one that Ruff connected to the form later: Muscogee Creek Indians from Oklahoma. The forced resettlement of Creeks and other tribes in the 19th century, known as the “Trail of Tears,” took place as many tribal members converted to Christianity. He remembers being amazed to learn that all three groups knew the same hymn: “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.”
“You had the Scots still singing in their native Gaelic and the Indians in their native Creek, and then the two American Baptist groups,” he recalled. “So here you had three separate traditions of white, black and red. It could only happen in America.”
The second Yale conference was held in 2007, but the documentary was not made until Ruff met Gretchen Berland, a Yale School of Medicine professor who has produced several documentaries on health-related topics. Berland agreed to fund the line-singing film using some of the money given to her as a “genius award” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
“When I heard about the project, it sounded so authentic,” Berland said. “The MacArthur fellowship is about good karma, so this was sort of good-karma money. To me, what was so amazing was learning about how this type of music so profoundly affects people. It’s something intensely personal and communal when they sing, and it was a privilege for me to get to be a part of that.”
As proud as he is of his line-singing research, Ruff regards it as something of a footnote to his long career. As he likes to say: “My mama didn’t raise me to be a cultural anthropologist; I’m a jazz man.” He has taught in New Haven since 1971 and served as an international musical ambassador, having given a seminar in the former Soviet Union in 1959 (described by Time magazine as the first unofficial concert by American musicians there) and 22 years later in China (in what was called the first jazz performance since the Cultural Revolution).
Much of Ruff’s work was with his longtime collaborator Dwike Mitchell, who died in April at 83. The duo met in the Army in the late 1940s and performed together for 56 years, five years longer than The Rolling Stones have been at it. Mitchell played piano; Ruff played the bass and French horn, the latter an instrument not typically associated with jazz. They collaborated with such luminaries as Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and Ellington’s celebrated co-composer Billy Strayhorn, who wrote a piece for them that they played at Strayhorn’s funeral.
When not publicizing the line-singing documentary, Ruff is trying to determine a way to acknowledge the outpouring of condolences he has received about his old friend and pay tribute to his memory. “I’ve had a lot of very comforting expressions from around the world,” he said.