Church music and family history

Knowing that several generations of my maternal grandmother’s family were (and some still are) Primitive Baptists, I started researching musical traditions in that church last summer.  I found a lot of material indicating Primitive Baptists in the American South were Sacred Harp (a.k.a. Shape Note) singers and set off to learn more about that genre of music.

Samples of this singing style can be found on the website of a documentary about Sacred Harp music, Awake, My Soul, which has a running loop of music playing the background. The first of these songs is Idumea, with the upbeat lyrics, “Am I born to die?” (The answer: Yes.) This music is a haunting, lovely, and anguished vehicle for expressing the existential concerns of any straight-up Calvinist. 

There are two albums associated with this film. One includes recordings of traditional singings of Sacred Harp music by church congregations. The other features professional musicians performing modern interpretations of these songs. I listened to these albums dozens of times before I discovered that my Primitive Baptists didn’t use this style of singing after all. No worries. This dead end was actually a fascinating exploration of traditional American music. I am happy to have made the detour.

Talking with relatives about music over the last few months, I have gained a much more accurate sense of the music our ancestors sang in the churches of southwestern Virginia. One of my cousins told me that our line of Primitive Baptists worship (and worshiped) in a church where hymn books were absent, hymns were “lined” (with the upcoming line in a hymn called out by one person, then sung by the congregation), and the singing style was very slow. My mother told me about two musical interactions she had with her maternal grandmother, who was a Primitive Baptist.  When my mother was a little girl, her grandmother played her a record of some Primitive Baptists singing “Amazing Grace.” The singing was so slow that my mother declared, “Grandma, you have the record on the wrong speed!”   Later, my mother played a record of Judy Collins singing “Amazing Grace” for her grandmother, who said “I like it, but it’s a little too fast.” Here is a 1976 video of Judy Collins singing this song. If her singing was “a little too fast,” you can imagine how slowly and deliberately my great grandmother expected the hymn to be performed.

These oral history accounts make me believe that my Primitive Baptist relatives sang in style more like that of the Old Regular Baptists. There are several recordings of this style on Smithsonian Folkways albums. Here is a sample from Classic Mountain Songs of some Old Regular Baptists singing, “I Am a Poor Pilgrim of Sorrow”: 

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