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Gaelic Psalm Singing
January 11, 2008 6:08 AM   Subscribe

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.

While this leaves Hebridean Scots uncomfortable with their predecessor's past, it is an interesting, if unproven, connection between the two musical traditions.

In Presbyterian Free Church's across Lewis you can here some of the finest examples of spiritual Free Heterophony in the world, where the psalms are sung a cappella (without musical accompaniment), and led by a precentor (literally ‘one who sings beforehand’). In Gaelic psalm singing, the precentor leads the praise by commencing the tune, which he sings along with the congregation for two lines of a four-line stanza. On the third line, the precentor sings the line solo, which is then repeated by the congregation; this occurs for each line until the end of the item of praise. The result is a unique musical event, full of the traditions of Celtic religious culture, and deeply moving in its praise of God.

While a very different entity from the often joyous expressiveness of Baptist Gospel (The Hebrides have decades or miserable weather and even more miserable bible preachers to thank for that) it is surely as spiritual.

Some examples for you to listen to:

Psalm 133 [mp3]

Psalm 16 5-7 [mp3]

Psalm 16 6-9 [mp3]


[Originally posted as a response to this Askme]
posted by brautigan (96 comments total) 71 users marked this as a favorite

 
Why should that threaten their sense of authenticity? The God they're singing about isn't exactly Damballah now, is it?
posted by hermitosis at 6:20 AM on January 11, 2008


I posted on this over at MoFi a while back - I used to have a CD of Hebridean congregations doing the call-and-response. Some of the most utterly beautiful noise unto the Creator I've ever had the privilege to hear.
posted by Abiezer at 6:26 AM on January 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Why should that threaten their sense of authenticity? The God they're singing about isn't exactly Damballah now, is it?

I think the idea that the music could have come from slave masters is kinda like...uh...if someone were proposing that Hitler had written the national anthem. It just wouldn't go over well.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 6:26 AM on January 11, 2008


An unembiggening tale, certainly, if true.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:28 AM on January 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Is this style of singing also present in Nova Scotia?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:28 AM on January 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


This is a great theory, because not only does it explain gospel music, it also explains Tiger Woods.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 6:32 AM on January 11, 2008 [4 favorites]


It's a good article, but what should leap out to anyone reading it is the lack of scholarly contributions from ethnomusicologists. Historians and laypeople and musicians speak, but no one whose business is to study musical patterns expressed across culture. A lot is known about this already. For a long time, it's been well understood that many (most?) white as well as black American musics (I hate that term but there you are) evolved from musical ideas transferred back and forth between the Scots-Irish settlers of the American South and their slaves of African descent. The relationship was complex and has been playing out for nearly four centuries, with endless elaborations over time.

There should be nothing enormously controversial about this article, except perhaps an overemphasis on the Scots contribution to the development of black American gospel and maybe the addition of some detail about particular hallmarks of the hymn tradition that were adapted in America. The relationship isn't one of simple migration from one tradition to another, and musical patterns from West Africa are a bedrock part of Southern traditional musics, religious and non-religions. Call-and-response, a little bit more complex a form than lining-out, shows up in work songs in West Africa whose roots likely predate the settlement of the US by Europeans.

The feeling that "OMG I know this music! This is just like [other music that I'm familiar with!] is a pretty easy one to feel and get excited about when listening to lots of different musical culture. But a heard similarity is just the start of a musical inquiry.

I'd like to see this explored further, but by somebody with training in ethnomusicology who can be very specific about what the Scots contribution was, and who can put this into the larger cultural context of musical trading.
posted by Miko at 6:32 AM on January 11, 2008 [15 favorites]


Looks like maybe it used to be:
The Presbyterians in Nova Scotia followed the time honoured practices of the Church from the home country.
. . .
Presbyterians did not sing hymns in church, but preferred the unaccompanied singing of the Psalms which had been translated into Gaelic in rhymed metre. The Psalm singing was led by a precentor, who lined out the words for the congregation. This Psalm singing was accomplished with much individual creative embellishment of the tunes.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:33 AM on January 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think the idea that the music could have come from slave masters is kinda like...uh...if someone were proposing that Hitler had written the national anthem. It just wouldn't go over well.

Right, and I'm saying that's where they got their God, so why should that bother them?
posted by hermitosis at 6:33 AM on January 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


I don't get it. I mean, it's not like the hymns themselves are authentically African. I mean, obviously that must have been adopted from the overseers too, right? And of course they are speaking English. Why the method of singing any different?
posted by DU at 6:35 AM on January 11, 2008


Oh damn! I'm totally wrong in slamming the no-ethnomusicology angle. Because Ruff is an ethnomusicologist. Sorry, missed that.

/slinks off
posted by Miko at 6:36 AM on January 11, 2008


Let's not forget King Kenneth. Dub didn't come from reggae in the sixties.
posted by tellurian at 6:38 AM on January 11, 2008


...though I should add that the New England Puritans/Congregationalists sang this way too.
posted by Miko at 6:39 AM on January 11, 2008


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."

And this is the area I was born in and presently live. I have run across the same type of stuff when I researched local history.

Interestingly, my county was named after the Duke of Cumberland. Which would kinda be like Israel being named Hitlerland, if you look at the history.

Anyway, lots and lots of black people with Scottish surnames round these parts.
posted by konolia at 6:41 AM on January 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Hey, here's a great NPR show about this. Ruff held a conference on it last year, apparently.
posted by Miko at 6:41 AM on January 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Come on, now. Any reasonably educated person knows that -- LIKE ALL NEW WORLD TRADITIONS -- there are no pure "black" or "white" forms. "Lining out" a melody is used in musical traditions all over the world, including in Africa and in Norther Europe. This desire for an assertion of a singular point of origin for such a complex practice at the violent intersection of multiple histories of racial subjugation (for Celts were the "Blacks" of the British Isles for most of this history) is so obviously silly. Just because you find antecedents in places no one thought to look doesn't mean you've found a new origin point. African American gospel singing traditions have long been understood by scholars to be hybrids of Anglo-Celtic and African (and perhaps also Native American and Caribbean) folk musical styles.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:42 AM on January 11, 2008 [5 favorites]


Also, Scots were *very* commonly employed as overseers and on slave transport ships as workers just marginally better than the slaves they were in charge of. Of course there was cultural mingling, musical mingling, genetic mingling, surname mingling, etc.

