Black music from Scotland?
It could be the Gospel Truth
The church elder’s reaction was one of utter disbelief. Shaking his
head emphatically, he couldn’t take in what the distinguished professor
from Yale University was telling him.
No," insisted Jim McRae, an elder of the small congregation of Clearwater
in Florida. "This way of worshipping comes from our slave past. It
grew out of the slave experience, when we came from Africa."
But Willie Ruff, an Afro-American professor of music at Yale, was adamant
- he had traced the origins of gospel music to Scotland.
The distinctive psalm singing had not been brought to America’s Deep
South by African slaves but by Scottish émigrés who worked
as their masters and overseers, according to his painstaking research.
Ruff, 71, a renowned jazz musician who played with Duke Ellington and Dizzy
Gillespie, is convinced the Florida congregation’s method of praise
- called ‘presenting the line’, in which the psalms are called
out and the congregation sings a response - came from the Hebrides.
Ruff explained: "They had always assumed that this form of worship
had come from Africa, and why not?
I said to him I had found evidence that it was Scottish people who brought
this to the New World, but he just would not believe it. I asked him what
his name was. He said McRae, and I just replied: ‘There you go’."
Psalm singing and gospel music are the backbone of the black Church in
the United States, with gospel music CD sales alone worth half a billion
dollars last year. Ruff’s research has massive cultural implications
for Afro-Americans and alters the history of American culture.
He said: "We as black Americans have lived under a misconception.
Our cultural roots are more Afro-Gaelic than Afro-American. Just look at
the Harlem phone book, it’s more like the book for North Uist.
We got our names from the slave masters, we got our religion from the slave
masters and we got our blood from the slave masters.
None of the black people in the United States are pure African. My own
great great grandparents were slaves in Alabama. My grandmother’s
maiden name was Robertson.
I have been to Africa many times in search of my cultural identity, but
it was in the Highlands that I found the cultural roots of black America.
I hope to inform the perception of Afro-Americans, and what a gift that
is, to give people something to go on.
One of the great tragedies of the Afro-American experience is that few
can trace their families beyond the bill of sale. After that it’s
vague: the name of a ship and never the port of embarkation. The watery
highway that those ships took leave no trace."
Ruff added: "There are probably more descendents of the Highlands
in the United States than there are in Scotland. There are a huge amount
of Afro-Americans with light skin or red hair like Malcolm X. What were
Storytelling and music are some of the best ways to document the true integration
and movement of people, because the music can’t lie."
Ruff’s journey of discovery started as a child in his home Baptist
church in Alabama, when he would listen to elders present the line, which
predates, and was an influence on, gospel music.
I remember this captured my imagination as a small child. The elders, some
born into slavery, say the lines in unison. They were dirge-like, impassioned
melodies. They were illiterate and poor, they had nothing, but they had
that passion in their singing. I, like everyone else, assumed it was unique
to black congregations in the United States, having grown out of slavery."
But last year, during a casual visit to the Presbyterian church in Cumberland,
Alabama, Ruff stumbled on a predominantly black congregation that sang
the same way as the Baptist congregation of his childhood.
Not only were they singing the same psalms, they were singing in the same
deeply profound way, with the same passion which cries out. The tears began
They believed the method of worship came from Africa, but Ruff started
to ask whether white Presbyterian congregations sang in the same way.
The academic began researching at the Sterling Library at Yale, one of
the world’s greatest collections of books and papers. He found records
detailing how Highlanders had settled in North Carolina in the 1700s. I
found evidence of slaves in North Carolina who could speak only Gaelic.
I also heard the story of how a group of Hebrideans, on landing at Cape
Fear, heard a Gaelic voice in the dialect of their village. When they rounded
the corner they saw a black man speaking the language and assumed they
too would turn that colour because of the sun. When I made these connections,
I thought: ‘That’s it, I’m going to the Hebrides."
A chance meeting with James Craig, a piper with the Royal Scots, put Ruff
in touch with congregations in Lewis and Donald Morrison, a leader of singing.
When I finally met Donald, we sat down and I played him music. It was like
a wonderful blind test. First I played him some psalms by white congregations,
and then by a black one. He then leapt to his feet and shouted: ‘That’s
When I heard Donald and his congregation sing in Stornoway I was in no
doubt there was a connection."
Yesterday, Jamie Reid-Baxter, a history research fellow at Glasgow University
and a psalm expert, said: "This sounds extremely plausible because
of the link to the Scottish slave-owners, who would definitely have brought
that style of singing with them.
The slaves would have heard the Scots singing like that, and both these
forms of music are a way of expressing religious ecstasy. It’s an
Warwick Edwards, a reader in the music department of Glasgow University,
added: "Psalm singing from the Western Isles is certainly known in
America. Whether you can link that up with gospel music is another matter.
It’s new to me.
One should never underestimate the longevity of these deep-down traditions.
They cross oceans and people should be encouraged to investigate this further."
Ruff’s research on the integration of Highland culture into black
America expands conventional wisdom on Scotland’s legacy in the southern
states of America.
Although the Enlightenment, especially Francis Hutcheson’s A System
of Moral Philosophy, inspired the abolitionists in both Britain and America,
Scotland’s darker role in the slave trade is also well known. Scots
were influential in founding the Ku Klux Klan, including the traditional
Scottish symbol of the burning cross and the KKK’s oath ceremony,
which originated from a Highland custom.
Ruff said: "There will be Scots who are uncomfortable with the relationship
and the involvement in the slave trade. But the Scots are like anyone,
and there were many who were abolitionists and who set up schools for black
children after emancipation."
While Ruff’s claim has been welcomed in Scotland, it has been met
with a far less favourable response in his native country.
Bobby Jones, producer of the weekly Gospel Explosion television programme
which reaches more than four million viewers in the United States, is not
swayed by Ruff’s argument. "Gospel music is black music," he
Ruff’s next mission is to return to Scotland to document and record
the congregations of Lewis.
I’ll be there later this year and hope to record them there and also
make recordings of American congregations. In another 100 years I doubt
this form of worship will still be around. It’s sad to say that on
both sides of the Atlantic this is dying out.
In the Hebrides there are few young people in the churches and this is
also the case in the States. In a sense, I aim to preserve a legacy."
The lasting legacy of Ruff’s research is an anthropological revelation
which forces the re-evaluation of the history of two peoples. Now Afro-Americans,
frustrated in their search for antecedence in their African line, might
turn to their Scottish roots. As Ruff said: "Why did they leave this
to a musician? This is the job of an anthropologist."
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