Sara A. Lewis (VO): Welcome to Points South. I’m your host Sara A. Lewis of the Oxford American. This season we’re excited to bring you stories from across the South, from West Texas to Beaufort, South Carolina. Join us over the coming weeks as we explore how stories of our past reverberate in our present. In this episode, OA contributor Dave Ramsey takes us to Blackey, Kentucky, where the Old Regular Baptists are singing in an old-fashioned way. Lined-out hymnody is a tradition that goes back 400 years. It survives today only in a few places, including with the old regular Baptists who are primarily based in Appalachia. So, what keeps this tradition alive? The OA published Dave Ramsey’s essay “Tuned Up In the Spirit” in 2017 and since then we’ve wanted to bring you all the sounds he describes. His yearning to hear the Old Regulars sing again led him back to Mount Olivet Church in Blackey last Mother’s Day.
Elwood Cornett: I hope that we can just feel that holy spirit that comes and moves among us and causes the things of the world to fade away and causes us to be elevated and raised up and want to praise the Lord God of Heaven. I don’t quite know how to describe that but I know what it feels like and I like it every time, everytime. Everytime.”
[Congregation singing “Sweet Glories Rush Upon My Sight”]
Dave Ramsey: They are a peculiar people, the Old Regular Baptists will be quick to tell you. And they have a peculiar way of singing. It is an old way, unchanged, nearly gone but for the stubborn insistence of churches like Mt. Olivet in Blackey, Kentucky. Lined-out hymnody, the scholars call it—the oldest English-language religious-music oral tradition in North America, a tradition with roots stretching back to parish churches in England in the early 1600s and perhaps further still. Some people find it a strange sound. One researcher who went hunting for descriptions of lined-out singing told me that a few words kept popping up: mournful, wailing, confusion. Other people, me among them, are overtaken. The Old Regulars say it has a “drawing power.”
Congregation member: Their preaching and their singing, it’s got a sound that I’ve never heard before, you know? It still rings in my ears. You know, I can come to church sometimes and I might be a little late. Before I get to that door, I can hear that sound, and it really makes my heart rejoice.
Junior Ruggles: You was talking about line singing when it’s done in the spirit, that’s reason we still do it. Because it, it’s on the inside. It moves our hearts. It feeds our souls. It’s like David said, you know, in the 23rd Psalm. Thou anointest my head with oil, and my cup runs over. That’s what it’s about! It's about worshiping God in spirit and in truth.
Curtis Caudill: I like the way they worship. I fell in love with the singing and in my opinion, if you don’t like the singing you ain’t coming back. But if you like the singing, they couldn’t get rid of you.
Barbara Adams: When you can feel it and feel the spirit, you just, you just forget everything else and just commune with the Lord, I think is the best way to put it.
JR: The sound, the sound. Find this sound somewhere else. Hunt it! Go ahead, go ahead. Find it!
EC: It has a unique sound and I’ve loved that sound always. And certainly I’m very interested in preserving that sound.
DR: That’s Elwood Cornett, the longtime moderator of Mt. Olivet Church as well as the Indian Bottom Association, one of a number of Old Regular Baptist associations. Elwood, now 85, lives on the same plot of land where he was born, in Blackey, on a country road that bears his name.
EC: And it was just the community. And, uh, and of course at that time, we didn’t have television when I was young or much other entertainment kind of things. And, uh, very often, my dad would get the song books out and sing, uh, some songs and we’ll help and so forth. And, so it was just kind of ingrained in us.
Jeff Titon: I first heard the Old Regular Baptists at a conference at Berea College in 1979. I was uh, um, taken by it, uh, captivated.
DR: Ethnomusicologist Jeff Titon, collaborating with Elwood, made recordings of Old Regular Baptists at Defeated Creek Church in Linefork, Kentucky—which formed the basis of two Smithsonian Folkways recordings, released in 1997 and 2003.
