My exam is THURSDAY! Today is Monday! Aaaaah.

Anyway.

My advisor advised that I choose a study method less in-depth than blog posts, so I stopped writing. However, I’m going to do a quick one today on a music tradition that I find so POWERFUL to listen to. I’m not going to edit this and I’m not going to go in-depth and find sources to back up my sources, so take everything with a grain of salt. It’s crunch time. Let’s go.


In the 17th century, British churches introduced a new style of worship singing that would allow parishioners who could not read to still participate. This new style was called lining out, or hymn lining. Some say this actually originated in Scotland, but more widely, England is considered the country of origin.

Ancient Hackney: Abney Park - Isaac Watts - Ley Vortex
Dr. Isaac Watts, “the Godfather of English Hymnody”

Lining out is exactly what it sounds like: A leader lines out a hymn, literally by chanting the line of the hymn that the congregation will sing. There are two main versions; in one the line is chanted by the leader, then the congregation joins the leader to sing the line together, all stretched out. In another version called long-meter or Dr. Watts (after Dr. Isaac Watts, “the Godfather of English Hymnody,” an English Christian minister whose hymns were adopted by slave communities), the leader does not chant the line in advance but just sings it in a very long, drawn out style, allowing parishioners to join in and add their own individual expression to the line. This makes worship singing very accessible – anyone can add any notes to the line and it doesn’t matter if you’re in time or singing the exact same note as the leader.

Lining out is an example of that very important element of music that has become so central to Black music styles in the US and elsewhere: call and response. Leader chants a line, everyone responds. We see this in music so often, sometimes with voices doing the call and response and sometimes with instruments. Important note: Call and response is present in many styles of music from African countries in different forms than we see in this lining out example. It is those African influences combined with some European influences brought over to the US that helped form the base of much of “American” music.

From Europe to the 13 Colonies

The practice of hymn lining was brought to the US by English and Scottish settlers. In the 1740s it began to spread through slave communities; slaves heard this style at their masters’ church services and began to alter it in their own way, incorporating it into their own spirituals and building their communal and individual identities through music practice as ritual. This style of singing went on to influence slave spirituals, prison songs, blues, Gospel music and, since the blues in turn influenced a huge majority of music styles popular today, we can say that lining out influenced a huge amount of the music we listen to now.

#Lentspiration for March 5 | Lee's Notes
(photo source)

Lining out is still practiced in some (mainly) Baptist churches today, and it is powerful to be a part of and powerful to listen to. It’s also a part of popular culture. Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, and Ornette Coleman are just a few famous examples of performers who have “lined out” their music. Here are some examples of lining out in worship:

Long-meter style: “A Charge to Keep I Have” performed by Candace Heggs at The Meeting Place Church of Greater Columbia: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0XrS5i6gMdk

Call and response style: “I Am A Poor Pilgrim of Sorrow” performed by members of the Indian Bottom Association, Old Regular Baptists, at Defeated Creek Church in Linefork, KY: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VQmfHLpCQcU


Works Cited

Dargan, William. 2006. Lining Out the Word: Dr. Watts Hymn Singing in the Music of Black Americans. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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