Sunday, July 08, 2012

'Singing and Praying Bands' bring African American tradition to Common Ground on the Hill

Some of the deepest roots of American music came alive at McDaniel College last week as "Singing and Praying Bands" from Maryland's Eastern Shore brought a time-honored African American style of worship to the Common Ground on the Hill summer music camp. Their art, a regional form descended from the "ring shout" of 19th-century black hymnody, was a reminder of the deep African influence on all of our music, from Leonard Bernstein and Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" to jazz, blues, hip hop and almost all of our popular music.

Their appearance also affirmed a long-standing relationship with McDaniel (formerly Western Maryland College). Walt Michael, executive director of Common Ground, said it was in McDaniel's Alumni Hall, where the concert was held, that local Methodist and AME conferences voted to merge in the 1960s.

"Consider this is your church here," he said. "We invite you back any time you want to come."

The Singing and Praying Bands grew out of Methodist camp meetings of the 19th and 20th centuries, according to the Rev. Jerry Colbert of John Wesley United Methodist Church of Annapolis. Like so many traditions, they are losing ground with the younger generation, and members of several churches in tidewater Eastern Maryland and Delaware decided to demonstrate it to wider audiences in the hope that it won't die out altogether.

So about 35 or 40 older black men and women, dressed in white, filed onto the stage in McDaniel's Alumni Hall singing "Am I a Soldier of the Cross" in call-and-response style. They circled around a mourner's bench - a row of chairs set up in the middle of the stage - praying and singing over the people seated there. The singing was repetitive, and it was mesmerizing in much the same way as a Taize meditation, but it also sounded like the Sea Island spirituals collected during the 1960s in South Carolina, and it carried you away as it got more insistent.

In all, it was a privilege to be able to hear it.

In a very fine, nuanced story that ran June 14 in The Washington Post, reporter Chris Richards gives a lot of background. Richards said the decision to take its art to a wider audience wasn't easy: "This isn’t just music. It’s their ministry. This isn’t entertainment. It’s their faith."

(There's an audio clip and slideshow with Richards' story. Definitely worth a listen.)

There's more background on the Maryland Traditions 2012 website of the Maryland Arts Council. Citing folklorist Jonathan David, independent scholar of Philadelphia and author of "Together Let us Sweetly Live, it explains:

... these groups are a regional variation of the larger ring shout tradition. Many scholars consider this to have been the most important religious service of enslaved Africans and their African-American descendants in North America in the 19th century.

The bands of Maryland grew out of Methodist prayer meetings. In some areas, these groups had their start in antebellum times in brush arbors where the enslaved held secret religious services. At camp meetings, prayer groups from many neighboring churches--referring to themselves as "Singing and Praying Bands"-- met and sang and prayed.

Ina the Washington Post story, Chris Richards said taking a religious tradition to secular venues can be "an ethical tightrope" because the tradition changes:
It’s delicate business. Intervention efforts in the 1960s helped rescue Louisiana Cajun music from extinction. But some say that intervention can change the actual nature of music, pointing to strands of gospel, bluegrass, the blues and other genres that have been professionalized, commercialized and taken far from their roots.
The ethical dilemma is real. Something like it has happened with the Sacred Harp, but somehow the shape note singers have managed to hold onto their spiritual core of their art. For what it's worth, after seeing them at Common Ground, I'm not too worried about the Singing and Praying Bands of eastern Maryland. I think they'll do the same.

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