[Congregation singing “Bright Glory”]
JT: Each old regular Baptist singer is free to curve the tune a little differently, and those who can make it more elaborate are admired by the others. Outsiders are mistaken if they think that they intend to sing with unified sound and precision, and that somehow the result falls short. Rather the, the singing seems to be in step, but just deliberately, a little bit out of phase. And that I think this is one of its most powerful musical aspects.
CC: Different people singing ’em, put a different slant on it. You know, they may start it a little different and it may sound a little different, but when everybody starts singing together, you know, it all comes together.
DR: The lined-out hymns have no apparent pulse beat: Try to clap your hands or tap your feet, and you’ll find no beat to land on. Titon has written that the rhythm is governed by breath time as opposed to metronomic time, and is often remarkably consistent—sixteen seconds for six-syllable lines and twenty seconds for eight-syllable lines. That is very, very slow. There is a deliberative concentration to the way that the Old Regular Baptists sing, a special attention to sound. Which makes sense: They are about the hard work of attention to the spirit, a patience for revelation. There is no harmony in the singing, only melody. The tunes are elusive to newcomers, buried in the lilt and cadence, which can sound like chanting. The Old Regulars sing together, but they are not a chorus; each voice is distinct. Each is moved, less or more or not at all, in their own way. As they would put it: “It’s just the way the spirit is.”
John Reedy: To me, I enjoy just singing as loud as I can sing. Uh, to me, it makes me feel a part of the song and feel the spirit.
Congregation member: It’s some of the best singing I’ve ever heard in my life. It’s just, it’s a godly sorrow. And, and sometimes out in the hills... I used to work for the gas company. I get way back in the hills to take care of the gas wells. And I go to singing and preaching back there and some, some of them people live down in the foot of the hills… They said, did somebody pass away up there at that cemetery? And I said, no, that was me up there praisin’ the Lord. And I get, and I get that way sometimes.
JR: You all pray for me. I’m just a man. I have—I cannot do nothing without the Lord. I need the help of the Lord, I need the revelation from God to be able to preach the word, to be able to sing the song. For by one spirit you do the preaching and the singing and the praying. It’s all by the one holy spirit. [Begins singing “Pressing Onward”]
DR: One thing I came to admire about the Old Regulars is how, for all their focus on eternity and resurrection, on a glory beyond this world, they are utterly unflinching in their descriptions of the tragedies and pains of the world we’re in for now. They take great care and precision in detailing afflictions, their own and their brethren’s. They are a joyful people who speak frequently and frankly of sorrow. Perhaps it is easier to be clear-eyed and honest about suffering if one has faith in redemption. Be that as it may. All of us gather up griefs and aches and worries. There is something breathtakingly decent about taking note of that, together.
Congregation member: I love the old time way. I love the old time singing…My father was killed in a mining accident. Back in those times, we practiced that, we kept him at home one night. They came to the home and sang and had church and, and man that sangin just tore me apart. I mean, it just ripped my heart out - over again, you know? But it was the truth.
Congregation member: Oh, there’s joy in serving the Lord. If they ain’t no joy in serving Lord, there’s something or other wrong, something or another There's something or other wrong. I like it when the Lord blesses me. I like to get happy.
Eddie Newsome: To be emotional and cry. That’s the greatest thing, grandest thing that God ever give us was tears….Uh, I hate to think I went through life with no tears….Tears is a good thing. Tears, uh, washes inside out. Tears makes me, uh, uh, feel acceptance to the Lord. And if you don’t have tears, then maybe you ain’t been woken up enough to, uh, feel the love of God.
Congregation member: When that death angel comes back after me. I’m ready, I’m ready. This old world ain’t my home.
JR [to congregation]: The brother before me has spoke words of wisdom to you. Beautiful words of wisdom. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. By him, you can have life, and without him you will not see no life.
DR: Each preacher has his own style, or maybe it would be more accurate to say his own melody—and it is impossible not to notice how vital sound is to message and supplication in Old Regular worship.
JR [to congregation]: I don’t believe you just work anytime you want to, friend. God, Jesus said, No man can come unto me except my Father draw him. I am the door into the sheepfold and by me if any man enters in, he shall be saved. And find pasture. There’s a way that seemeth right and the man, the day. But the ways thereof are the ways of them. Jesus come, made of a woman, made of the law. That he might redeem them that was under the law and set up this new living way. Oh, the Lord came by Moses.
