Black music from Scotland? It could be the gospel truth

James Rogers jamesr at
Mon Sep 1 19:43:32 PDT 2003

A fascinating bit of anthropology.

-James Rogers
 jamesr at
Black music from Scotland? It could be the gospel truth


THE church elder¹s reaction was one of utter disbelief. Shaking his head
emphatically, he couldn¹t 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 America¹s 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 congregation¹s method of praise - called
Œpresenting the line¹, in which the psalms are called out and the
congregation sings a response - came from the Hebrides.

Ruff explained: "They had always assumed that this form of worship had come
from Africa, and why not?

"I said to him I had found evidence that it was Scottish people who brought
this to the New World, but he just would not believe it. I asked him what
his name was. He said McRae, and I just replied: ŒThere you go¹."

Psalm singing and gospel music are the backbone of the black Church in the
United States, with gospel music CD sales alone worth half a billion dollars
last year. Ruff¹s research has massive cultural implications for
Afro-Americans and alters the history of American culture.

He said: "We as black Americans have lived under a misconception. Our
cultural roots are more Afro-Gaelic than Afro-American. Just look at the
Harlem phone book, it¹s more like the book for North Uist.

"We got our names from the slave masters, we got our religion from the slave
masters and we got our blood from the slave masters.

"None of the black people in the United States are pure African. My own
great great grandparents were slaves in Alabama. My grandmother¹s maiden
name was Robertson.

"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.

"I hope to inform the perception of Afro-Americans, and what a gift that is,
to give people something to go on.

One of the great tragedies of the Afro-American experience is that few can
trace their families beyond the bill of sale. After that it¹s vague: the
name of a ship and never the port of embarkation. The watery highway that
those ships took leave no trace."

Ruff added: "There are probably more descendents of the Highlands in the
United States than there are in Scotland. There are a huge amount of
Afro-Americans with light skin or red hair like Malcolm X. What were his

"Storytelling and music are some of the best ways to document the true
integration and movement of people, because the music can¹t lie."

Ruff¹s journey of discovery started as a child in his home Baptist church in
Alabama, when he would listen to elders present the line, which predates,
and was an influence on, gospel music.

"I remember this captured my imagination as a small child. The elders, some
born into slavery, say the lines in unison. They were dirge-like,
impassioned melodies. They were illiterate and poor, they had nothing, but
they had that passion in their singing. I, like everyone else, assumed it
was unique to black congregations in the United States, having grown out of

But last year, during a casual visit to the Presbyterian church in
Cumberland, Alabama, Ruff stumbled on a predominantly black congregation
that sang the same way as the Baptist congregation of his childhood.

"Not only were they singing the same psalms, they were singing in the same
deeply profound way, with the same passion which cries out. The tears began
to flow." 

They believed the method of worship came from Africa, but Ruff started to
ask whether white Presbyterian congregations sang in the same way.

The academic began researching at the Sterling Library at Yale, one of the
world¹s 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: ŒThat¹s
it, I¹m going to the Hebrides."

A chance meeting with James Craig, a piper with the Royal Scots, put Ruff in
touch with congregations in Lewis and Donald Morrison, a leader of singing.

"When I finally met Donald, we sat down and I played him music. It was like
a wonderful blind test. First I played him some psalms by white
congregations, and then by a black one. He then leapt to his feet and
shouted: ŒThat¹s us!¹

"When I heard Donald and his congregation sing in Stornoway I was in no
doubt there was a connection."

Yesterday, Jamie Reid-Baxter, a history research fellow at Glasgow
University and a psalm expert, said: "This sounds extremely plausible
because of the link to the Scottish slave-owners, who would definitely have
brought that style of singing with them.

"The slaves would have heard the Scots singing like that, and both these
forms of music are a way of expressing religious ecstasy. It¹s an intriguing

Warwick Edwards, a reader in the music department of Glasgow University,
added: "Psalm singing from the Western Isles is certainly known in America.
Whether you can link that up with gospel music is another matter. It¹s new
to me. 

"One should never underestimate the longevity of these deep-down traditions.
They cross oceans and people should be encouraged to investigate this

Ruff¹s research on the integration of Highland culture into black America
expands conventional wisdom on Scotland¹s legacy in the southern states of

Although the Enlightenment, especially Francis Hutcheson¹s A System of Moral
Philosophy, inspired the abolitionists in both Britain and America,
Scotland¹s darker role in the slave trade is also well known. Scots were
influential in founding the Ku Klux Klan, including the traditional Scottish
symbol of the burning cross and the KKK¹s oath ceremony, which originated
from a Highland custom.

Ruff said: "There will be Scots who are uncomfortable with the relationship
and the involvement in the slave trade. But the Scots are like anyone, and
there were many who were abolitionists and who set up schools for black
children after emancipation."

While Ruff¹s claim has been welcomed in Scotland, it has been met with a far
less favourable response in his native country.

Bobby Jones, producer of the weekly Gospel Explosion television programme
which reaches more than four million viewers in the United States, is not
swayed by Ruff¹s argument. "Gospel music is black music," he insists.

Ruff¹s next mission is to return to Scotland to document and record the
congregations of Lewis.

"I¹ll be there later this year and hope to record them there and also make
recordings of American congregations. In another 100 years I doubt this form
of worship will still be around. It¹s sad to say that on both sides of the
Atlantic this is dying out.

"In the Hebrides there are few young people in the churches and this is also
the case in the States. In a sense, I aim to preserve a legacy."

The lasting legacy of Ruff¹s research is an anthropological revelation which
forces the re-evaluation of the history of two peoples. Now Afro-Americans,
frustrated in their search for antecedence in their African line, might turn
to their Scottish roots. As Ruff said: "Why did they leave this to a
musician? This is the job of an anthropologist." 

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