What, did people think Christianity was a purely African form before this guy "discovered" it came from Europe into the New World too? Of course not. (Though in a sense, of course, Christianity "originally" comes from Africa anyway, but the history is hardly continuous with the West African peoples who made up most of the slave populations of the New World.)

Someone needs to read James Clifford's famous essay "The Pure Products Go Crazy."
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:45 AM on January 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Here's the conference info and schedule. Would have been worth going to just for the music.
posted by Miko at 6:51 AM on January 11, 2008


Some more help with the topic: read Eric Lott's classic "Love and Theft" on blackface minstrelsy; read Eileen Southern's older classic "The Music of Black Americans." Read Henry Louis Gates' *The Signifying Monkey.* Read Sam Floyd's *The Power of Black Music,* and then get back to me about what a shock -- shock! -- it is that Scots also line out hymns.

If you want to hear the continuation of the Anglo-Celtic version of this lining out tradition (still being practiced in Appalachia) just look up "Songs of the Old Regular Baptists." Ethnomusicologist Jeff Titon, one of the pre-eminent experts on both Black and White southern vernacular musics, wrote marvelous notes to a record of that name released on Folkways a few years back.

There are lined out singing traditions in Southeast Asia, East Asia, South Asia (including Vedic chant -- so are we going to say that gospel music really came from India?), and many other places. The idea is simple and obvious and has both occurred independently at different times to many different cultures and been widely diffused with the global slave trade and European colonization.

I hate the breathless tone of this article. It's not deserved in any way, and it's purely sensationalistic. And I really hate the idea expressed in the opening quote that somehow Mr. McRae was pwned by Willie Ruff or that in some sense lined out gospel singing is NOT an authentic musical expression of the African American experience. Blues was invented (technically, at least, as a fixed form and a name) by a white musician too.

Last reading recommendation: Charles Keil's "Peoples' Music Comparatively: Style and Stereotype, Class and Hegemony."

And Chris Rock: "Of course white people invented the blues. No white people . . . . no blues!"
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:56 AM on January 11, 2008 [9 favorites]


Though in a sense, of course, Christianity "originally" comes from Africa anyway...

What sense is that? Because humans evolved there?
posted by DU at 6:58 AM on January 11, 2008


OK, sorry to go ballistic. This is a pet peeve of mine. We need Flapjax at Midnight and maybe y2Karl in this thread ASAP. Paging Flapjax!?
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:58 AM on January 11, 2008


DU, no, because Palestine is in north Africa.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:59 AM on January 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Why should that threaten their sense of authenticity?

You're looking at this from a logical viewpoint, but the "feeling" that this music came from the slaves was is very soothing to blacks. It speaks well to us of inner strength and being able to overcome, even in the face of devastatingly horrific odds. To find out that we were just copying the overseers is bit of blow. For generations we learned and believed one thing and it made us special. To learn we're just plain folks hurts.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:59 AM on January 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


To find out that we were just copying the overseers is bit of blow.

But that's not what this research is saying at all - that's the oversimplification in the popular press and the lack of familiarity with the history of scholarship in this area - the stuff fourcheesemac noted above. No one was "just copying" anyone else - music was and is evolving.
posted by Miko at 7:02 AM on January 11, 2008


Brandon, that's crazy. How on earth does this diminish the black contribution to world musical culture even one iota? How does it make Mahalia Jackson a copycat?

Many aspects of African American musical practice demonstrably DO "come from" African antecedents. This is one of the most well understood facts in musicology, and has been documented on a *massive* scale by anthropologists like Melville Herskovitz and Richard Alan Waterman for the entire New World black musical sphere.

The same is true of many of the standard grammatical differentiating features of African American Vernacular English from "standard" English. Yet you can *also* find those same features with *different* linguistic genealogies in hundreds of other languages. So for example, what linguists call "copular deletion" to express verb aspect (This ice be cold/this ice cold == two different meanings) is a feature almost certainly carried into AAVE from West African languages; but you find it in lots of completely unrelated languages, including indigenous languages from very isolated places.

Your sense of hurt "feelings" is precisely why the tone of this article is frustrating. This is the racialist mind at work: things have to "be" either black or white, from Africa or from Europe, etc.

It's not true genetically for any individual. It's damn sure not true culturally for any population.

The basic fact is this: there is no gene for "black" or "white." These are not real things in nature, but human social constructions of difference keyed to many different factors, only some even phenotypic expressions. There damn sure is no such thing as "black music" or "white music" in any *racial" sense. Just as with language, all humans are endowed with the exact same faculty for musical creativity and recognition.

Nor do musics (or languages) "come from" one place beyond their immediate first emergence, somewhere in the very distant mists of prehistory. Musical styles, instruments, cultures, sounds -- all of these have been in swirling global circulation for eons, just like "culture" more generally.

So the whole premise is wrong. Actually, the key reading is really Franz Boas' *Race, Language, and Culture.* Anthropologists took this set of premises apart in the 1930s.

OK, I've said way too much. It's a topic near and dear to my heart, and I apologize for ranting so verbosely.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:10 AM on January 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Except to say that "copular" deletion should have been "copula deletion" -- the dropping of the verb "to be" to distinguish between continuous and punctual verb aspects.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:11 AM on January 11, 2008


Any excuse to check out the Smithsonian Folkways CDs Old Regular Baptists: Lined-Out Hymnody from Southeastern Kentucky and Songs of the Old Regular Baptists, Vol. 2 is a good one. Earth-shaking stuff, and relevant to this discussion.
posted by Kinbote at 7:23 AM on January 11, 2008


fourcheesemac: DU, no, because Palestine is in north Africa.

Er, I'm afraid you may need one of those thingies, what are they called? Maps, that's it!

Palestine is the wrong side of Suez to be in North Africa. It's in fact in Asia.
posted by Skeptic at 7:24 AM on January 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


Sorry Skeptic, you're right of course. I stnad corrected and will be contacting Miss Teen South Carolina for a map.

I meant the broader "Holy Land," of course, which straddles northeast Africa and the edge of far western Asia. Culturally, of course, that's what made it the crucible of culture that it became.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:31 AM on January 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Well, they were both oppressed by WASPs.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:35 AM on January 11, 2008


But that's not what this research is saying at all

Brandon, that's crazy. How on earth does this diminish the black contribution to world musical culture even one iota?

Actually, its Black Americans contribution to music that's the issue and there's a lot of scars there.

Also, You guys are talking logic and what you're saying makes sense on a logical level.

