Indian, Black Gospel and Scottish Singing Form an Unusual Musical Bridge

By Chuck McCutcheon
Religion News Service
Saturday, April 21, 2007

Jazz musician and Yale University music scholar Willie Ruff, who uncovered the links between 18th-century Scottish singing and black gospel music, has connected another group to the style: Native Americans.

A descendant of an Oklahoma tribe contacted him after learning about a 2005 Yale conference on line singing, an a cappella vocal form that originated in Scotland and is still sung in parts of the South. And this week, a second conference featured Muscogee Creek Indians singing with Baptist groups from Alabama and Kentucky.

Ruff said he was surprised to learn that all three groups know the same hymn: "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah." They sang their versions at the conference.

"Never in my experience have such widely divergent groups of people, coming from traditions so vastly different, been brought together under one roof around a gratifying theme like this," said Ruff, who is black and a native of Sheffield, Ala.

Ruff is convinced that "presenting the line" -- the unaccompanied singing of psalms in Gaelic by Presbyterians of the Scottish Hebrides -- is the direct antecedent of "lining out," a hymnal style of singing of 19th-century slaves that is still practiced by the Alabama singers from the Sipsey River Primitive Baptist Association and a dwindling number of other Southern churches.

Ruff -- a bassist and French horn player who played with Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie -- believes that "lining out" evolved into the call-and-response of spirituals and gospel music that, in turn, influenced virtually every other type of American music.

In traditional line singing, a designated person sings a line solo, inviting congregation members to follow in their own time and with their own harmonies. The result is an echoing, surging and radiant chorus that critics have likened to waves of music crashing against the walls of a church.

Ruff's work has received extensive publicity in Scotland, where some news accounts and Internet postings contend his findings prove that the Scots invented gospel music. Although he regards that claim as vastly overstated, he said his research shows that gospel and other American musical forms have roots from someplace other than the slaves' native Africa.

Hugh Foley, a communications and fine arts professor at Rogers State University in Claremore, Okla., said the connections among the ethnic groups provide a fascinating insight into how American music formed.

"You have all these disparate traditions coming together to produce something new," said Foley, who is working with Ruff. "The Creeks were in between it all."

Ruff was unaware that Indians might practice the form until he received an e-mail from Jane Bardis of Tulsa, who is of Muscogee Creek descent. Bardis thought the line singing on a radio broadcast about Ruff's work sounded like what was sung in her local churches.

Intrigued, Ruff traveled to Oklahoma and became convinced that the Indians picked up the style from their original homelands in Alabama, Georgia and Florida. The forced resettlement of Creeks and other tribes (particularly the Cherokee) in the 19th century, known as the "Trail of Tears," took place as many tribal members converted to Christianity.

The influence of Scottish singing on the Creeks "has been an uncharted field, because it's not what people look for in Indian culture," Ruff said. "If [scholars] are going to study Indian culture, they want pure Indian culture."

Foley, the Oklahoma musicologist, said the Creeks combined the line-singing form with other indigenous styles to create something unique.

"The tonalities of American Indian singing are different than Western singing," he said. "Although the native people picked up the African and European styles, there were some aspects that, if you're just used to European music, sound a little off key, but they're working within that tradition. . . . What they all have in common is the lining-out style."

Muscogee Creek line singing can be heard at

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