In the Good Old Way: Primitive Baptist Traditions
This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 5 No. 2, "Long Journey Home: Folklife in the South." Find more from that issue here.
For most of this century, a parade of humanitarians, philanthropists, educators, administrators, politicians and businessmen have been attracted by the cultural resources of the Southern Highlands. Their projects have taken different forms, from early mountain folk and craft schools to the crassly commercial development fostered by the tourist industry. Some have worked to preserve traditional mountain culture, others to refurbish or replace it; few have been willing to leave it alone.
Much has happened since English folklorist Cecil Sharp’s first ballad hunt in the early 1900s. Although Sharp’s ground-breaking efforts provided the model for the collecting expeditions which followed, he hardly could have foreseen the effect that publicity would have on indigenous Highland culture. It is doubtful that early students of Appalachian folklife would have predicted that the local fiddlers’ conventions of their day would eventually become nationally popular youth gatherings in the 70s.
It is not surprising that Appalachian folklife should have high appeal for this generation whose members, many of them, are beginning to feel trapped by our throw-away, commercialized, technocratic society. We cannot escape our culture, but we can turn to folk art for a reminder that civilization was created by people and not the other way around. Almost everyone benefits from a revival of interest in folklife. Even the people of the mountains themselves, though they have seldom been the primary recipients of the material rewards of national attention, have at least found a source of pride in their role as carriers of the Anglo-American folk tradition par excellence.
Such attention has not been without its price, however. Popularity breeds popularization and, sometimes, commercial exploitation, and for 50 years it has helped shape the course of Appalachian culture, building a public image of the mountaineer that often degenerates into a stereotype. Some of the fruits of the folk revival are worthy extensions of original forms; others are painful to behold, as a visit to some of the gift shops along the Blue Ridge Parkway will confirm. And at a time when “authentic mountain toys” are mass-produced, and old-timey fiddling contests draw youthful participants from the urban Northeast, little of mountain folklife survives in its original form.
The Primitive Baptist Church is one of the few cultural traditions of the region which has somehow remained relatively unnoticed. That an institution of such vitality should have escaped the attention of the folk revivalists is surprising — perhaps the result of the instinctive avoidance of religious issues by a secular-oriented culture. Whatever the explanation, such relative isolation from public scrutiny has preserved not only the substance, but also the context of an earlier era. In the language of the folklorist, the Primitive Baptist tradition is “uncontaminated.”
Revivals and Resistance
The Lord laid his hands on me one morning. Ever since that day I been pointed fingers at and called the child of God.
Primitive Baptists believe in predestination and unconditional election. Salvation is granted only to the elect chosen by God before the world was founded, who may be made aware of their election through the gift of grace. Good works and mere human will are totally ineffectual in obtaining salvation, so the church does not actively seek-new members. Grace is a beautiful mystery.
The church’s sober, some would say gloomy, perspective on the world stems from its frank recognition that suffering is basic to the human condition. No one is immune from sin, and all human effort is powerless against it. Feelings of humility and alienation — universal in human experience — are understood as natural proof that only God’s transcendent power can save souls. While this realization gives the Primitive Baptists a basic acceptance of powerlessness and travail, it does not encroach upon their humble joy in the unearned and unmerited gift of grace. Theirs is an honest, simple outlook, truer to the reali- ty of daily life than the superficial optimism of many contemporary churches. A Primitive Baptist hymn acknowledges this curious balance:
Mixtures of joy and sorrow
I daily do pass through;
Sometimes I ’m in a valley,
Then sinking down with woe;
Sometimes I am exalted,
On eagles ’ wings I fly;
Rising above Mount Pisgah,
I almost reach the sky.
Sometimes I’m full of doubting,
And think I have no grace;
Sometimes I’m full of praising,
When Christ reveals his face;
Sometimes my hope's so little,
I think I’ll throw it by;
Sometimes it seems sufficient
If I were called to die.