But there's no way in hell you walk into a black church and tell it's elders something that they've believed in, probably before they could articulate it, is wrong. That's messing with their identity and that's not a easy pill to swallow. We're dealing with stories here, stories told and learned to shape a person and once you start fudging with that, even if the new stories are true, there's gonna be a fight, even if that's not what you're looking for.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:36 AM on January 11, 2008 [4 favorites]


And here I've spent years teaching my geography and history students that Palestine is in *Asia*, not North Africa. Someone better tell all the Geographers out there. They still foolishly harbor the same illusion.
posted by absalom at 7:40 AM on January 11, 2008


Post-Posting: I see someone has already gone with a different Palestine quip. Consider mine retracted.
posted by absalom at 7:42 AM on January 11, 2008


It's racist to make black people sad.

On the other hand, it's silly to found too much of your identity on any one particular interpretation of history. The past -- a miasma of myth, fact-like kibbles and emotion -- is just furniture: the present is where we live.

You can't let your history own you. You own it. Or, at least, you rent it.

If it owns you, you end up mewling like a baby whenever an egghead unearths a scrap of truth that dislodges your prized niche. You end up rooting for feeling over fact, group-ego over history. You end up, in other words, like one of those dorks clinging to dead notions like flat planets or racial purity or international copyright law.

It's so sad it makes me want to sing a dirge.
posted by CheeseburgerBrown at 7:42 AM on January 11, 2008 [4 favorites]


Palestine is the wrong side of Suez to be in North Africa. It's in fact in Asia.

I'll inform St. Augustine that he's been voted off the island.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:45 AM on January 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Well, if you send that letter to Palestine, it'll get returned to sender. Augustine was the bishop of Hippo Regius, in modern day Algeria, which is certainly North Africa.
posted by absalom at 8:06 AM on January 11, 2008


Brandon, precisely my point, I think -- no one had any business telling Elder McRae "sorry, but this isn't your musical style." I doubt that's actually what transpired with Ruff, anyway, who is a smart enough cat. It's the article that draws out this "who woulda thunk it" either/or logic. Lining out is as MUCH an invention of African Americans (New World Africans, actually) as it an invention of anyone else's. I think we actually are agreeing in our ways.

Geographers, still thy tongues. Consider me lashed to the mizzen. I actually do, of course, know that Asia lies across the water from Egypt. I was firing too quickly from the hip because this topic a hot one for me (not Africa/Asia and Christianity; rather the origins of "Black" musical styles). There is still a very strong case to be made for the African origins of Christianity, and there has been Christianity in Africa since there has been Christianity. My point, of course, would be that it would be silly to say to an Italian "sorry, but your religion was really invented by Black -- OR ASIAN -- people, so it's not fair for you to claim the Sistine Chapel as an Italian accomplishment."

Of course, in another profound sense, the culture area shaping new religious movements at the time of Christ was as much "Mediterranean" as it was either "African" or "Asian." So an Italian could come back at me and say "But NO! My Roman ancestors killed Jesus! That makes us the real first Christians." Or something like that. These are not factually resolvable arguments because no person belongs to a single historical category of identity, far less any particular expressive cultural idiom, religion, etc. Unless we're talking about a very, very isolated and very premodern culture, and even in those cases anthropologists don't really think there are any extant cultural "isolates," or have been in the modern era.

The whole premise of the argument is wrong, starting with the idea that there is such a thing as "black" music or "white" music. Period. Gotta go to work now, but looking forward to checking in on this thread later!
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:15 AM on January 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Wow, thanks. I think I just found my music cue for my production of "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe," which calls for chanting heard offstage.
posted by bovious at 8:19 AM on January 11, 2008


Er, actually, starting with the premise that there are "black" people and "white" people, to be more precise. Now, over and out. (I am the king of the afterthought correction today!)
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:19 AM on January 11, 2008


Anyway, lots of great info and links in this post and thread. It's like a frikkin' gold mine.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:25 AM on January 11, 2008


Aw heck, I need to come back with one more little thought experiment.

What we are really talking about here is this simple: I want the people around me to sing a song I know but they don't. None of us are literate or read music, or our musical styles are even written ones.

So it occurs to me, maybe I'll sing one line out, then have everyone sing it back to me the same way. And then I'll do it again. Over a few decades or centuries, this develops into an elaborated performance practice with repertoires specifically designed for this kind of presentation.

It's so stupidly obvious as a solution to the transmission of musical ideas that it has, indeed, happened that way throughout history and across cultures and still does today. As I said, Vedic Chant is learned in this way -- that is ancient Indo-Aryan Sanskrit chant. So are hundreds of other styles of music performed by a huge diversity of cultures on every continent in the world where people live.

No one "owns" it, any more than people "own" octaves or minor thirds or singing in falsetto. What cultures own are their particular histories of elaborating simple ideas such as this. And in that respect, the African American contribution to the global history of lined-out singing is one of the great musical accomplishments of all time that we know of. Of course there are historical connections between the New World African practices and New World Anglo-Celtic practices. There are in every other domain of culture as well, beginning with Christianity and the English language as such, both -- I hope all would agree - fairly inseparable components of African American gospel and spiritual singing traditions.
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:32 AM on January 11, 2008 [3 favorites]


Gotta go to work now, but looking forward to checking in on this thread later!

Come back soon! I've enjoyed each of your posts in this thread.

You can't let your history own you. You own it. Or, at least, you rent it.

But that's the thing. As Brandon Blatcher points out, the stories we blacks have told ourselves about the origins of various music are our attempts to own history. And the "You didn't create this music! Buuurn!" framing in the article (though, thanks to fourcheesemac, I see it wasn't Ruff's attitude) is like an eviction notice.

In my history classes from elementary school to high school, here's what I learned about blacks in America: First we were slaves, then Lincoln freed us, then the Tuskegee airmen did some stuff, then Martin Luther King, Jr. showed up. The End. It was from family and church members and musicians that I learned more about the descendants of West African slaves, and this sense that we created certain forms of music in response to our treatment played a supremely significant part in shaping identity.

