of Southeastern Kentucky:
A Community of Sacred Song
by Jeff Todd Titon
Members of an Old Regular Baptist church from the Kentucky
coal-mining country in the heart of the southern Appalachian Mountains
look on as a "true believer" is baptized. Old Regular Baptists
carry on a tradition of singing that dates from the 16th century. Photo
courtesy Elwood Cornett.
The singing of the Old Regular Baptists from the Kentucky coal-mining
country in the heart of the southern Appalachian Mountains is one of the
oldest and deepest veins of the English/Scots/Irish-based American melodic
traditions. This hymnody, with its elaborate, lined-out, unaccompanied
singing, is not well known outside its region, cannot be heard on television
or radio, and little of it has been available on recordings. Yet it is
a regional and national treasure that deserves to be encouraged within
its community and made available to the world outside. Elwood Cornett,
Moderator (elected leader) of the Indian Bottom Association of Old Regular
Baptists, wrote: "We Old Regular Baptists are a peculiar people.
We sing differently. Some say our worship has a sad and mournful sound.
But I've never heard a more beautiful melody, and the sound of the worship
causes my heart to feel complete."
Old Regular Baptists form a close-knit community. They are concentrated
within their central Appalachian region in the upper South, and in certain
Kentucky counties - Letcher, Knott, Perry - there are more Old Regular
Baptists than members of any other Protestant denomination. In addition
to a geographical community, they also form a moral community of shared
beliefs. Elwood Cornett describes his people:
The Old Regular Baptist members come from many walks of life. Some
are highly educated - some are not. Some are well off financially -
some are not. Some are old - some are young. We come together as equal
children of God. We do not say we are better than someone else. We are
totally unconcerned about the opinions of modern theologians. Each person
has an individual relationship with God, and that spiritual relationship
overshadows everything else.
We hold family and place in high regard. Children are taught by the
light of the life of Christians much more than either written or oral
words. Sincerity and humbleness and reverence are marks of God's people.
The Old Regular Baptists may travel far and wide, but they are anxious
to return to the place where they grew up. They want to hear those special
sounds and see familiar scenes. Those that move away return often and
are likely to return for retirement. It is my desire to not sound self-righteous,
but I humbly proclaim that I have found home. It has been decades since
I searched for a people to fellowship with. I have found just what I
was looking for. These are my people. This is my home!
According to John Wallhausser, a professor of religion at Berea College,
Kentucky, the beliefs and traditions of the older Baptist denominations
in the southern Appalachian Mountains are found in layers, like seams
of coal. The earliest layers are composed of 16th- and early 17th-century
Reformation beliefs and creeds - particularly, for English Baptists who
followed the theology of John Calvin, the First (1644) and Second (1689)
London Confessions. The next layer consists of 18th-century pietism and
the revival movements in New England and the American frontier. Finally,
one finds the theological controversies of the 19th century which led
Old Regular Baptist churches to consolidate and preserve their traditions,
their "old-fashioned way." Twentieth-century efforts by Appalachian
churches to hold on to their past have kept much of that past intact.
Consequently, we can still discern today the remarkable heritage of the
mountains: their distinctive way of being "in the world but not of
All music embodies ideas - social, aesthetic, stylistic - and sacred music
is a particularly powerful system of sound and belief. Old Regular Baptists
think of their music chiefly in terms of worship. When sung in the Spirit
of God, these songs bring people closer to God and to each other. This
experience is most truly felt by a Christian saved by grace, and yet many
speak of how the sound of the singing drew them powerfully even when they
were children and did not understand its full meaning. Worship, not history
or the way the songs are put together, is the most important aspect of
Old Regular Baptist singing has a lot in common with other Protestant
hymnody. The whole congregation is invited to sing. Their aim is to praise
the Lord. The songs are sung in church, at memorial meetings, baptisms,
and in homes. They are sung by men, women, and children alike. But Old
Regular Baptist singing also has its own particulars. The singing is very
slow. It gets along without a regular beat; you can't tap your foot to
it. The melodies are very elaborate, and they come from the old Anglo-American
folk music tune stock, not from classical music or from popular songs
written to make money. The group sings in unison, not in parts (harmony),
but each singer is free to "curve" the tune a little differently,
and those who are able to make it more elaborate are admired. People unfamiliar
with this way of singing are mistaken if they think the singers intend
unified precision but fall short; on the contrary, the singing is in step
and deliberately just a bit out of phase - and this is one of its most
powerful musical aspects.
