church elder’s reaction was one of utter disbelief. Shaking his head
emphatically, he couldn’t 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 America’s 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 congregation’s method of praise
- called ‘presenting the line’, 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?
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: ‘There you go’."
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. Ruff’s 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, it’s 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 grandmother’s maiden
name was Robertson.
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.
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 it’s vague: the
name of a ship and never the port of embarkation. The watery highway that
those ships took leave no trace."
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 can’t lie."
Ruff’s 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.
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
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."
believed the method of worship came from Africa, but Ruff started to ask
whether white Presbyterian congregations sang in the same way.
academic began researching at the Sterling Library at Yale, one of the
world’s 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: ‘That’s it, I’m going to the Hebrides."
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
" 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: ‘That’s us!’
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. It’s an
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.
It’s 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 further."
Ruff’s research on the integration of Highland culture into black America
expands conventional wisdom on Scotland’s legacy in the southern states of
Although the Enlightenment, especially Francis Hutcheson’s A System of
Moral Philosophy, inspired the abolitionists in both Britain and America,
Scotland’s 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 KKK’s oath ceremony, which
originated from a Highland custom.
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 Ruff’s 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 Ruff’s argument. "Gospel music is black music," he insists.
Ruff’s next mission is to return to Scotland to document and record the
congregations of Lewis.
" I’ll 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. It’s sad to say that on both
sides of the Atlantic this is dying out.
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."
lasting legacy of Ruff’s 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."
To learn more about the
Gaelic tradition and hear samples:
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