I don't think many people -- black, white, purple, whatever --- are as enlightened about the intertwining cultural history of art forms as fourcheesemac, Miko, and others in this thread, and I think the most likely interpretation of this research will tend towards "so blacks really haven't created or contributed anything at all." We get -- and give -- ourselves so little credit, it's easy to see why Ruff's and other's findings could be a blow to black pride. I hope it's not; I hope it causes people to think about how lucky we all are that art and the act of creation are processes that transcend cultural barriers, and we should all take pride in the things we all have. But I can see some feelings being bruised by this type of finding.
posted by lord_wolf at 8:34 AM on January 11, 2008 [9 favorites]


Blessed Hope Services contains music and sermons from Blessed Hope Old Regular Baptist church in Liberty, Kentucky. Good stuff.
posted by wfitzgerald at 8:36 AM on January 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


The way this was posted, it sure seemed like an "In your face!" attitude, which bothered me, though I am sure the research is valid. I think it must have been heart-breaking to discover that, in trying to embrace and take control of your culture, you were actually not doing anything of the sort, because the music originated somewhere else.

That doesn't mean, of course, that African Americans didn't add their own touches to the original music, changing and evolving it over time to actually reflect more of their culture, though. And I think that fourcheesemac has it right when he talks about the whole, "I sing and then you sing and eventually we can all sing a song together," progression. Music really is a process, isn't it, as we can see over on our own Mefi music site.

Really interesting post, btw.
posted by misha at 8:52 AM on January 11, 2008


I don't think many people -- black, white, purple, whatever --- are as enlightened about the intertwining cultural history of art forms as fourcheesemac, Miko, and others in this thread, and I think the most likely interpretation of this research will tend towards "so blacks really haven't created or contributed anything at all."

Bingo. Look, fourcheesemac, you're one of my favorite posters here and you know a ton about this stuff, but you seem willfully obtuse about the psychology here. You're so impatient with misinterpretations of racial and cultural history that you forget most people were brought up with them and have assimilated them on a deep level. You can't expect other people to react the way you do, and your heated responses could be unhelpful (though so far this thread is going great).

Thanks for a terrific post, brautigan, and a terrific discussion, everyone!
posted by languagehat at 8:58 AM on January 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


You're looking at this from a logical viewpoint, but the "feeling" that this music came from the slaves was is very soothing to blacks. It speaks well to us of inner strength and being able to overcome, even in the face of devastatingly horrific odds.

It's soothing to whites too. "We all benefit from the magnificent culture that emerged from such horror."

"Soul food" originated in England. Well, fried chicken anyway, and probably just about everything else.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 9:14 AM on January 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


it's easy to see why Ruff's and other's findings could be a blow to black pride.

Given the way the first linked article was written, I think it's inevitable that there will be hurt feelings (justifiably hurt feelings). Worse, some people will use the discovery to be intentionally hurtful, poisoning what should be a lovely thing.
posted by aramaic at 9:17 AM on January 11, 2008


It all balances out, because, at it turns out, Africans invented haggis.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:40 AM on January 11, 2008 [5 favorites]


So, languagehat, are you saying people should be careful with the tone they strike when answering questions of ethnomusicology?
posted by stinkycheese at 9:42 AM on January 11, 2008


I hear you, Brandon Blatcher (and lord_wolf), but I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to that mighty day when blacks will be able to look around in this country and know in their bones just how much of white racism is purely a desperate and hopeless envy whites feel toward black people.
posted by jamjam at 9:55 AM on January 11, 2008


Hey languagehat, I don't think I was being *heated,* really, just passionate about the subject.
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:03 AM on January 11, 2008


Or rather, my "heat" is aimed at the article, not the poster, or any commenter in this thread. I think the article's tone is so baldly wrong that it could make the discussion go down bad paths it doesn't have to.

Other great lining out traditions that occurred to me: Sufi Qawwali, Hindu Bhajan singing, some schools of Qu'ranic recitation (esp. in SE Asia).
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:05 AM on January 11, 2008


An unembiggening tale, certainly, if true.

Agreed. It might make the style seem less cromulent to the African American singers, if true.
posted by nzero at 10:09 AM on January 11, 2008


white racism is purely a desperate and hopeless envy whites feel toward black people

After listening to Appalachian Music and old country, I don't understand that envy. Every culture has some really great music in it.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:10 AM on January 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Thanks for this post brautigan. Irrespective of all the problems, confusions and contradictions inherent in religion, there does exist an aesthetically beautiful part to many of it's traditions. Without even internalizing the words, this form of chanting is peaceful to the soul

But I actually agree strongly with fourcheesemac. I have in the past argued here that race is purely social construct without any biological meaning. And that we would all do better to move beyond that. So I agree with fourcheesemac that it is silly to discuss ownership of this in an exclusionary way when this is a basic human activity. Not only does it appear to be historically incorrect, but to fight for ownership of this is something that reinforces the idea of racial classifications instead of moving beyond it.

I fail to see why it is not sufficient to say "This beautiful tradition of worship is something that we have internalized and utilized within my community." As the alternative, "My race started this beautiful tradition of worship" does not seem to advance any meaningful ball.
posted by dios at 10:13 AM on January 11, 2008


that mighty day when blacks will be able to look around in this country and know in their bones just how much of white racism is purely a desperate and hopeless envy whites feel toward black people.

Pretty much the argument of Eric Lott's *Love and Theft,* which I cited above. It's an amazing book that taught me much about how to think about music and "race" clearly. I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone interested in the question "what is 'black music'?"
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:15 AM on January 11, 2008


(though Lott doesn't characterize the 'envy' as "hopeless," to be sure, just as part of the deep psychology of a racist society that projects both desire and fear onto black bodies and their musical expressions)
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:16 AM on January 11, 2008


ethnomethodologist writes "'Soul food' originated in England. Well, fried chicken anyway, and probably just about everything else."

Meh, it's all been done before. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that soul food and gospel music originated in China in 5800 BC, simultaneously in Mesopotamia, then reinvented in India in 3000 BC, Greece in 2000 BC, etc, etc.
posted by mullingitover at 10:21 AM on January 11, 2008


...white racism is purely a desperate and hopeless envy whites feel toward black people
A ridiculous assertion. Intolerance of differences is so prevalent throughout history and across cultures that to chalk it up to envy is somewhat shortsighted.
posted by rocket88 at 10:32 AM on January 11, 2008


violent intersection of multiple histories of racial subjugation (for Celts were the "Blacks" of the British Isles for most of this history) is so obviously silly.

Except for the fact that the Scots were the slave-owners, not the slaves. Other than that, yeah, they were treated just like black people.

/sarcasm.

Sorry - it really pisses me off that Scots and people of Scottish descent want to rewrite the British Empire as the English Empire - the Scots united with England in 1707* primarily to get involved in colonialism, and were disproportionately involved with colonialism throughout the Caribbean, American and later Asian and African colonies. Yes, Catholics were discriminated against, but most Scots (including the Gaelic psalm singers) were Protestant. (That said, the British government still treated Catholics better than many Catholic countries treated Protestants at the same time).

