The Gospel Ship: Baptist Hymns & White Spirituals from the Southern Mountains
Excerpt from the liner notes by Alan Lomax
My years of field work in this country convince me that at least half our English-language musical heritage was religious. Indeed, until the rise of the modern entertainment industry most organized musical activity in most American communities centered on the church--for example, the backwoods singing schools discussed below (also see New World Records 80205, White Spirituals from the Sacred Harp) were usually church-sponsored. Today, as modernization wipes out the settings in which secular folk songs were created, the church continues to provide theaters in which new song styles arise to meet the needs of changing forms of worship. The religious revolution that began in the Reformation has continued in wave after wave of revivals, some large, some small, but most expressing the determination of some group to have the kind of music in church that they preferred and in which they could participate. This folk process has enriched the repertory of Protestantism with the patterns of many subcultures and many periods.
Sometimes the people held on to old forms, like lining hymns (in which the preacher sings the first line and the congregation follows; see Track etc.) or spirituals, which the whole church sings, preferring them to a fancier program by the choir, to which the congregation passively listens. Bringing choirs and organs and musical directors into the southern folk church silenced the congregation and the spiritual in the once folky Baptist and Methodist churches, so that the folk moved out and founded the song-heavy sects of the Holiness movement.
Use of instruments likewise expressed traditional preferences. Strict old-fashioned groups, like the Primitive Baptists, simply banned all instruments as tools of the devil, and this conservatism fostered the preservation of the older songs with scales and with ornamentation. The fiddle and the banjo were called "the devil's stalking horses," the square dancers and jollifications where they were played were out of bounds for the straitlaced, and church members who persisted in playing or following this music could be brought before the congregation and put out of church. Until very recently (perhaps the Fifties), therefore, the piano and the harmonium were seldom heard in most folk churches. Stringed instruments, however, met a friendlier reception among white folk religionists: the guitar, the banjo, and then little combinations (first in "old-timey," then in bluegrass style) appeared in the evangelical churches and on recordings. Groups like the Carter family commonly sang sacred songs on their audio and recording dates (see New World Records 80287, Country Music: South and West [track5]), and the serious convert could have the string music he enjoyed, without feeling a threat to his religion.
Here and there, particularly in the black storefront churches, all sorts of instruments were brought in to increase the pleasure and excitement of the meetings. String groups, drums, trumpets, trombones, then, validated by general middle-class use, organs, and, recently, electrified instruments -- until almost any combo may turn up anywhere in the now populous Holiness and Sanctified churches. Along with the instruments have come the tunes and sounds of secular music, including ragtime, jazz, blues, swing, and now rock, all permitted, according to the preference of the congregation, so long as the texts of the songs remained sacred.