Although they are strict Calvinists, the Primitive Baptists trace their history through a long line of nonconformist sects directly to the apostolic church described in the New Testament.1 The Church’s doctrine is founded on a literal interpretation of scripture; they believe that rickety man-made additions to Biblical commandments are false, and they especially object to the doctrine of free will which teaches that people can save themselves by choosing Jesus. The Free Will dogma had gained popularity in America as the cornerstone of the early nineteenth century revivalist movement, and it was in resistance to that movement that many churches consolidated their forces into what became the Primitive Baptist Church.
Upon this group of churches fell the duty of preserving the seed of the “good old way” against changing times. Southwestern Virginia was a major focal point of the creative activity which produced the Primitive Baptist Church, and remains today a center of the church’s strength. The commitment to the autonomy of the individual church, along with relative geographic isolation, has produced a heterogeneous array of churches throughout the mountains of Southern Appalachia: along the eastern slopes of the south Virginia Blue Ridge and in the adjacent Piedmont black and white associations, as well as unaffiliated independents. Because of their autonomy and distrust of institutional structure, no single description of doctrine is applicable to all. The most conservative churches continue to reject all deviations from a strictly interpreted Biblical Christianity, including missionary movements, revivals, Sunday schools, radio ministries, church choirs, musical instruments in church, national governing bodies, seminaries, infant baptism and lavishly decorated church buildings.
Primitive Baptists have not made themselves popular by dragging their feet in the face of religious modernization; their unwillingness to help baptize the heathen and their refusal to acknowledge the ecumenical spirit of the times has occasionally made them the target of unreasonable criticism. And in recent years, some critics have accused the church of hanging onto ignorance and illiteracy and blocking needed social change in the mountains. But the image of the church being dragged screaming into the twentieth century is a myth. Although conservative in piety, members of the Primitive Baptist Church are not backwards in any sense of the word. They are modern people with a contemporary understanding of their world, who do not stubbornly resist all change for its own sake. What they do resist is any force which threatens the religious foundation of their world view.
Before the Foundations of the World
And I don’t say I joined the church, because if the church don’t join you first, there ain’t nothing to it, the way I look at it. Cause I can join the church, and I can unjoin, but if the Lord join me to it, then I’ll stay there.
Since the Bible teaches that God chose the members of the church before ‘‘the foundation of the world” and will gather them in His own good time, Primitive Baptists reject revivalism; they reject the whole concept of church growth. They see no point in campaigning for lost souls, and neither cajole nor coerce sinners to join the church. Once in the fold, however, members are highly committed and not likely to weaken. They may occasionally stumble into sin, as any mortal must, but such an experience seems to bring them closer to the church rather than drive them from it.
One product of such stability has been the maintenance of the social cohesion so necessary for the generation and preservation of folk tradition. Because religion is not merely a compartment of life, but life’s entire justification, the church’s influence encompasses the whole community. Church business sessions, held the Saturday before the monthly Sunday services, are occasions not just for the discussion of business matters related to the church, but for the airing of general problems troubling the community. The church members, as a body, are effective against forces which threaten to divide the community. If necessary, they can exclude defiant members from the fellowship of the church; more often they offer spiritual and material comfort to the suffering. Church funds are directed where the need is greatest: an ailing sister, a family hit by hard times, a visiting preacher who has traveled a great distance at his own expense (church leaders themselves accept no salary). Community attention and community resources are directed not outward to foreign missions or national associations, but inward to the community itself.
This concern for the local community, along with a determined resistance to change, has deflected the modernizing forces which have swept unimpeded through so much of secular mountain culture. Potent vehicles of change such as radio and television, mass publication of church literature, printed music, and the professional clergy, are excluded from church activities as human inventions which are neither necessary nor sanctioned by God. The only mass media used to a significant extent by the church members are religious periodicals, and these are peripheral because doctrine emphasizes the importance of the direct, personal experience of grace above all written material. Locally designed traditional forms predominate in worship and practice.
Narratives of Grace and Glory
I never will forget it. I was in West Virginia, in a coal mining camp. My brothers, they went in the mines to work. I didn’t feel like going out to work that morning. I thought I was natural sick. I said, “I’ll stay at home, stay at the house here. You all go on to your work.’’