*was this a popular union? Well, many English hated it as much as the Scots - they certainly didn't want union with a poorly resourced and potentially rebellious neighbour. And they really didn't want the Scots coming south for their jobs or honing on their trade. But enough bigwigs in both countries - including the Queen of both countries - wanted it to go through.

As a history student, I get very angry at the attempt to whitewash the history of Scotland and Wales as a part of Britain - or to claim special victim status - by blaming everything on the English. If we were to go on with our Godwintastic comparisons, it's like Germany claiming never to have been fascist, because that was clearly the Italians. They all voted for the British government, they all supported the colonies, they all benefitted economically from slavery and unequal trade - the British Isles share responsibility for the British Empire.

I have read a good argument that the Irish were somewhat racialized (beginning in the late sixteenth century), that is, described as being essentially different and at a different level of development from the English, but they were never anywhere near as stigmatised as black people would be in the height of the slavery and post-slavery era. I have not heard of the Scots or Welsh being racialized, until the big push for defining every people by their ethnicity in the 19th century (but I could have missed this). They were recognized as ethnically different, but so were the French and Germans. The English were chauvenistically prejudiced against them, but in the way that Europeans are about each other - they didn't have the same racial differentation they would have about Native North Americans or Africans. People intermarried, especially among the upper classes, and there was never a suggestion of misegeneation (I can't spell this word). Nor (in the early period of empire and slavery) would Scots, Welsh and Irish ever be grouped together as "Celts" - the word was used by the Romans to describe people who lived in now modern day France and other parts of Continental Europe, but was not used about the Welsh, Scots and Irish as a group until after 1700 (and was introduced by a Welsh nationalist).

Language discrimination against Gaelic and Welsh did happen, but not until the nineteenth century. No one cared what language poor people spoke before then. The Welsh were part of England from about 1536 on, and had 300 years of equality before there were policies against their language. The Bible was in Welsh, for instance. Before Wales became formally a pricipality within the Kingdom of England, the Welsh did not have equality under the law or representation at the Parliament - the 16th century Welsh elite wanted to join England so that they would get the same rights and law as the English.

No one would justify the anti-Welsh or anti-Gaelic policies of the later British government, but that does not equal hundreds of years of victimization. As for the Highland Clearances, they were carried out by Scottish landlords against their Scottish tenants - a tragedy, but a class issue, not an ethnic one.
posted by jb at 10:33 AM on January 11, 2008 [8 favorites]


"Soul food" originated in England. Well, fried chicken anyway, and probably just about everything else.

Not England, Scotland. At least as far as chicken goes. English cookery tends to boiled or roast chickens.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:37 AM on January 11, 2008


Gospel music was brought to the New World by the Vikings. You bunch of anti-Scandinavists. And was then re-invented by the Iroquois during the period when they were writing the U.S. Constitution, inventing feminism, and doing the first pilot trial run of eBay.
posted by XMLicious at 10:44 AM on January 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


...white racism is purely a desperate and hopeless envy whites feel toward black people
A ridiculous assertion. Intolerance of differences is so prevalent throughout history and across cultures that to chalk it up to envy is somewhat shortsighted.
posted by rocket88


If I'd meant racism in general I would have said so. American Indians, by contrast, were treated as vermin to be exterminated-- and they mostly were.
posted by jamjam at 11:08 AM on January 11, 2008


(The idea that black music came from Africa is) soothing to whites too. "We all benefit from the magnificent culture that emerged from such horror."


Tru dat.
posted by kozad at 11:11 AM on January 11, 2008


I was going to take issue with the idea that a musical form has to be "pure", that the idea that the origins of a musical style might diminish what it ultimately produced seems silly to me, but others have already stated that point far better than I could have.

Instead, I'll suggest that the push-back on something like this probably isn't that much different from white people getting bent out of shape at the idea that Jesus might have been something other than the fair skinned, flowing hair, bearded person depicted in all their churches. People grow up believing something. They put a lot of faith in a simple premise, and when they discover that a minor, yet core part of that faith might not be entirely accurate, it shakes their entire perspective.

So yeah, I don't doubt that the gospel music may have had some unusual origins, but I also feel that it doesn't diminish the beauty and heart of those works one iota.
posted by quin at 11:14 AM on January 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Absolutely fascinating, wonderful post. Great discussion too.

I too do not like differentiating between black and white music either, because it distracts people from discovering information about the subject (i.e. Scottish music traditions may have influenced American gospel music a few centuries ago).

Because of the ridiculous sensitivity to racial issues and the opportunistic racism/culturism that some use to counter it, some want to proclaim that 'IT'S WHITE MUSIC NOW!' or 'ITS BLACK MUSIC YOU'RE WRONG' ignoring the words used in the article. I never saw the claim that Gospel music was wholly the creation of Gaelic Scots, it merely quoted Ruff who believes that this remarkably similar music influenced early Gospel traditions.

Maybe Miko and fourcheesemac can correct me here, but it's my understanding that Africans weren't christians until they came to America, so it stands to reason that christian music like Gospel might have been influenced by European christians in more ways than just lyrics.

I don't see this as any threat to the legitimacy of Gospel or Blues or anything; it doesn't invalidate the hundreds of years of cultivation that people so deeply identify with. Moreover, if Gospel had died 200 years ago, no one would care as much as they do right now.
posted by hellslinger at 11:15 AM on January 11, 2008


Speaking of anti-Irish racism:
...I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country. I don't believe they are our fault. I believe there are not only many more of them than of old, but they are happier, better, more comfortably fed and lodged under our rule than they ever were. But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.
- Charles Kingsley, an English novelist and academic, 1860, after a visit to Ireland
This article (from a Creationist magazine) talks about the connection between Kingsley's views and his enthusiasm for a eugenics-type interpretation of evolution theory.
posted by XMLicious at 11:15 AM on January 11, 2008


Nobody owns music.
posted by tkchrist at 11:25 AM on January 11, 2008


hellslinger : ... it's my understanding that Africans weren't christians until they came to America, so it stands to reason that christian music like Gospel might have been influenced by European christians in more ways than just lyrics.

