The Gospel Truth! the Deep South's Musical Roots Owe More to the Hebrides Than Africa? It's

Daily Mail (London), March 14, 2005 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

The Gospel Truth! the Deep South's Musical Roots Owe More to the Hebrides Than Africa? It's


A MOURNFUL, lone voice pierces the silence in the church. Then many voices sing in unison, producing an almost otherworldly sound that makes the hairs on the back of the neck stand up.

The eerie vocal ensemble is the centuries- old music of Gaelic psalm singers - heard today only in a handful of churches in one of Scotland's remotest corners.

But this psalm is being sung not in the Hebrides but in the U.S. - Mt Zion Church in Killen, Alabama.

It is hard to imagine a place where the native Gaelic singers' slow 'call-and-response' laments would sound more incongruous.

Yet a remarkable thing happens among the black congregation listening to them.

Instinctively they understand the music, almost as if it were part of them.

And according to one black music academic, it is.

Willie Ruff, a professor at Yale University in Connecticut is convinced the roots of the gospel music of the Deep South lie in the Scottish Hebrides - not in Africa as commonly supposed.

And the extraordinary singing in Mt Zion Church perhaps goes some way to prove it.

The moment was captured by the makers of a Channel 4 documentary to be shown later this month, which explores the professor's highly controversial theory.

It is controversial because the ' call- and- response' form of musical worship is familiar in many parts of the world, including Africa, but it also relies on an uncomfortable episode of history - the slave trade.

IF the professor's theory is true, gospel music originated from the slave masters rather than the slaves' African homeland. In effect, i f proven, the theory would rewrite much of the history of music.

Professor Ruff, an accomplished jazz musician who has played with Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie, believes a form of gospel music was passed on to slaves more than 200 years ago by emigrant Gaels who settled in the American south and became plantation owners.

His first step towards proving the theory was to visit the Isle of Lewis, where the call-andresponse tradition, known as precenting the line, is dying out but is still practised in a few churches.

He was amazed by what he heard. He said: 'What I heard there was precisely the manner in which these Hebrideans sang the music; the passion, the pathos that is in their singing of it matches so much of what we do in the American South.

'In my mind, I said this would have been the first worship music that black Africans, newly arrived as slaves, would have heard in North America.

'This is older than the spiritual.

Within it is instilled the basic essence of the black American soul.' The Gospel Truth?, a documentary by Aberdeenshire production company Eyeline Media, puts the theory to the test by bringing a group of Gaelic psalm singers to the professor's local church in Alabama, where the gospel call-and-response form is also dying out.

Mt Zion Church is one of the few remaining places of worship where the 'lining out' tradition still survives.

For the first time, perhaps, since the days of the slave trade, the two groups sing in unison and discover an instinctive bond.

Professor Ruff explains the connection: 'Scottish emigrants from the Highlands, and the Gaelic-speaking Hebrides especially, arrived in parts of North Carolina in huge numbers, and for many years during the slavery period black Africans, owned by Scottish emigrants, spoke only the Gaelic language.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

The Gospel Truth! the Deep South's Musical Roots Owe More to the Hebrides Than Africa? It's


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?