They didn’t want to leave me, but they went on to the work. Long about nine o’clock, I laid down across the bed. And being laying there, a man appeared over me. He was just as white, as white as snow. And he walked right up over me, astride my legs, and looked right down in my face. And his hair was as white as iamb’s wool, flowing out over his shoulders. And he had a white doth over his head. And his eyes was just flashing like fire. And he was white, he was so white, his garments were so white. And I felt myself getting numb down in my feet, and death crept on up, crept on up. i was just sure I was dying. This man, he kept looking me in the face. And his eyes was revolving, just like fire in his eyes, I couldn’t get my eyes away, I wanted to turn my head but I couldn’t. I had to look right at him. Death come on up. I knowed when it hit my heart, I’d die, I thought. But it passed on up to my eyes. My eyes, they felt like they was full of sand, and I was about to close them. He reached right under there and he got a spear out. it flashed like lightning. A little dagger about that long. And it was gold, and it just flashed tike lightning. He come down on me with it.
I didn’t know nothing then for a long time, I laid there, I don’t know how long. When the Lord brought me to, I was laying on a little bench all the way across the room. And I heard a voice, and it come from somewhere over my shoulder, and it spoke like this: “Arise now and shine, for the light has come, and the glory of the Lord is risen in you.” By that time, i was able to walk out on my own. it was a dark and dreary morning when i went in my room, but when I come out, everything looked new, everything was summertime, and the trees was green all around. The little birds was sitting out in the ends of the twigs of the trees, chirping just like they were offering thanks to God. I ain’t never seen a morning so bright. About that time, I heard angels begin to sing, going back into the western part of the world, I heard them sing, "He done died one time, ain’t gonna die no more. ”
At the heart of all Primitive Baptist expressive forms is the spoken word, normally uninhibited and improvisational. No written text other than the Scriptures, no published Bible commentary or tract, no recitation of memorized prayers or creeds, no formal responsive readings — none of these appear in the Primitive Baptist service. The primary medium for the expression of spiritual truth is spontaneous expression, supported by all the creative vigor of 150 years of oral tradition. Worship is not standardized, but draws from each member whatever testimony, prayer, sermon or song has been given through divine inspiration. In practice, all members are not totally free to express themselves as “God commands.” Women may occasionally give testimony in church and often are responsible for the leading of hymns, but are not permitted to serve as elders, lead prayer or preach.2
Oral historians have noted the extent to which people in rural communities cast the continuum of their lives into dramatic episodic narratives. There is no better illustration than the Primitive Baptists’ narrated experiences of conversion and grace, the most finely formed product of their oral tradition. Although they occur initially as mystical private events, they are cast ultimately into verbal form, since no personal experience is really complete until it has been shared and, to an extent, validated through public testimony. In these vivid narratives appear spiritual beings — men in white, angelic messengers, monstrous horses which carry the mortal on tours of heaven and hell. There are cool mountain tops where the sinner is carried to reflect, lonesome roads where voices whisper hymns in the wind, stern commands out of angry skies, miraculous natural signs, divine revelations of the future. These are not artifacts, self-consciously polished by individual storytellers, so much as overwhelmingly personal experiences which become community property in the retelling. The shared spoken word is the raw material for a rich oral literature, no one’s property and everyone’s inspiration.
The conversion experience may be the heart of Primitive Baptist belief, but the sermon’s the heart of Primitive Baptist practice. Since congregations may hear five or more sermons in a single meeting which lasts three or more hours — depending on how many elders are present — they develop a connoisseur’s taste for the preacher’s art. Never prepared in advance, each sermon is both a personal manifestation of the spirit and a highly organized rhetorical form which calls into play all the verbal and gestural skills of the preacher. God does not call a man to the pulpit without granting him the gift of inspiration that makes him a worthy outlet for the Spirit. To rely on notes prepared beforehand is to admit faithlessness.
A man who has been truly called by God to preach is transformed by the Spirit the moment he steps into the stand. An elder in the region who died not long ago was afflicted with a severe stutter which left him only when he mounted the pulpit and began to preach. Under the divine intervention of God, his words flowed powerfully and smoothly, and not until the sermon ended and the spirit left him did his stammering return.