The Portuguese had a significant presence on the West African coast by the end of the 15th century, a the time of Columbus's voyages, which included at least some missionary efforts and slave trade as well as other forms of trade. This included the baptism of the Manikongo ruler of the Kingdom of Kongo. So it's quite possible that slaves brought to the Americas were already Christians, it's just that they would have probably been missionary converts rather than members of native African sects like the Coptic Christians in Egypt and Abyssinia.

But from the way the slave trade is usually described (Amistad, etc.) it seems unlikely that any organized African Christian customs or traditions would have made it through intact.
posted by XMLicious at 11:35 AM on January 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


What sense is that? Because humans evolved there?

This was alluded to above, but just to be clear, it really can be said that the church evolved there. Augustine of Hippo is one of the primary fathers of the Catholic Church, and was born in northern Africa. He studied in other parts of the Roman empire and eventually became a bishop in what is now Algeria. (e.g..)
posted by mdn at 11:38 AM on January 11, 2008


Not to mention the oppression of the Donatists in North Africa after the conversion of Constantine. Apart from Augustine's establishment of Catholic theology itself, the way that the newly-official state religion dealt with the Donatists was seminal to the way that the Church would deal with anything viewed as apostasy until after the Protestant Reformation.
posted by XMLicious at 11:45 AM on January 11, 2008


Maybe Miko and fourcheesemac can correct me here, but it's my understanding that Africans weren't christians until they came to America, so it stands to reason that christian music like Gospel might have been influenced by European christians in more ways than just lyrics.

I don't contest that at all - I don't know of any African groups that practiced Christianty before being transported into slavery (though I could certainly be wrong on that). I accept that much of the black sacred music tradition was born within the context of Christianity, a religion introduced and sometimes enforced by slave owners. One thing that informed my comment, though, is the work of musicologists who point out that there are some musical elements within those traditions that predate transportation and Christianity - the interpretation being that they were survivals of African musical traditions that didn't die out, but simply found expression in a Christian context that arose later. It's something that has been widely (and, I believe, convincingly) argued. But arguing that doesn't mean insisting that there was no influence from white Christians' music, either- that would, indeed, be ridiculous, because there are also plenty of hallmarks of the white hymn tradition within the black gospel music. And vice versa. And so on and on, world without end. You're right, there's no reason to think that Christian texts would be adopted without adopting other traditions of Christianity, as well. But the trade has gone both ways, multiple ways really.

All I'm arguing is that the article is too simplistic, and presents in sensationalistic fashion an example of the type of musical interchange that has been studied for years. Whites influenced blacks, blacks influenced whites, it happened again and again in hundreds of times and places and with a startling variety of resulting music. Everybody brought traditions that contributed to a new musical stew, which in turn continued to evolve, influence, and be influenced by more additional traditions, right down to the president day. Because that's what human communities do with musical communication.

I'm not suggesting that this psalm-singing tradition wasn't influenced by the Scots - clearly, it was - but that it doesn't 'belong' to the Scots in any meaningful way, and that any article like this ought to be understood in the context of all the other musical exchanges that have happened continually, and in all directions, as human beings move about the globe, and particularly, in the context of the Atlantic world during the centuries of the slave trade.
posted by Miko at 11:51 AM on January 11, 2008


Having now listened to both, I hear the similarities, and the great differences. Given the known historical connection between Scottish settlers and African-American slaves, it seems very unlikely that this is a case of parallel but unrelated development.

But at the same time, I don't think you could simply say that gospel music is Scottish. The Scottish music doesn't sound like gospel music. Gospel may have originated with Gaelic line-singing, but it has changed so much that it is truely African-American - that is, not African, but part of the history of experience of Africans-in-America, which is a history of merging cultures, as well as innovation.
posted by jb at 12:03 PM on January 11, 2008


Just to add - what I got from the article is that Ruff is excited about finding a firm European element in African-American culture, and in recognizing the European as well as African contributions to the recipe; he talked about African Americans understanding themselves better by recognizing both sides. But that's just the recipe, not the cooking. Heritage are only elements of a culture - what the culture is is what it does with those elements.
posted by jb at 12:06 PM on January 11, 2008


Ethopia was a Christian stronghold before the slave trade even began. There are other examples of Christian kingdoms in Africa if you care enough to look. I would count that as an "African group."
posted by absalom at 12:17 PM on January 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


I should have been more specific and said West African groups, because Ethopia is not usually mentioned as a force involved in the Atlantic slave trade. But even then, I wouldn't go so far as to guess that were NO West African Christians; just that Christianity was not a very common religious background for the people who were most often transported into slavery in the American South.
posted by Miko at 12:25 PM on January 11, 2008


Maybe Miko and fourcheesemac can correct me here, but it's my understanding that Africans weren't christians until they came to America, so it stands to reason that christian music like Gospel might have been influenced by European christians in more ways than just lyrics.

Yeah, I was gonna say that we could profitably take up the work of Eugene Genovese (*The Mind of the Master*) and James Scott (*The Hidden Transcript*) here. How to interpret the many varied adoptions of "Christianity" among New World African slave populations is a thorny and dense problem. In some cases, it was clearly a coercive tool of domination: worship white man's religion, speak his language, don't use your own rituals or languages or musics, or else . . . all part of the larger violent effort to rip people away from any sources of solidarity or historical memory or potentially subversive secretive communication and replace African culture with "civilized" (and docile) white alternatives. (A major argument behind the embrace of Islam and Garveyism by black radicals in the 20th century.)

In other cases, and as slavery persisted for generations, slave Christianity became a distinctive and voluntary culture, appearing in some ways to acquiesce to the master's culture, but allowing an alternate (or in Scott's reading, hidden or subversive) persistence of resistance encoded between the lines. (Hence the central role of adamant Christians, black and white, in the abolitionist movement). In the Caribbean and Latin America, more syncretic blends of African and Christian (and indigenous) religions emerged, and are still around today (Santeria, for example) under conditions that were more favorable to the retention of African languages, rituals, musics, and kinship structures (i.e., whole communities kept together on plantations rather than purposefully broken up and shuffled around to prevent collective resistance). And obviously, many individual African Americans (really, a majority over time) -- both under slavery and certainly since -- became earnest and believing Christians, and turned the egalitarian tenets of the master's faith into "weapons of the weak" (as James Scott calls this strategy) to be focused back on the master's claims of moral or intellectual superiority or greater power over the means of physical violence (see; "Civil Rights Movement, role of the black church in . . . .")

Black Christianity may have been many different things in different places and at different times for different individuals and communities. Thus also its associated sacred musical traditions.

