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This quote comes from Ralph Stanley (famous bluegrass singer/banjo player), in his autobiography Man of Constant Sorrow. Ralph and his brother Carter grew up in the mountains of southwest Virginia in the 1930s. They had a hardscrabble existence, but everyone was in similar circumstances, so they didn’t know they were disadvantaged. Ralph sang in church from early childhood. Here’s what he had to say:
The Primitive Baptists are different. They’re strictly business when it comes to their hymns. It’s more sad and it’s more mournful and it fits my voice like nothing else [Ralph Stanley was told by neighbors and friends that he was “the kid with the 100-year-old voice]. Usually the preacher or one of the elders will line out the songs for the congregation, which means the leader sings a verse and everybody else joins in and sings it right back.
I told you how we don’t use instruments in our church. I don’t know exactly why that is. It’s not from the Bible; it’s just a tradition that’s been handed down for years and years. I believe part of the reason is that it used to be musicians didn’t have a very good name. They thought musicians was mean and low-down and not fit for church, and the same with musical instruments.
So the Primitive Baptists stuck with the singing and shut the door on everything else. The way they sung in church is the same way they do today. Everybody sung together, the men and the women both, and the women would come in an octave higher and they really blended well. Like I told you, the men would always lead on the hymns, meaning the preacher or an elder like my dad would line out the songs.
There’s a joke about the old Primitive Baptists and their way of lining out the hymns. A man asks the preacher, “Don’t you folks have good memories or what?”
“I reckon we do,” the preacher says. “Just as good as anybody.”
“Well, the man says, “you all have been singing these songs for years and you still have to tell ’em the words–seems like they’d know ’em by now!”
There’s a good reason behind this tradition. Back in the early days, in the Primitive Baptist churches around southwest Virginia and eastern Kentucky, there was an awful lot of hymns to sing–I mean hundreds and hundreds–and not a lot of hymnbooks around. Not too many could read much, and people were so poor they didn’t have but one songbook, and that was the preacher’s. They didn’t know what words to sing, and the preacher, well, he’d get up there and line out songs from the book and spit his tobacco juice right out, and that was doing something. The people would sing the words back, and they had the feeling to it. And the feeling grabbed me and it’s never let go. I reckon I was about the only boy in Dickenson County who looked forward to church.