Aflame with the gift inspired by God in the holy setting, a preacher may narrate his own conversion experiences or draw on communal material by rendering the experiences of others in his own words. He may create dramatic retellings of Biblical events, illustrated with gestures and expanded by the addition of contemporary parallels. Each sermon is, to an extent, a personal statement, but there is much sharing of style and content among the preachers of a particular circle of churches. Many elders, for example, tend to draw on the same body of proverbial phrases:
I ain’t got nothing to brag on, but I feel like I got something to die on.
Salvation is a gift, not a get.
If the devil is out there in the road, make him get in the back seat. If you let him in the front seat, he’ll want to drive, and there’s no telling where he ’ll carry you.
Come one, come all, come great, come small.
A preacher is like a radio: somebody’s got to turn him on.
Our doors this morning are hanging on welcome hinges.
Though spoken from many pulpits, the spontaneity of the immediate context keeps these stock phrases ever fresh.
As the man in the pulpit warms to his labor, his prose may become melodic and poetic, flowing in a rhythmic chant that can be notated like music. It is not unusual, in fact, for the preacher to incorporate hymn stanzas into the already rhythmic text of the sermon. In the black church, the congregation may actually participate in such a sermon, shouting and singing in harmony with the elder. Conventional categories are useless to describe such an event; here, song and sermon flow together as one.
Hymns to Fill the Soul
A man can preach all day long, and if you don’t feel it, it don’t do you no good. That’s the way that is. And you can sing, and if the Lord give you a spirit to sing, that singing is just as good as preaching. It fills you up all over; you get just like a new person in there. Yes sir, you get to where you just can’t hardly sit on your seat. Make you feel right. That’s right! Now, I have seen people preach, oh, I don’t know how long, look like it didn’t have a good effect on you. Just preach, didn’t warm you up. And then a woman in there can just sing a song, and it just gets all over you. That’s right! That’s strange — it’s a strange thing to say about it. It look like they can just sing a song, somebody can just pick up a song book and sing a song, look like that song just feeds you, and just fills your soul, right now. And that’s the good part of it.
The Primitive Baptists are still using the same hymn texts which formed the backbone of the repertory when the church was founded in the early nineteenth century. The two standard hymnbooks, Benjamin Lloyd’s Primitive Hymns (1841) and D.H. Goble’s Primitive Baptist Hymn Book (1887), each one containing texts but no music, are still in print. The books contain hymns written up to the original dates of publication, but the core of each collection consists of the stern hymns of eighteenth century Christianity, many of them composed by such great English divines as Isaac Watts, John Newton and Samuel Stennett. Among some of the more liberal Primitive Baptist associations, lighter-hearted, buoyant gospel hymns have gained a toehold, but in most places they have not managed to drive out these sturdy old Calvinist workhorses.
Thumbing through one of these little hymnbooks, one does not find songs of complacent happiness or aggressive optimism, but rather hymns which express humility and fear before a powerful God, the leaden feeling of moments before grace, the terrible fear of damnation, the inscrutable mystery of God’s ways. Texts which have long since been purged from regular denominational hymnbooks because of their pervasive gloom retain their importance for Primitive Baptists:
Hark! from the tombs a doleful sound!
My ears, attend the cry:
Ye living men, come view the ground
Where you must shortly lie.
The time is swiftly rolling on
When I must faint and die;
My body to the dust return,
And there forgotten lie.
Lord, what a wretched land is this,
That yields us no supply.
No cheering fruits, no wholesome trees,
No streams of living joy!
When sorrows encompass me round,
And many distresses I see,
Astonished, I cry, Can a mortal be found,
Surrounded with troubles like me?