None of this is entirely specific to African Americans, or North America either. The complex history of Native American engagements with Christianity is similarly diverse. (And Black/Native syncretism adds a whole new layer to discuss). I spent the Thanksgiving holiday in a Native American Christian church community this year (atheist that I am, I leave it at the door when I am working). If all you have to guide you is ideology, you wonder "how can these people worship the Lord Jesus Christ so passionately when the church has played a key role in enabling the genocide of their people?" But then you learn that the particular church in question funded the tribal government when no bank would loan the tribe money to start a sovereign government. And you see how being Christian accords morally with the Native spiritual traditions. And you see how every Christian in the community invites you warmly into their home with the explanation that "who knows, you might be Jesus too." (This was said to me several times.) As might any guest. And you see and hear how the Christian rituals have been shaped and formed around the Native language and culture for generations, so that this is not the same thing as the Christianity of, say, Mike Huckabee or Jerry Falwell, at all. Nor the Christianity of Elder McRae, though it has something in common with that. And you realize these fine people are not stupid or duped or victims; they are simply Christians, of the Native sort.

African American music, rooted as it is in African American Christianity and the broader African American experience, partakes of this sort of complex and layered history. You can hear in it any of these possibilities: acquiescence, idealism, anger, resistance, transcendence, moral righteousness, fear, community-building, fate-accepting, revolution, etc. etc.

That's what makes it so amazingly rich and beautiful and compelling, not any one stylistic or performative aspect of the music. The whole, messy, ugly, inspiring, depressing, thrilling history of the African experience in the New World under slavery and its aftermath is there in every note. And of course that history includes extensive admixtures with "white" culture, religion, and music. So what? Of course it does. Country and western music owes as much to African music as gospel music owes to Anglo-Celtic psalm singing.

No one can take that history away from black people. And god knows, there are parts of it I'm sure (indeed, I know) many black people wish *could* be taken away and returned to sender, as well as parts (like those feelings of pride and possession addressed eloquently by Brandon and Elder McRae, in the article) that are the very symbols of African American dignity over centuries of struggle.
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:42 PM on January 11, 2008 [3 favorites]


(And not, by the way, that the Christianity of poor whites has nothing in common with black Christianity either, my little dig at Falwellism notwithstanding .. . . see David Roediger, *The Wages of Whiteness*)
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:48 PM on January 11, 2008


This has been a really interesting discussion and quite unexpected.

I have been in Free churches in Lewis on several occasions and the sound, feeling and emotion in the Gaelic services are a joy to behold. The congregations are humble but resolute in their particular beliefs.

I think the Scotland On Sunday article does not give a fair representation of the situation as seen by the Free church congregations, Willie Ruff and congregations in the States. From what I can gather from my family involved in the Stornoway Free Church is that the connection Mr Ruff made was greeted with great curiosity. The Lewis folk's idea of their own spiritual musical heritage was as far removed for Ruff's "revelation" as many of the Gospel churches involved must have been. Noone in the church would have been proud or comfortable with the idea of overeseeing slaves or forcing on them their gaelic psalmistry and no idea that their style of singing was ever exported at all let alone in those horrible circumstances. Certainly there was no triumphalism or claim laid by the Free Church on Gospel music.

However, the possibility that there may have been a connection between their form of worship, something that most people on the island believe is specific to the area, to something as wonderful and global as gospel music was met with positivity and curiosity being described by the churches as a musical and spiritual adventure. Those on the island involved with Willie Ruff's research findings have stated they:

"...have been enabled by God's grace to bring live Gaelic Psalm Singing, to such diverse places as Paris, Liverpool, Alabama, Glasgow, Yale University Connecticut...we sing praises to the Lord along with our brothers and sisters from Alabama."

The albums they made, thanks to the interest generated on both sides of the Atlantic, have raised the sum of £70k to date, and all the proceeds from the sales have been used towards helping to reach a target of £1M, which is the cost of a compulsory upgrading of the Bethesda Home and Hospice in Stornoway, to allow it to remain open.

Personally, the idea that Hebridean overseers and missionaries sparked the form of worship that grew into the beautiful form of Gospel is one that doesn't ring true with me. I think call and response singing is a universal human expression particularly in situations of great emotion, unity and circumstance be it worship or hardship. I leave it to experts such as Mr Ruff to make these assertations in their own wisdom. Meantime, I take solace in hearing that bonds have been formed between globally disparate communities in the pursuit of a common goal, that of music, and friendship.

"Two months later, in a little church in Alabama, the precise moment of hearing those voices was absolutely thrilling. No need for words when tears of joy fill the eyes. Calum Martin knew; I knew; we all knew! But transcending the exhilarating sound of voices was a spirit of recognition, not just of how we sing, or how we 'line out', but reaching far beyond to the deepest sense of brotherhood."

Gospel music will always be the music of the African American regardless of the seeds from which it grew and if these were indeed sown by Lewismen and women all those years ago perhaps we can come full circle and be taught new forms (ideally more joyful!) of praise from the present Gospel churches ourselves.
posted by brautigan at 12:52 PM on January 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'd like to nth that this has been/is an awesome thread.

thanks, everyone!
posted by lord_wolf at 12:56 PM on January 11, 2008


fourcheesemac's contributions have been awesome.

I'd like to suggest as well Sweet's fantastic book, Recreating Africa: Culture, Kinship, and Religion in the African-Portuguese World, 1441-1770 and Thornton's Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World for a historical perspective on the syncretic process. If you can only read one, read Sweet.

I do understand why the question of the origin of gospel singing would be threatening to people who believe their traditions passed down unchanged, and I sympathize. But I can't help but feel that being able to create a unique culture with the tools at hand is a triumph as well.
posted by winna at 2:00 PM on January 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


This is one of the best threads I've read in a long time. I really appreciate all the perspectives and recommendations (winna, I've got the Thornton book and just added the Sweet to my wish list—thanks!).
posted by languagehat at 2:42 PM on January 11, 2008


thanks winna, and thanks everyone for a cool thread. i wish flapjax had come by. maybe he still will. this is really in his wheelhouse.

/goes back to studying maps of asia and africa
posted by fourcheesemac at 2:51 PM on January 11, 2008


mdn: on Christianity and Africa, don't forget Athanasius's role in the doctrine of the Trinity, and the Desert Fathers.

On the idea of culture and identity, a very good book to consult is Imagined Communities, by Benedict Anderson.

