TOGETHER LET US SWEETLY LIVE:
THE SINGING AND PRAYING BANDS
JONATHAN DAVID AND RICHARD
This book is now
published and is wonderful. To order: https://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/99mdm8hw9780252031700.html Descendants of
slaves, with ancestral and present trauma in the form of first
servitude, then poverty, these families have kept alive
consoling traditions. I am minded that in ancient times,
millennia before Christ, kindness was counselled; in the
Egyptian Book of the Dead,
the selfish criminal being devoured by a monster, the
harmoniously married couple who have been generous to the
poor, living their afterlife in beautiful gardens. Today, when
I travel back to America I do not find kindness amongst the
jet set. On planes one meets with coldness, with fear, with
isolation. The courtesy, the kindness, the warmth, the
humanity, one meets instead on Greyhound buses, now much my
favoured form of travel.
There are many
photographs of these white-garbed Blacks, and, like those by Karen Graffeo of the Rom, taken in love. There is
the CD of the powerful haunting music, this democracy of music
where all the people count, all their sorrows, all their joys.
And the words of the hymns are pure poetry, for these had had
ancestors who learned their Judaeo-Christianity from
clandestine ministers who illegally taught them to read and
write. See for this the story by Frances Trollope in Jonathan
Jefferson Whitlaw, where the white minister who secretly
helps the slaves is himself lynched by the white community.
You are the same God that heard Daniel when he
prayed in the lion's den
Heard Rachel when she prayed in the cliffs of the mountain;
You heard the three Hebrew boys when they prayed in the fiery furnace.
You are the same God
That heard me one day
When I was lying.
Next door to Hell.
It is a book
about faith, about kindness, about joy, about sacred poetry.
n 2007 the University of Illinois Press published Together Let Us Sweetly Live: The Singing and Praying Bands, by Jonathan C. David, with photographs by Richard Holloway and a CD of recordings by the Singing and Praying Bands.
The Singing and Praying Bands provides a rare opportunity to witness an African American religious folksong and ring shout tradition that began in Chesapeake Bay country during antebellum times and still survives in the tidewater areas of Maryland and Delaware. Scholars consider this to have been the most important religious service of enslaved Africans and their African American descendants in the nineteenth century. Many Americans, even in the surrounding areas of Maryland and Delaware, have no idea that the Singing and Praying Bands exist, let alone that they maintain a long history of faith expressed artistically through music. They constitute perhaps the oldest African American folk religious group in North America, and perhaps the longest continuing performing group (along with the choirs of Mother Bethel A.M.E. and the like).
Despite their historic importance, the bands have had difficulty over the last three decades in attracting young members. They are trying to maintain what the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress has begun calling “endangered music.” Younger people who have grown up with newer, gospel traditions are struggling to keep the band tradition active and relevant. We hope this book, with its splendid illustrations and accompanying CD of recordings by the Singing and Praying Bands, will inspire interest in these groups, in their home area and beyond. We hope also that the new appreciation and respect they receive will help them strengthen and maintain this significant African American musical and cultural tradition.
The nine chapters forming the heart of the book present oral histories enhanced by musical notations of band members’ folk hymns or spirituals and by a generous selection of Richard Holloway’s professional-quality black-and-white photographs. The extensive overview in the introduction reconnects the oral historical tradition with the bands’ African roots and with written primary references to the Singing and Praying Bands from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Since the primary literature on the ring shouts is sparse—indeed, these groups remain essentially unknown outside their own communities, and scholars have generally assumed that the tradition died out long ago—this gathering of first-hand testimonies is a revelation for African American musical and religious history.
Band service represents a tradition of mutual aid, called “help.” It operates as a system of social reciprocity, as a performance aesthetic, and as the foundation of community spirituality.
A Singing and Praying Band service begins after a preaching service has been completed. All the band members (perhaps thirty to forty at any single event) come forward to the cross aisle of the church—that is, to the area between the first row of pews and the altar rail. Placing a bench or a row of folding chairs in the center of the cross aisle, the men stand with their backs to the altar, facing the congregation remaining in the pews. The women of the group face the men, with the bench or chairs separating the two sexes. Beginning slowly and at a low pitch, a leader lines out—the bands say "gives out"—the first line of an old multi-versed hymn in a tune that is traditional to the bands. The singing ensemble follows, singing the first line of the hymn after the leader. The leader then gives out the next line, and the group sings after him or her. So it goes throughout the hymn. Gradually, the singing rises in pitch and tempo. At the conclusion of the hymn, the bands sing the final line over and over as a meditation to invoke the Holy Spirit.