Such hymns are sung slowly in unison, without musical accompaniment, to doleful tunes drawn from the collective memory of the singers. A large number of these tunes are unison versions of the three- or four-part hymns found in the shape-note song books published in the South during the nineteenth century. George Pullen Jackson has shown that the Southern song writers who contributed to these published collections drew heavily on the tune stocks of the Anglo-American folk tradition,3 a tradition which also produced the Primitive Baptist music. But it cannot be automatically assumed from such circumstantial evidence that the Primitive Baptist versions were learned from the books. The overlap in the two repertories may simply reflect the fact that each had its origins in the same oral traditions of the early nineteenth century.
Whether the Primitive tunes have survived purely in oral channels, parallel to various written extensions, or whether they have enjoyed the stabilizing support of written collections at various points, they nevertheless survive today without benefit of musical notation and are subject to the shaping influences of regional and temporal variation. Some of the tunes are variants of secular tunes: one such tune used with the text “When I can read my title clear’’ is a member of the tune family associated with the ballad “The House Carpenter.” Given the strength of Primitive Baptist singing and the large current repertory, it may contain once popular secular tunes which now exist only in the sacred versions, preserved under the canopy of the church.
Since the words are printed and the tunes sung from memory, texts and tunes tend to float. The same tune, usually nameless, may be used for many texts of the same metric pattern and, on different occasions, a particular hymn may be sung to several different tunes. Such flexibility is particularly noticeable in the black church, where old hymns have been grafted to spirituals, yielding hybrids of great vigor.
In many churches in the nineteenth century, it was common for hymns to be lined out: the song leader chanted one or two lines, which the congregation then sang, and so on through all the verses. This practice, once a necessity in congregations where books were scarce, was abandoned by most churches as soon as books became more plentiful. For the most part, however, Primitive Baptists continued the practice as an honored tradition; it still thrives today among black congregations in general and is common among white churches located in some parts of the mountains.
It is particularly interesting to note white and black versions of the same tune. As with many Southern denominations before the Civil War, slaves and masters attended the same churches, and it was not until the late nineteenth century that Primitive Baptist associations divided into black and white branches. If we can assume that there was a common repertory of tunes up to the moment of division, then the contemporary divergence between black and white versions is fascinating evidence of the shaping power of cultural contact on tune evolution. In general, the black versions are slower, more elaborately ornamented, and more heavily rhythmic, while the white versions are stronger in melody and more subtly ornamented. The size of the tune repertory is smaller in the black community (counting only the old hymns and omitting spirituals), possibly because they have never been preserved in printed song books.
Shape Notes and Singing Masters
This century has seen the modernization of Primitive Baptist hymn singing. It really began with the local and itinerant singing school masters of the teens and twenties who found a receptive audience among many of the mountain people. These schools, in which the teacher charged small fees for conducting week-long workshops in religious part-singing, were not sponsored by the Primitive Baptist Church and were frequently interdenominational. They attracted numerous church members, and with their rising popularity, music literacy spread and generated a demand among some Primitive Baptists for fresh material. Temptation came in the form of little paperback songbooks published in the same easy-to-read shape-note system of notation used in the schools. The books were sometimes sold by the teachers themselves, who occasionally served as agents for hymnbook publishers seeking to open new markets by introducing music literacy in rural areas. (It is important to note that these collections were significantly different from the old shape-note books which had never been used in Primitive Baptist services. The songs, the musical style, even the shape-note systems, were different.)
It must have been exhilarating for singers to find a brand new repertory suddenly opening before them. The new books contained hymns which differed considerably in style and content from the traditional Primitive Baptist music, and seem to have had at least a superficial attraction that initially won over Primitive Baptist conservatism. The old unison folk tunes had been built on the modal scales of British oral tradition, but these newer songs, many of them recently composed gospel hymns with lively tunes and sentimental words, tended to be in major keys and were straight-jacketed melodically by the tempered-scale harmonic demands of the piano on which many of them had been composed. Despite staunch resistance from traditionalists, the new hymns gained enough general popularity that “official” Primitive Baptist hymnbooks began to be published and adopted by some of the churches. The books included both words and music, and contained mixtures of new songs and traditional standards which occasionally received new four-part facades that made them quite unlike their former selves.