Like almost all Christian hymns, Old Regular Baptist congregational songs
consist of rhymed, metrical verse in a series of stanzas to which a repeating
tune is set. Song books are kept at the pulpit and passed around to the
song leaders. These books have words but no musical notation. The oldest
lyrics are the 18th-century hymns, written chiefly by familiar English
or American devotional poets and hymn writers such as Isaac Watts. These
fill their two favorite song books, the collections Sweet Songster
and the Thomas Hymnal. The leader sings the very first line,
and the congregation joins in when they recognize the song. After that,
the song proceeds line by line: the leader briefly chants a line alone,
and then the group repeats the words but to a tune that is much longer
and more elaborate than the leader's chant or lining tune. Music historians
call this procedure lining out.
Tunes are passed along from one singer, one generation to the next among
the members of these close families and church communities. Singers learn
by following and imitating others, not by reading notes. Some of their
melodies, such as the one used for both "Guide me o thou great Jehovah"
and "Every moment brings me nearer," are quite old, while others
are more recent compositions in the same folksong style. Other tunes,
such as those for "Salvation is the name I love" and "The
day is past and gone," are clearly related to tunes that were printed
in 19th-century hymnals. Old Regular Baptist song rhythm is governed,
not by metronome time, but by breath time. "We believe in being tuned
up with the grace of God and His Holy Spirit; and when that begins, it
makes a melody, makes a joyful noise," Elder I. D. Back said.
The Old Regular Baptist way of singing derives from the music of the 16th-century
English parish church. In 1644 the Westminster Assembly of Divines, a
group appointed by the English Parliament, recommended the practice of
lining out, and it was adopted in Massachusetts a few years later. By
the end of the 17th century it had become "the common way of singing"
among Anglicans and other Protestant denominations (Lutherans excepted)
throughout Britain and her colonies. African Americans learned it and
carry a parallel tradition today, particularly Baptists in the rural South.
As settlers moved during the 18th and early 19th centuries into the frontier
South, to the Shenandoah Valley and later across the Cumberland Gap, they
carried "the common way" (now called "the old way")
of singing with them. Most Appalachian settlers from the English/Scottish
borderlands were familiar with this music, for it had lingered there well
into the 18th century even after it had declined in southern England and
the urban parts of the American colonies. The Old Baptists used well-known
secular tunes and composed other, similar-sounding tunes to carry the
sacred texts. Nineteenth-century camp meetings gave rise to spiritual
songs - usually easily sung, rapid choruses with refrains; but the more
conservative Old Baptist ancestors of the Old Regulars resisted the new
gospel music. They also resisted musical notation in shaped notes, a reform
designed to drive out "the old way of singing." Shaped notes
(diamonds, triangles, squares, and circles that aided in learning to sing
by sight) spread via singing schools from New England to Appalachia and
the South in the 19th century and were featured in such prominent Southern
hymn collections as the Southern Harmony and the Sacred Harp
and in various gospel hymn collections from the late 19th century
onwards. The greatest challenge to "the old way of singing"
today comes from the gospel songs on radio and recordings. Some Old Regular
Baptist churches have succumbed to part-singing and many include a far
higher percentage of gospel hymnody, but in the Indian Bottom Association
most remain steadfast in keeping the older, lined-out hymnody.
The melodic elaborations of "the old way" predominate in the
styles of several contemporary country and bluegrass singers - George
Jones, Ralph Stanley, Merle Haggard, Randy Travis, Garth Brooks, Emmylou
Harris, and Dolly Parton, to name some of the more prominent - whose melodic
turns and graces link country music with its cultural past and make it
attractive to knowing listeners. Old Regular Baptist music is what it
is today because the people continue to believe strongly "In the
Good, Old-Fashioned Way," as the title of one of their songs has
it. They have been able to preserve the old singing to a remarkable degree.
This powerfully affecting, richly complex singing and the people who have
kept it deserve to be honored and celebrated.
Jeff Todd Titon directs the doctoral program in music at Brown University.
A folklorist and an ethnomusicologist, he has collaborated with Old Regular
Baptists to co-produce an album of their music that is available on Smithsonian
Suggested Listening & Viewing
Songs of the Old Regular Baptists: Lined-out Hymnody from Southeastern
Kentucky. Smithsonian Folkways SFW 40106. CD and cassette format.
Co-produced by Elwood Cornett, John Wallhausser, and Jeff Todd Titon.
Sung by members of the Indian Bottom Association, Old Regular Baptists.
Recorded 1992 and 1993.
While the Ages Roll On. VHS, color, 1-hour documentary about
an Old Regular Baptist family and their annual memorial service. Directed
by Kevin Balling. Filmed in 1989 in Pike Co., KY. Available from the Appalachian
Center, Appalachian State University, Boone, NC.
Dorgan, Howard. 1989. The Old Regular Baptists of Central Appalachia.
Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
Melton, J. Gordon. 1978. The Baptist Family. In The Encyclopedia Of
American Religions. Wilmington, North Carolina: McGrath Publishing