Quote of the Day: Ralph Stanley on Singing in the Primitive Baptist Church

 

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.

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  1. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    • #1
  2. jmelvin Member
    jmelvin
    @jmelvin

    I remember my grandmother playing this style of music as she’d drive about when I was a kid.  I’m sure there was some Stanley Brothers in the mix, but cannot say for sure.  Her small United Baptist church in southern Ohio took a similar approach to singing in that no instruments were used, but I do not recall them lining out the songs.  They very well may have, I just don’t recall it.  Next time I see her I may have to ask if the Stanley Brothers were ones that she’d listen to.

    Of course her family had come from the same general area as the Stanleys in the areas where Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky all meet, so it was likely what she grew up hearing.

    Thanks for sharing @RushBabe49 !

    • #2
  3. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    Arahant (View Comment):

    This haunting song (this exact version) is on the soundtrack of the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou.”  It’s one of only two movie soundtrack CDs I’ve ever bought in my life (the other was Amadeus). I always play it in the car, and was just listening to it yesterday as a matter of fact.

    The version of “Man of Constant Sorrow” is pure genius. It’s just wonderful, the whole CD is. This music is so authentically American.  I drive along singing harmony with “You Are My  Sunshine,”  “I’ll Fly Away,” and many others. I’m sure I look like an escaped mental patient to the other drivers.

    • #3
  4. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    I’m sure I look like an escaped mental patient to the other drivers.

    No comment. 😜

    • #4
  5. Doug Kimball Thatcher
    Doug Kimball
    @DougKimball

    My father, whom I cared for for two years, passed recently of complications from advanced Parkinson’s.  I’m now planning his remembrance to be held back in his hometown of Danville, NH at the First Baptist (still the only church) in town.  Here’s the music I selected: prelude: “Shall We Gather at the River”, hymn: “What a Friend We have in Jesus”, choir: “I’ll Fly Away”, hymn: “Amazing Grace”, choir: “Uncouded Day” and postlude: Beethoven’s 7th, 2nd Movement (arr. Liszt).   All but the last is oldtimey bluegrass.  My three daughters and nephew make up the choir.  

    • #5
  6. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    Arahant (View Comment):

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    I’m sure I look like an escaped mental patient to the other drivers.

    No comment. 😜

    You are a dead man

    • #6
  7. jmelvin Member
    jmelvin
    @jmelvin

    Doug Kimball (View Comment):

    My father, whom I cared for for two years, passed recently of complications from advanced Parkinson’s. I’m now planning his remembrance to be held back in his hometown of Danville, NH at the First Baptist (still the only church) in town. Here’s the music I selected: prelude: “Shall We Gather at the River”, hymn: “What a Friend We have in Jesus”, choir: “I’ll Fly Away”, hymn: “Amazing Grace”, choir: “Uncouded Day” and postlude: Beethoven’s 7th, 2nd Movement (arr. Liszt). All but the last is oldtimey bluegrass. My three daughters and nephew make up the choir.

    Those are some great songs!  

    @rightangles, your mention of the song You Are My Sunshine brings to mind sitting on the couch watching TV with my mom, when I was a kid and hearing that song as part of a mustard commercial.  Mom just passed a couple weeks ago, so the memory is particularly sweet as she’d sing the song too.

    • #7
  8. kylez Member
    kylez
    @kylez

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    This haunting song (this exact version) is on the soundtrack of the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou.” It’s one of only two movie soundtrack CDs I’ve ever bought in my life (the other was Amadeus). I always play it in the car, and was just listening to it yesterday as a matter of fact.

    The version of “Man of Constant Sorrow” is pure genius. It’s just wonderful, the whole CD is. This music is so authentically American. I drive along singing harmony with “You Are My Sunshine,” “I’ll Fly Away,” and many others. I’m sure I look like an escaped mental patient to the other drivers.

    I got it for $5 at Barnes and Noble a few months ago.

    • #8
  9. kylez Member
    kylez
    @kylez

    Doug Kimball (View Comment):

    My father, whom I cared for for two years, passed recently of complications from advanced Parkinson’s. I’m now planning his remembrance to be held back in his hometown of Danville, NH at the First Baptist (still the only church) in town. Here’s the music I selected: prelude: “Shall We Gather at the River”, hymn: “What a Friend We have in Jesus”, choir: “I’ll Fly Away”, hymn: “Amazing Grace”, choir: “Uncouded Day” and postlude: Beethoven’s 7th, 2nd Movement (arr. Liszt). All but the last is oldtimey bluegrass. My three daughters and nephew make up the choir.

    Great selections. 

    Interesting about the only church, which may say something about how irreligious that part of the country is or how small Danville is, which has 4400 people. 

    • #9
  10. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    I wanted to do a QOTD post that’s uplifting, rather than a downer.  I heartily recommend the book, it’s very enlightening. Stanley talks about his upbringing, how he got into music, and how he got through his military service.  And he discusses the effects of rock-and-roll music on country music.  He also talks about his brother Carter’s illness and death, making a very good argument against drinking too much.

    I’m planning a post on bluegrass, which I’ll do on my own blog, and copy over here.

    • #10
  11. Captain French Moderator
    Captain French
    @AlFrench

    Pine Creek Primitive Baptist Church and cemetery, Floyd County, VA, established 1797.

    My great great grandfather, Job Sidwell Wells, is buried there.

     

    • #11
  12. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Captain French (View Comment):
    Pine Creek Primitive Baptist Church and cemetery, Floyd County, VA, established 1797.

