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Recently my mother sent me a fascinating story from the Scotsman on Sunday about Willie Ruff, a music professor at Yale who believes that the musical roots of the unique singing style of African-American gospel music lie Scotland, and not West Africa as it commonly supposed.
Ruff’s journey of discovery started as a child in his home Baptist church in Alabama, when he would listen to elders present the line, which predates, and was an influence on, gospel music.
"I remember this captured my imagination as a small child. The elders, some born into slavery, say the lines in unison. They were dirge-like, impassioned melodies. They were illiterate and poor, they had nothing, but they had that passion in their singing. I, like everyone else, assumed it was unique to black congregations in the United States, having grown out of slavery."
But last year, during a casual visit to the Presbyterian church in Cumberland, Alabama, Ruff stumbled on a predominantly black congregation that sang the same way as the Baptist congregation of his childhood.
"Not only were they singing the same psalms, they were singing in the same deeply profound way, with the same passion which cries out. The tears began to flow."
They believed the method of worship came from Africa, but Ruff started to ask whether white Presbyterian congregations sang in the same way.
The academic began researching at the Sterling Library at Yale, one of the world’s greatest collections of books and papers. He found records detailing how Highlanders had settled in North Carolina in the 1700s. "I found evidence of slaves in North Carolina who could speak only Gaelic. I also heard the story of how a group of Hebrideans, on landing at Cape Fear, heard a Gaelic voice in the dialect of their village. When they rounded the corner they saw a black man speaking the language and assumed they too would turn that colour because of the sun. When I made these connections, I thought: ‘That’s it, I’m going to the Hebrides.""
A chance meeting with James Craig, a piper with the Royal Scots, put Ruff in touch with congregations in Lewis and Donald Morrison, a leader of singing.
"When I finally met Donald, we sat down and I played him music. It was like a wonderful blind test. First I played him some psalms by white congregations, and then by a black one. He then leapt to his feet and shouted: ‘That’s us!’
"When I heard Donald and his congregation sing in Stornoway I was in no doubt there was a connection."
I have no way of knowing how accurate this is musically, as I haven't been to any kind of church service (besides weddings and funerals) in the best part of a decade, but from an historical perspective it makes a certain amount of sense. Scots played a major role in American slavery, as both plantation owners and as overseers, and there are other cultural links between Scotland (and the Scots-Irish from Ulster) and African-America, in areas like the blues and Southern cuisine (which amalgamates British, African, and other influences).