The singing school was thus one commercial wedge which succeeded in loosening the hold of religious folk traditions among the Primitive Baptists. Significantly, it was a relatively superficial modernization, and did not constitute a change in doctrine. And as it turned out, its success was only marginal. The new books never succeeded in driving out the old texts. The habits of tradition die hard, and having neither the accompanying piano (instruments were still prohibited in church by doctrine), nor the high musical literacy to bring off the four-part harmonies which were the main feature of the newer gospel songs, many congregations simply reverted to the unison, modal, ornamented style of the past. Some congregations which have committed themselves to music books have found that the old skills can dissipate quickly when neglected. But others, in the tradition of Primitive Baptist conservatism, have resisted the change, and have refused to allow note books into the church. In such groups, the traditional music is still alive, and the chilling old melodies are still delivered strong and full.
Songs to Keep and Songs to Trade
There’s a lot of difference in singing. There’s pretty singing, and then there’s good singing. And good singing is better than pretty singing, I’ll give you an illustration. A son had left home, and his father couldn’t sing a tune. He could not sing a tune, in a few years, he returned home. And he greeted his mother and said, “Mother, where’s Dad?” “Down at the barn, doing his work.” And he went down, and when he got in hearing, his daddy was going over the words
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me; I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
And he said he walked around, and as he turned around beside the barn, his daddy had his head over, and he could see the tears dropping, each time he went over those words. Now, he said, it wasn’t pretty, but it was the best singing he’d ever heard in his life.
There is no better evidence or explanation for the survival value and the expressive power of the old Primitive hymns than the fact that the songs live, not just in the church, but in the community at large. Just as Primitive Baptists have resisted the compartmentalization of religion, they have made the singing of its hymns a part of daily life. To hear preaching, you have to get to the church, but the songs are portable, and accessible even if you don’t have a Bible handy. It is a rare member of the community who doesn’t know, hasn’t heard, or doesn’t enjoy Primitive Baptist hymns, even if he no longer attends that church.
Most of the music in the home was just singing. Dad would sing in them old hymn books. Many, many mornings in the wintertime we’d get up before day, he woke me up singing some old hymn. Just about every morning, he would get up and get the fire started, and sing a hymn or two before breakfast. And then, during the day or during the night, he’d take a notion — and he’d have us children to help him at night sometimes — we’d gather around a little table with the oil lamp, and we’d all try to help. And that singing wasn’t just in the house. We had neighbors who lived half a mile away, lived on a farm, and you could be out — there was no noise, no airplanes, no automobiles or anything to destroy the sound — and you could hear people singing sometimes, I guess, for a mile. The ladies'd be out sometimes about their work, and the men, and you could just hear that singing just echo from one hill to the other.
Because so much attention has been lavished on the secular folk music of the Appalachians, it is easy to forget that there were many families whose entire lives, including their music, centered around faith. The singing of the old hymns and the reading of the King James Bible accompanied church people literally from the cradle to the grave. There would be prayer meetings held in the evenings at members’ would request songs of their children who gathered around their beds. But the songs were not always used in such somber, religious contexts. At times they were parts of lighter social occasions. Bean stringings and apple peelings provided an opportunity for people to get together and sing recreationally — not always or only the familiar ballads and secular songs, but sometimes the folk hymns that were used in the churches. Long trips by wagon, and later by automobile, were passed in group hymn singing. While Primitive Baptists objected to the use of musical instruments in church, there was no proscription against their use elsewhere in the community, and the hymn tunes occasionally found their way into string band arrangements. One local musician, Golden Harris, recorded a pair of Primitive Baptist hymns in 1931, singing and accompanying himself on the fiddle.4 There are even reports from the black community of the hymns being used as work songs during wood chopping and plowing.
It is important to remember that these hymns, as units of oral tradition, were subject to the same forms of dispersion as other genres of mountain folklore. Traveling elders and song leaders, those who had special skill for remembering tunes and building large mental repertories, were the primary agents of song transmission. Song trading occurred with hymns much as with fiddle tunes. An elder visiting another church as a guest preacher might carry with him a favorite tune, and leave it behind when he left, having himself picked up a new tune or new way of singing an old one. The large annual association meetings which brought church people together from a large area functioned, in fact, as the ecclesiastical counterpart to modern-day fiddlers’ contests. Song exchange continues today, the only concession to modernization being that some tunes are captured not by the memory but with a portable tape recorder.