    My family got about that far before dipping south of the border into North Carolina.

    • #12
  13. Fritz Coolidge
    Fritz
    @Fritz

    Heard/saw Ralph Stanley perform at the Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival, Bean Blossom, Indiana, in 1974. Also got a Polaroid, my wife and me, with the Festival host, Bill Monroe. A highlight of my first year in Indiana. A shame if the younger generations lose contact with these great American musical streams and traditions.

    • #13
  14. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    Just posted today on my own blog.

     

    https://rushbabe49.com/2022/06/29/i-love-bluegrass-music/

     

    • #14
  15. Rodin Member
    Rodin
    @Rodin

    I’m going to get Stanley’s book.

    • #15
  16. Red Herring Coolidge
    Red Herring
    @EHerring

    My husband’s great, great, great somebody was a Baptist preacher who at one time preached in the county where I grew up. He moved on to Alabama where the family settled and where my husband’s grandfather and father grew up. My family has had a family cemetery in Brownsville, SC, since around 1800. We figured out Brownsville was named after his ancestor and found it amusing that we had common roots back that far. When I visited my parents’ grave there a few years ago I decided to read the historical marker and was stunned. Our cemetery was created on land my ancestors bought from my husband’s ancestor.

    Shall We Gather at the River is a great song. I wish we Presbyterians sang it more. I’ll Fly Away is one I don’t know. 

    • #16
  17. jmelvin Member
    jmelvin
    @jmelvin

    Red Herring (View Comment):

    My husband’s great, great, great somebody was a Baptist preacher who at one time preached in the county where I grew up. He moved on to Alabama where the family settled and where my husband’s grandfather and father grew up. My family has had a family cemetery in Brownsville, SC, since around 1800. We figured out Brownsville was named after his ancestor and found it amusing that we had common roots back that far. When I visited my parents’ grave there a few years ago I decided to read the historical marker and was stunned. Our cemetery was created on land my ancestors bought from my husband’s ancestor.

    Shall We Gather at the River is a great song. I wish we Presbyterians sang it more. I’ll Fly Away is one I don’t know.

    Here you go @EHerring, enjoy!https://youtu.be/1BPoMIQHwpo

    • #17
  18. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    jmelvin (View Comment):

    Red Herring (View Comment):

    My husband’s great, great, great somebody was a Baptist preacher who at one time preached in the county where I grew up. He moved on to Alabama where the family settled and where my husband’s grandfather and father grew up. My family has had a family cemetery in Brownsville, SC, since around 1800. We figured out Brownsville was named after his ancestor and found it amusing that we had common roots back that far. When I visited my parents’ grave there a few years ago I decided to read the historical marker and was stunned. Our cemetery was created on land my ancestors bought from my husband’s ancestor.

    Shall We Gather at the River is a great song. I wish we Presbyterians sang it more. I’ll Fly Away is one I don’t know.

    Here you go @ EHerring, enjoy!https://youtu.be/1BPoMIQHwpo

    OH you got me singin’ harmony again! Oh and did I mention I also bought a book of the piano music for this movie soundtrack. Emmylou Harris sings some of them too.

    • #18
  19. Doug Kimball Thatcher
    Doug Kimball
    @DougKimball

    kylez (View Comment):

    Doug Kimball (View Comment):

    My father, whom I cared for for two years, passed recently of complications from advanced Parkinson’s. I’m now planning his remembrance to be held back in his hometown of Danville, NH at the First Baptist (still the only church) in town. Here’s the music I selected: prelude: “Shall We Gather at the River”, hymn: “What a Friend We have in Jesus”, choir: “I’ll Fly Away”, hymn: “Amazing Grace”, choir: “Uncouded Day” and postlude: Beethoven’s 7th, 2nd Movement (arr. Liszt). All but the last is oldtimey bluegrass. My three daughters and nephew make up the choir.

    Great selections.

    Interesting about the only church, which may say something about how irreligious that part of the country is or how small Danville is, which has 4400 people.

    And many of those, summer people, who claim low tax NH as their primary residence.

    • #19
  20. Patrick McClure Coolidge
    Patrick McClure
    @Patrickb63

    O Brother Where Art Thou is a good movie and great soundtrack.  My sons and I watched the movie together on Father’s day.  

    • #20
  21. Red Herring Coolidge
    Red Herring
    @EHerring

    jmelvin (View Comment):

    Red Herring (View Comment):

    My husband’s great, great, great somebody was a Baptist preacher who at one time preached in the county where I grew up. He moved on to Alabama where the family settled and where my husband’s grandfather and father grew up. My family has had a family cemetery in Brownsville, SC, since around 1800. We figured out Brownsville was named after his ancestor and found it amusing that we had common roots back that far. When I visited my parents’ grave there a few years ago I decided to read the historical marker and was stunned. Our cemetery was created on land my ancestors bought from my husband’s ancestor.

    Shall We Gather at the River is a great song. I wish we Presbyterians sang it more. I’ll Fly Away is one I don’t know.

    Here you go @ EHerring, enjoy!https://youtu.be/1BPoMIQHwpo

    Thank you! Pretty song. I can see why they used it

    • #21
  22. Sisyphus Member
    Sisyphus
    @Sisyphus

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    I’m sure I look like an escaped mental patient to the other drivers.

    No comment. 😜

    You are a dead man

    @arahant, your secret is out!

    • #22
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