Jonathan C. David decided he must write this book, “despite the potential race and class conflict.” In his frank preface, he tells of his initial encounter with the
singing and praying bands on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake. His boat driver said, “If you go over to the church in Batt’s Neck during their camp meeting, you’ll hear these people come and sing this really old-type of singing.
And the melodies are so slow and strange that you won’t understand a word they say.” All of which turned out to be true, and David found the singing and preaching to range from “profound and moving” to “absolutely dynamite.”
If that phrase seems a tad unscholarly, it’s because David
is not the sort of folklorist who usually gets involved in writing an academic treatise.
And the bands and all their acolytes are African American, and David is not. In this remarkable book, he has done as much as he could to let the participants tell their own stories. He has also included a CD of the singing and praying, a production “recognized by the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center as one of the ten best recordings of American folk music in 1992.”
The singing and praying band tradition reaches far back into American and African folklore and religion. Apparently unique to the Chesapeake Bay shores, it sprang up in the wake of a populist religious surge of camp meetings that swept through America in the 1880s. In Maryland and thereabouts, the camp meetings were mainly Methodist. Early on, such meetings were integrated, but as time passed segregation became a societal norm. In the black community, the camp meetings were usually held at local churches, where “bands” of marching singers would converge, each to have a turn in the proceedings. Meetings could last all night and go on for several days. At the periphery, out in the woods, would be a scruffy group of gamblers and drinkers. The praying centered around a “mourner’s bench” where the unsaved could get salvation and people could kneel and pray when they were moved by the holy words of the songs, "shouts" and prayers. David states: “The network of camp meetings can be considered…to be a loosely organized folk religion that celebrates t=its African roots while surviving under the umbrella of the various Methodist churches.”
David, following a lengthy introduction, uses the “voices” of various men and women involved in the bands to explain exactly what happens at such a camp meeting. There are numerous photographs. The narratives are followed by the text of the recording, which definitely helps the listener to understand the sometimes muffled, ponderous singing.
The singing, for those accustomed to traditional Negro folk music, is both marvelous to hear and difficult to access except on an emotional plane. It is slow, repetitious, and lacks harmony. Perhaps it was meant to be as much a departure as possible from the frivolous dancing and singing that might take place in a club or at home. Perhaps singing with great discipline places the mind on higher realities. The praying is also rigidly structured, yet the words are inspirational to an advanced degree, again appealing on an emotional level. The bands are similarly regimented, with a “mother and father” and various captains, whose duties are to make sure that people were capable of “raising the hymns.”
Without the CD it would be quite difficult for the uninitiated to imagine what this art form is like; with it, the book comes alive.