Songs Which Keep the Memory
I’d been somewhere and was way in the night coming back. I was coming, and the moon was shining so bright, it was mighty nigh . . . you could pick up a pin almost. I was coming along ridge and wood, leaves and things all off. I was walking and singing. I never will forget the song I was singing was "Blue Moon of Kentucky. ” The moon was shining so bright, that just struck me, you know, in my mind. And don’t you know, as dear as it was, something got over the moon. A dark cloud just overshadowed it, and I couldn’t see nowhere. And a voice spoke to me out of that cloud. You know what it said? Called me by name, said, “You quit singing that song. The song for you to sing’’ — he pointed it out to me — “is 'The time is swiftly rolling on when you must faint and die.’” And that scared me. That frightened me. I didn't sing no more of that other song. But I’m glad He took it away from me. I ain’t got no more charm for them kind of songs.
The Primitive hymns are not just songs which must stand or fall on their own musical merits. They are integral components of a deeply internalized world view, and have a special staying power unmatched by even the best-loved secular song. The expressive range of the repertory is broad, and there is always a hymn one can turn to for special comfort in times of distress. Some of God’s gifts, in fact, come in the form of music. One elder tells of two angels hovering overhead as he lay in bed, singing him one of the old hymns as a special message of salvation. Another heard the faint voice of a dead grandmother singing a hymn in the air around him as he worked in the field. Such “gift songs’’ are valued as emblems of grace, and none who receive such blessings will ever lose the sense of their special symbolic meaning.
Songs received from divine sources stand an improved chance of surviving in the oral tradition. But other factors are also influential. A song treasured as a spiritual gift by a member, and always led by him in church, becomes a memorial to him after he has passed away; it is sung at his funeral and for years afterwards in his memory. On the wings of such hymns, great church leaders achieve a kind of immortality in the oral history of the community. In one recent case, an energetic elder painstakingly reconstructed a tune which had once been the favorite of an elder now deceased, but which had since become virtually dead in the oral tradition. He consulted with those who knew scraps of the tune, and by applying his own musical skills, eventually patched them together. He brought the restored tune back into the tradition, to the joy of all, not only because a great old tune had been saved from extinction, but because the memory of a great church leader had been preserved as well. The tune now bears the name of the elder who had carried it for so many years.
It is hard for any so-called “folk tradition’’ to survive the rigors of modern life, and the Primitive Baptist community is no exception. But the Primitive Baptists have maintained stability and withstood the altering effects of time better perhaps than most communities with functioning oral traditions in the formal arts. As traditional expressive forms, the conversion narratives and the Primitive hymns have the same ingenuous vitality we admire in their secular counterparts, but are fed by a stronger root system. By adhering to the doctrine that personal contact with God is superior to any artificial or secondary communication, the church has placed itself beyond the reach of the mass media, and shielded itself against the commercialization which transformed the surrounding secular culture. In addition, the church values the old ways and considers them inherently superior to the products of a progressive mentality. It deplores change for change’s sake. And finally, the Primitive Baptist community itself has remained strong and thus nurtures the process of oral tradition as well as its forms. Like the Amish, Primitive Baptists have kept folklife strong by keeping the original religious commitment intact.
1. Elder Cushing Biggs Hassell, History of the Church of God, from the Creation to A.D. 1885; Including Especially the History of the Kehukee Primitive Baptist Association (Middletown N.Y.: Gilbert Beebe’s Sons, 1886).
2. “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak” — I Corinthians 14:34.
3. George Pullen Jackson, White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1933). See any of Jackson’s song collections for specific examples.
4. Golden Harris recorded “Dunlap” and “Parting Hand” at Columbia studios in New York City. They were released on the Indian Valley Label.
The author, a graduate student in anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapei Hill, worked with the Primitive Baptists of southwestern Virginia under a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. (1977)