You may also wish to consult How the Irish Became White, by Noel Ignatiev.
posted by honest knave at 2:52 PM on January 11, 2008


Thanks for all the thougtful comments and book recommendations. Wonderful thread, brautigan. And the music! Beautifully eerie.
posted by Miko at 3:11 PM on January 11, 2008


Imagined Communities is a really, really good book. I couldn't have done my thesis work without it.
posted by absalom at 3:20 PM on January 11, 2008


Indeed, Miko and fourcheesemac's responses were excellent. I'm frantically trying to catch up on the links, maybe even buy some books here...

In reading your responses, I considered the reciprocal influences of these cultures that you spoke of, and the fact that Ruff is an accomplished musician himself. It made me aware of the irony in that the musicians of each culture themselves are the most willing to accept this lack of origination and ownership. I think that anyone who has a true love and understanding of any music understands that it is all inspired by other forms of art and music, and, by "leaders" claiming ownership, they're misrepresenting the art and the artists.
posted by hellslinger at 3:45 PM on January 11, 2008


fourcheesemac, I'm flattered that you paged me upthread. I'm halfway out the door, though, and I've really only been able to skim, so far, through both the linked articles and this intensely interesting thread, so I'm afraid I'm in no position to add anything meaningful to this fascinating discussion. Except that there've been some very perceptive comments throughout, from you, from Miko, languagehat and many others. I look forward to really reading, hearing the mp3s, and absorbing all this, though I'm afraid that might be a day or 2 from now, given my current schedule. But this is MeFi at its best, as far as I'm concerned. Great stuff! Thanks for the post, Brautigan.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:07 PM on January 11, 2008


It made me aware of the irony in that the musicians of each culture themselves are the most willing to accept this lack of origination and ownership.

That struck me too, hellslinger. It surprised me that a musician in what has to be one of the most richly influenced and iterative American musical forms - jazz - would so emphasize a single-point-of-origin story. But after reading his links, I think it may be that he emphasizes it a little, but once the story gets picked up by, er, the Scots-leaning media, some of that important context fades into the background.
posted by Miko at 6:29 PM on January 11, 2008


Listening to those mp3's reminded me of something and now I've finally come up with it. I was visiting a synagogue once for the Saturday morning Sabbath service and the rabbi was chanting the passages from the Torah instead of just reading it. The congregation was answering without chanting, but it still sounded very much like those Hebridean Psalm recitations.

It might have been the exact same text for all I know, I don't speak Hebrew. That would be nuts if it went all the way back, like back to the point when the Old Testament was oral tradition that hadn't been written down yet. Those crazy Jews and their defining of archetypes of Western civilization.
posted by XMLicious at 6:45 PM on January 11, 2008


This is common in Ireland. When I say common, I mean the majority of masses I've attended the priest has made some stab at singing the Psalms. Typically to recieve a much more tuneful response from the congregation.

However, it doesn't seem like such an original style of singing that it couldn't have originated lots of places.
posted by fshgrl at 7:35 PM on January 11, 2008


XMLicious: Interactions between the written word and oral culture, including the Hebrew tradition, are discussed in an article by the anthropologist Jack Goody and literary historian Ian Watt, "The Consequences of Literacy" (pt 1) (pt 2). You probably want to skip the intro and go right for the first heading, 'The Cultural Tradition in Non-Literate Societies".

Goody and Watt were challenged by Scribner and Cole in The Psychology of Literacy. S&C claimed that schooling had a greater impact on individual thinking than literacy, but that's not relevant to the current discussion in this thread, which has to do with the structure of call-response, its implications for a particular culture, and its appearance in various cultures.
posted by honest knave at 3:38 AM on January 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Great links, honest knave—thanks! (Any more recent work on the subject worth linking?)
posted by languagehat at 8:01 AM on January 12, 2008


languagehat: I'll post a few more links, but it's widely diverging from the thread topic, so email me for further discussion. (or maybe we can create a new post)

Check Google Scholar on citations of Goody & Watt and Scribner & Cole. Also, the very new book by Horst & Miller(which I haven't read, but which does incorporate some good research) The Cell Phone: An Anthropology of Communication.

On Scribner & Cole, consider this review for the journal of the American Ethnological Society: "Did Literacy Cause the Great Cognitive Divide?". Note, by the way, that Goody and Watt were looking at the long-term role of literacy in the ideas produced by a culture and how they connected to certain cognitive possibilities of writing (an analogue of Nussbaum on The Fragility of Goodness and Lowe on The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative in regards to theatre), not the short-term effect of introducing literacy to a society. So S&C aren't directly answering/refuting Goody's argument, just perhaps filling in some detail about periods of transition. Goody argues, for example, that writing makes certain kinds of teaching possible, so he would not be inconsistent with S&C.

More importantly, very recently, the question has changed from the "the consequences of literacy" to "the consequences of computer literacy". With projects such as One Laptop Per Child leading efforts in world literacy and education, the cognitive and social factors are almost completely different than those examined by Goody and Watt (the mutability of computer text, for example, is significant). This is an area which I know little about, although I hope to consider some of those questions in a research project I'm working on (I'll be posting it to MeFI projects next month), and perhaps in some of my graduate research.

Some places to look would be The Pew Internet & American Life Project or Socrates in the Labyrinth (a fascinating work by David Kolb on the rhetorical possibilities of hypertext). These differ from the focus of ethnography in design, since designers tend to look for quick, high-level design-related answers rather than deep structure. Educators are similarly narrow in focus.

The kind of transitions Goody describes and the transitions of our time differ in structure. Many prior cultural transitions were managed by a relatively-centralised elite (ancient Greece, or even slavery, which has clearly delineated power; colonisation is more complex). The shift to computer literacy, however, is occurring in a diverse network of competing (economically, ideologically) players and technologies. I'm looking forward to reading Horst and Miller's book, which I hope provide analysis of what is actually different and how it plays out in certain parts of the world.
posted by honest knave at 2:14 PM on January 12, 2008 [4 favorites]


Stunning post and discussion. I have one minor observation to contribute:

The "whoda thunk it?" tone of the article, and perhaps some of the breathless reaching and oversimplification as well, is due at least in part to the fact that it was running in a Scottish newspaper, aimed at Scottish readers, as a sort of Sunday-paper human interest story.

The robust and fascinating discussion in this thread has long since transcended whatever faults may be in the original newspaper article. A keeper.
posted by enrevanche at 3:40 PM on January 12, 2008


The post link has passed on. I was unable to locate an archive or mirror.
posted by christopherious at 9:04 PM on January 29, 2008


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