JR: I’ve been preaching since 1982. Every time you get into the stand, you learn what I've learned. I learned to trust God. When I preach and it’s a coming so fast, anybody in his right mind knows, you ain’t, you can’t learn to do that! That has to come by revelation!
JR [to congregation]: You do well the day to take heed…
EN: It’s been led by the spirit of God. We trust that God would anoint us with the spirit to announce the coming of Christ.
JR [to congregation]: …Of the Lord. He’s seen the light…He said the Lord is gonna take me by the hand.
EC: As I hear somebody preaching in an anticipation of probably their, final and emotional, uh, bringing it all together. Even in anticipation of that, I find myself, uh, rejoicing, to the point that, that I might want to say, hallelujah.
JR [to congregation]: I believe you’ll be satisfied when you wake, in his likeness. I don’t wanna take all the time up. I thank the Lord this morning.
[Congregation sings “My Heavenly Home is Bright and Fair”]
DR: The Old Regular Baptists are in the world but not of the world. They are wayfarers in this life—this light affliction, but for a moment, preparing them for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure. They speak in this way, ancient texts peppering plainspoken conversation. The bustle of modern distractions beckons, they hold tight to old wisdom. The world keeps getting noisier, which might make it harder and harder to hear those sacred whispers from beyond the world. They listen close. Sitting there surrounded by the swoon and sway of those voices, I could feel it in my teeth. I am tempted to say that my reaction was physical. But those who were singing would say that it was precisely the opposite. I cannot claim to know. It felt like the blood in my body was a river.
James Caudill: It’s hard to explain the spirit of the Lord. And you have to experience it for yourself to understand it.
Congregation member: First time I ever got up to preach and sang…the place went wild. It just busted wide open. I said, what in the world is going on here? Then I got happy. And then from then on, I, I don’t quench that spirit. When that spirit comes. I get right in the middle of it. And that’s the way I wanna be. I wanna enjoy the Lord. And I wanna be right there in that number. With them old saints.
John Reedy: I think there’s a spirit. And if we do have the spirit to help us sing, I think it’s special. And lining the songs to me is very special. Uh, I love the old time way. If there’s no spirit there in the preaching, it’s just words. And I love to feel that spirit. That is, to me, the drawing power to the Old Regular Baptist, the way we worship is in our singing, the spirit in our singing, the spirit in our preaching. And if you’ve never been to any of our services where our sisters are shouting and brothers, I would like for you to be there.
Elwood Cornett: Finally, I had a, uh, an understanding, a revelation. I don’t know if it’s a dream or, or something, but I could, could see myself beside this road and people were on their way to destruction. And some looked at me and seemed to say, why didn’t you tell me? And I thought, I, I can't, I can’t, I gotta move. And so I did.
Dave Ramsey: I said goodbye to Elwood, And I drove down highways snaking through mountains that formed nearly five hundred million years ago, and I passed by cemeteries and volunteer fire departments and churches, passed by tin-roof shacks and mining operations and ghost towns where mining operations used to be, and the fog rolled in off the mountains, and the sun in its glory cut through the fog.
[Congregation singing “The Wheels of Time”]
JR: You know what it is? …the Bible said, “blessed are they that do know the joyful sound.”
SAL: To read Dave Ramsey’s essay on the Old Regular Baptists and see what lined-out hymnody looks like, visit OxfordAmerican.org/pointssouth. This episode was produced by me, Christian Brown, Dave Ramsey, and Veronica Salinas, with Christian Leus and Patrick McDermott. Adam Forrester and Sydney Nichols are our Points South interns. Recordings were captured by Christian Brown. Thanks to Mount Olivet Church in Blackey, Kentucky for inviting us to record their service and speak with their members. Special thanks to Smithsonian Folkways and Jeff Titon. Thank you to Trey Pollard and Curtis Fye at Spacebomb for post-production, score, and sound design. This episode is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.