Gospel truth: Hebrides invented church spirituals

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The Independent Online

A study into the roots of gospel music by an American professor has lead the accomplished musician, who has played with Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie, to conclude that the "good news" music sung in black American churches originated from Scotland, not Africa.

Professor Willie Ruff, of Yale University, said the roots of the music derived from evangelical spirituals and blues and jazz, had more to do with the crofters of the Outer Hebrides than slaves on US plantations.

For years the accepted wisdom has been that gospel music was born during the period of slavery in the Deep South. But Professor Ruff conceded that his findings have startled a number of elders in black churches.

"They have always assumed that this form of worship came from Africa," Professor Ruff, an Afro-American professor of music, said. "Black Americans have lived under a misconception. Our cultural roots are more Afro-Gaelic than Afro-American. Just look at the Harlem telephone book, it's more like Edinburgh or the book for the North Uists.

"There is a notion that when African slaves arrived in America they came down the gangplanks of slave ships singing gospel music - that's just not true. What I'm talking about here pre-dates all other congregational singing by blacks in America."

Traditional psalm singing, or "precenting the line" as it is correctly known, in which the psalms are called out and the congregation sings a response, was the earliest form of congregational singing adopted by Africans in America. Even today, psalm singing and gospel music are the backbone of black churchgoers in the US, with CD sales alone worth half a billion dollars last year.

But Professor Ruff, 71, a Baptist from Alabama, said: "I, like everyone else, assumed it was unique to black congregations in the United States, having grown out of slavery, but I began to wonder if it was performed by white congregations in the same way," he said.

He began researching at the Sterling library at Yale, one of the world's greatest collections of books and papers, where he found records of how Highlanders settled in North Carolina in the 1700s.

"Scottish emigrants from the Highlands, and the Gaelic speaking Hebrides especially, arrived in parts of North Carolina in huge numbers and for many years during the slavery period black Africans, owned by Scottish emigrants, spoke only the Gaelic language. I found, in a North Carolina newspaper dated about 1740, an advertisement offering a generous reward for the capture and return of a runaway African slave who is described as being easy to identify because he only speaks Gaelic. There is no doubt the great influx of Scots Presbyterians into the Carolinas introduced the African slaves to Christianity and their way of worship," he said.

But it wasn't until Professor Ruff travelled to Scotland that he became convinced of the similarities after hearing psalm singing in Gaelic. "I was struck by the similarity, the pathos, the emotion, the cries of suffering and the deep, deep belief in a brighter, promising hereafter.

"It makes sense that as we got our names from the slave masters, we carried the slave owners blood, their religion and their customs, that we should have adopted and adapted their music. There are more descendants of Highland Scots living in America than there are in the Highlands - and a great many of them are black.

"I have been to Africa many times in search of my cultural identity, but it was in the Highlands that I found the cultural roots of black America."

Jamie Reid-Baxter, a history research fellow at Glasgow University and a psalm expert, said: "The Scottish slave-owners would definitely have brought that style of singing with them and the slaves would have heard it. Both these forms of music are a way of expressing religious ecstasy."

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