Black America's musical links to Scotland

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ON THE face of it jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie would seem a little out of place on a website devoted to Scottish heritage. With his trademark bent trumpet, he was the epitome of a cool musician at home on stage with 20th century giants of music like Louis Armstrong and Charlie Mingus.

But look at those surnames. Gillespie, Armstrong and Mingus (or Menzies) - all Scots monikers that were probably given to their ancestors by slave masters. It was common for owners to impose the family name on the slaves.

Even though people were bought and sold as chattels, there was a bizarre notion that this forced labour was somehow "family". But family they became, as they shared the same space and interbred, though mainly by rape. In this most shameful episode in our history white owners also expected their slaves to worship with them, to take on their religious beliefs and customs.

Gillespie often regaled his friends with stories of how the Scots had influenced the blacks in his home state of Alabama. He spoke to his long-time collaborator, Willie Ruff, a bassist and French horn player, about how his parents told of the black slaves who spoke Gaelic, the tongue of their masters.

Ruff - a professor of music at Yale University, a musicologist and jazz man who played with Duke Ellington and Miles Davis - was struck by the words of Gillespie, and some years after the trumpeter's death set out to investigate connections between the Scots and the blacks of the southern US.

"For Dizzy, there was no doubt about the connections. He'd talk about the Gaelic speaking blacks and spoke of his love for Scotland. He'd often tell me to get over to Scotland because the people were so friendly and the love of the music so warm," says Ruff.

A chance visit to a black Baptist church in Alabama led Ruff to discover that some congregations were still "lining out" in the Deep South. This is a call and response form of worship where a precentor sings the first line of a psalm and the congregation follows.

Ruff had thought that this ancient form of worship, which predated the Negro spiritual, had died out. But then he discovered that the practise was still going strong among white, Gaelic speaking congregations in the Western Isles. His investigations also took him to a white congregation in Kentucky.

"This is the only show in town. I've found three congregations who still line out as their sole form of worship," Ruff says. "But what it proves is there is cultural transference. When I spoke to black congregations about lining out they said it came from the slave days. But once they heard whites - both American and Scots - it became clear it was more complicated than that.

"While black culture and worship does come from Africa, there were elements that were imposed by the whites, but they took this and 'blackened' it."

Lining out - or "precenting the line" - had been commonplace throughout Europe in the 16th, 17th and 18th century. At a time of low literacy rates and high costs of prayer books it had become an easy way to teach and distribute the word of God.

The English brought precenting the line to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. The Highlanders, along with Puritans and Baptists, also took it to the New World, and it was widely practised by the frontiersmen, planters and adventurers who carved out what is the modern US. Eventually it fizzled out in most areas, but the tradition had been kept alive in the remote communities of the Western Isles, as it had in the rural areas of the Deep South.

Ruff discovered a church in Alabama where blacks worshipped in Gaelic as late as 1918, giving a clue to the extent to which the Gaels spread their culture - from North Carolina to Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi - as they prospered on the back of slavery and moved to bigger and better plantations. It was perhaps a refusal to move with the times and the remoteness of the communities which has ensured the survival of precenting the line.

While the cultural transmittance between the African slaves and their white masters is well documented, this story is always going to be a raw nerve for some. For others, like Ruff, it is an opportunity for acknowledgement and reconciliation. He believes that traces of the white influence on black music exist to this day and that the "DNA" of lining out the psalms permeates modern forms of music.

At a symposium at Yale in May, the professor brought together congregations from Back Free Church on the Isle of Lewis and the Indian Bottom Old Regular Baptists, a white congregation from south-eastern Kentucky alongside the Sipsey River Primitive Baptist Association, a black congregation from Eutaw, Alabama.

Ruff believes there is much more work to be done in finding out about the fusion of black and Gaelic culture. For him the symposium was merely the end of the beginning of his search.

"Because of slavery, the African-American has never properly been able to explore his or her roots.

"But," Ruff adds, "what this work does is open new avenues. We clearly have European roots too. While it may not be satisfactory and it may not be comfortable, it is what it is. It's in our names, it's in our music, it's in our blood."

A DVD that explores the relationship between Gaelic psalm singing and African-American gospel music, Siubhal nan Salm - The Journey of the Psalms, is available through eyeline media and Gaelic Psalm Singing.