Listen to the Music from Strangers Below

"I heard them first. The long, sonorous swells, the modal melodies, the hymns sung so slowly as to melt their texts into an amalgam of chant-speech that sounded to me like people calling up spirits. It stopped me dead. I had never heard anything like it. It reminded me of the twisting cantorial lines I heard sung in shul as a boy or of a feverish qawwali ghazal reduced to smoldering ash. The sound itself seemed funereal and luminous all at once. It was beautiful."

Introduction: Strangers Below

"I could still catch the traces of that first sound I had heard, the sound of men and women pouring out their souls’ complaints before the Lord: Guide me, O thou great Jehovah / pilgrim through this barren land / I am weak, but thou art mighty / Hold me with thy powerful hand. When I listened to that Primitive hymn and when I sang it with congregations gracious enough to welcome me, I heard in its bent and slowly-sliding melody a lonesome sound, an unmistakable sorrow tinged with a hope of God’s grace."

"Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah" by Elder Walter Evans & Congregation

This is the oldest style of Primitive Baptist hymn singing. Here Elder Evans lines the hymn out for his congregation at the Little River Primitive Baptist Church in Sparta, North Carolina. From Old Hymns Lined and Led by Elder Walter Evans. Sovereign Grace Records, 196-[?].  If you'd like to learn more about this style of Primitive hymn singing—and why would't you?—seek out Beverly Bush Patterson's The Sound of the Dove.

Chapter 4: Rocking Daniel

"The song was a kind of self-activating prayer, a call to action, a set of instructions that referred back to itself like some recursive incantation: keep moving, keep shouting, keep rocking, keep the circle together and never stop, not until you die, not until your people are delivered, not until they reach the promised land."

1. "Rock Daniel" by Reverend C. H. Savage & Congregation

Recorded in 1941. Available on Mississippi: Saints & Sinners: From Before the Blues and Gospel, ℗ Rounder Records.


2. "Move, Daniel" by the McIntosh County Shouters

Recorded in 1983. Available on Slave Shouts from the Coast of Georgia, ℗ 2004 Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.


3. "Rock Daniel" by Sister Rosetta Tharpe with Lucky Millinder and His Orchestra

Recorded in 1943. Available on The Uncollected: Lucky Millinder and His Orchestra, ℗ 1986 Hindsight Records.

Chapter 5: The Lonesome Sound

"In the lonesome sounds of Ralph Stanley and Roscoe Holcomb, we hear Calvinism’s strange return and inevitable transformation. The texture of Stanley’s and Holcomb’s singing recalls the older voices from the Primitive past, men and women who thought the mistake lay not with religious doctrine but inside themselves."

"Man of Constant Sorrow" by Roscoe Holcomb

The musician and folklorist John Cohen coined the phrase "the high lonesome sound" to describe Roscoe Holcomb's music. Recorded in 1961. Available on The Music of Roscoe Holcomb & Wade Ward,  ℗ 2004 Smithsonian Folkways Recordings / 1962 Folkways Records.


"Across the Rocky Mountain" by Roscoe Holcomb

Recorded live in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1973. Available on An Untamed Sense of Control, ℗ 2003 Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.


Bill Monroe, "I'm on My Way Back to the Old Home"

This music is brilliant, but Bill Monroe's high lonesome sound—sentimental, tethered, and homesick—was not Roscoe Holcomb's.


"The Wandering Boy" by Roscoe Holcomb

Recorded in 1964. Available on The High Lonesome Sound, ℗ 1998 Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.


"O Death" by Ralph Stanley

Performed live at the 2002 Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, California.


"Amazing Grace" by members of the Louisa Primitive Baptist Church

This hymn's text is no doubt familiar. The sounds of praise—slow, loud, lined-out—made by the Baptists in Louisa, Kentucky, may not be.


"Village Church Yard" by Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys

An aural fantasy of the Old-Time Baptist meeting house. Recorded in 1971. Available on Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys: 1971–1973, ℗ 1995 Rebel Records.

Epilogue: The Subterranean River

"Father, I Stretch My Hand to Thee" by the Bethlehem Primitive Baptist Church

Old-way singing persists even today among black and white Primitive Baptists. I never cease to be stunned when I listen to the Bethlehem Primitive Baptist Church's African American members carry this hymn to God. Their singing is simultaneously dense and light. There's a pulse but the rhythm is free. The sounds swirl and echo. Notes are dawn out to seemingly impossible lengths before dissolving into the liquid stream of sound. Available on Benjamin Lloyd's Hymn Book: A Primitive Baptist Song Tradition, ℗ 1999 Alabama Folklife Association.