After the first hymn, another band member prays an impassioned prayer that also focuses on a highly stressed invocation for the Spirit to descend onto the congregation then and there. The bands follow by raising another traditional "give-out" hymn, and offering another prayer. After two give-out hymns and two prayers, another member of the groups is called upon to raise what the bands refer to as a "straight hymn." This type of hymn consists of a short, much-repeated chorus, to which rhymed narrative couplets are added. Outsiders might refer to straight hymns as "spirituals." While the initial give-out hymns might be penitential in mood, the straight hymns tend to be ebullient. The Holy Spirit having been invoked, and the spiritual well-being of the worshippers having been restored, the bands complete their service in joy. Gradually, the band members on the ends of the lines turn to the side, pull themselves closer to the leaders, and the lines of singing men and women transform themselves into a singing and hand-clapping circle. Some members jump off the floor and land with a thud, adding a percussive, drum-like sound to the performance.
After singing the chorus of the straight hymn over again and again with increasing enthusiasm, the band begins to march. In a maneuver common to ring shouts documented elsewhere, the bands first march counterclockwise around the bench that had separated the women and the men. Then they march down the aisles of the church. Weather permitting, they march out onto the church yard, march around the campground, and eventually form a circle and continue to sing. New leaders move one at a time into the center of the hand-clapping ring to add new verses. Gradually the singing dies down. The service is over.
The Singing and Praying Bands seem to have disappeared from the view of historians. Their services are so esoteric that they remain mostly unknown outside of their own networks. There has been little press recognition. Their performances, centered on hymns that last up to thirty minutes, do not fit easily into a commercial radio or CD format, focused on the three-minute song. Yet this tradition continued to thrive during much of the twentieth century, beginning to decline only in the 1970s. We believe it is imperative to make available not only the sounds and spirit of this endangered music, but evocative images that convey the power and eloquence of the culture. The photographs accompanying Together Let Us Sweetly Live will prove a revelation to many.
Jonathan C. David is an independent scholar living in Philadelphia. He has degrees from the University of Pennsylvania in South Asia regional studies and in folklore and folklife. An earlier CD he produced and annotated, On One Accord: The Singing and Praying Bands of Tidewater Maryland and Delaware (1992), was recognized by the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center as one of the ten best recordings of American folk music of that year. (The CD accompanying this book comprises different recordings.) Richard Holloway is a professional photographer based in Philadelphia, where he is also known for his fine carpentry and millwork.
Together Let Us Sweetly Live appears in the Press’s prestigious series Music in American Life, which now numbers close to 130 titles and is recognized worldwide as the leading list of serious books about American music. The book is oversize, 7 x 10, printed on acid-free paper meeting NEH and library standards, and sturdily bound. The length is estimated at 256 pages, with 78 black-and-white photographs, a map of the area, about 230 lines of music, and a CD of recordings by the Singing and Praying Bands bound inside the back cover. We plan to print simultaneous cloth and paperback editions.The
This book is
wonderful. To order: https://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/99mdm8hw9780252031700.html
See also: http://www.sas.upenn.edu/folklore/events/david.html
See also Family and
Mosaic; Gandhi; BBC http://catskill.gcal.ac.uk/repository/repos-fs/gcu/a0/a1/gcu-a0a1k7-b.mov recording of many voices 'Talking of Gandhiji', my father's voice being one of these; Death Valley Incident; Family Album; Halbert Harold Holloway, The Woman, the Sun, the Flowers and the Courage; Sir James Roberts; My England (in progress); Morris Dances of England; Nigel Foxell, Amberley Village; The Joy of the Bicycle; Richard Ben Holloway, Together Let Us Sweetly Live; Jonathan Luke Holloway, Home Birth Can Be An Option; Holmhurst St Mary; Mother Agnes Mason, C.H.F.; Rose Lloyds, Rose's Story; Deaf/Death; David and Solomon; How to Make Cradles and Libraries; Hazel Oddy, Martha's Supplication; Tangled Tale; Oliveleaf Chronicle; Vita
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