The Lined-Hymn: An African American Vocal Tradition

By Theodore R. Johnson
Guest Commentary

The red clay of Georgia does not easily wash out. It is notorious for its indelible coloring of whatever it touches. Its hue comes from iron, the same element that makes our blood red and that constitutes the character of those old souls who grew up with the clay underfoot.

In the sweltering summers of my childhood, I spent many Sunday mornings with family tracking that clay into my grandparents’ small church. It was here where the elders – iron men and women who’d seen and survived a lynch-happy South, Jim Crow laws, and the hardscrabble lives of sharecroppers – brought their troubles to the altar and renewed the faith that sustained them. The Sunday ritual began with a time-honored tradition that is equally haunting and hopeful: a singing method called “lining a hymn.”

Lining a hymn is a common art form that has been practiced for centuries. The basic scheme is a leader, or precentor, raises the song by reciting a lyric, and the congregation carols the line back. This is done a cappella and follows a distinct melody that may sound a bit haphazardly constructed to the untrained ear. As is to be expected with such an old practice, it has many names: lining-out, surge-singing, deaconing, long meter, or Dr. Watts (named after 17th century Englishman and songwriter Isaac Watts who produced hymnals).

This method of singing originated in England as a way of compensating for the lack of hymnals and facilitating participation for illiterate parishioners. Gilbert Chase writes in America’s Music that the practice was legally sanctioned by Westminster in 1644, citing,

“for the present, where many of the congregation cannot read, it is convenient that the minister, or some other fit person appointed by him and the other officers, to read the psalm, line by line, before the singing thereof.”

This practice made its way to Scotland and eventually across the Atlantic to the colonies, from northeasterly winds in New England to the red clay of Georgia. Upon arrival on the American shores, whites and blacks in various parts of the land adopted the custom to their developing subcultures. During slavery, lining a hymn accompanied blacks’ conversion to Christianity and flourished because of their forced illiteracy. Whites in the hills of Appalachia sing it a little differently than blacks along the river banks of Mississippi. No matter the melodic dialect, lining a hymn is intrinsically American. The Smithsonian Institute calls it “the oldest English-language religious music in oral tradition in North America.”

There’s speculation that the oral tradition of many West African cultures made the practice particularly appealing to black slaves thrust and pressed into servitude. The horrific conditions of their existence certainly made the Christian teachings of a utopian afterlife attractive. As with the more familiar Negro spirituals, the lyrics of lined-out hymns center on enduring suffering with strength, believing that an end to grief will one day come.

As such, in the black church, the purpose of lining a hymn arguably always has been more than a utilitarian practice based on the availability of songbooks. It serves as a choral binding of the congregation, one to another, expressed in the harmonies of shared sorrows and the strength drawn from chords of accord.

After the end of slavery, the Reconstruction period, and Jim Crow, this custom has slowly begun to fade. The spread of literacy among blacks, the large migration north in search of economic opportunity, and the advent of gospel’s popularity has mostly relegated lining-out to that of an ancient art. When it’s heard in urban centers or contemporary black churches, it’s often aperiodic commemoration. It still, however, lives on in rural corners of the country where the centuries-old pain of the black American experience hangs in the air and covers the soil.

Thanks to the wonders of technology and social media, I recently came across a video of a young girl lining a hymn from earlier this summer. It is readily apparent that her voice and spirit harkened the pain, hope, and strength from another place and time long before she existed.  That mourning voice, with its tinge of morning thankfulness, is of the mother whose child has been auctioned off, of the enslaved father whose daughter has been raped for sport, of the sister whose brother has been lynched by the authorities – all hoping tomorrow will be a little easier to bear.  On every listen, it unfailingly transports me to my grandparents’ small, wooden church, where men and women of iron will swayed between the pews, and I revel in the spirit of people I know, but never met – in awe of the strength and in awe of the sorrow.

My grandmother died two summers ago. I wore my all-white military uniform, the thing she loved to see me in most. Those that gathered to send her off lined a hymn about the long-awaited glory she once sang of just a few dozen feet from where her body was laid to rest. We buried her in the red clay of Georgia next to my grandfather. The hems of my uniform pants were dusted with the clay’s hue – and it remains indelibly stained today. Though tears fell as we stood in our goodbyes, lining a hymn, the red clay of Georgia does not easily wash out.

Theodore R. Johnson is a DC-based writer on race, politics, and society. He is a doctoral student and has served as a 2011 – 2012 White House Fellow and military professor at the Naval War College. He can be reached on Twitter @T_R_Johnson_III and found on the web at www.theodorerjohnson.com.  

UrbanCusp.com is a cutting-edge online life.style magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. The site offers a platform for young adult perspectives, profiles inspirational visionaries and artists, and serves as an online community for change agents who are like-minded. Founded in 2011 by Rahiel Tesfamariam, Urban Cusp highlights voices, ideas and images not commonly found within mainstream media.