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February 12, 2004

Orlando Sentinel

It's how his mother sang hymns. How generations of blacks sang hymns, before. Before they could read. Before they could afford instruments. Before they let tradition die. Some traditions, such as tannings with the switch, wouldn't be missed. But as Demps sees it, hymn lining -- a singing style in which a leader recites a line and then sings the verse along with the congregation -- is a tradition worth preserving. Which is why upholding the tradition has become a mission for Demps, the winner of a 2003 Florida Folk Heritage Award, and an art he tries to pass along to younger men. "It's black history, really," says Demps, 76. "It's something that belongs to us -- and it's dying -- and I don't want it to die."

Culturally linked with black slaves and African-American spirituals, the art of hymn lining has European roots, and became established in the American colonies in the 1640s. Few colonists could read, so a literate church elder or preacher would recite a line from a hymnbook, then troll with the faithful. Read, sing, repeat, until the hymn was finished. With the Great Awakening, the first broad revival movement in the American colonies, evangelism swept through in the early 1740s. Not even slave owners were immune to the evangelical spirit; some permitted slaves to worship in segregated or separate church services. But as literacy and hymnals became more widespread, whites gradually abandoned hymn lining.

Slaves, legally prohibited from reading, embraced the call-and-response style, which recalled African oral traditions, and infused the sacred with an earthy power that was at once sorrowful and expectant, elongating words, wringing rivers of pathos from a drop of word. Jesus becomes Je-ee-ee-ee-suh-uh-uh-us, and families passed on the tradition, according to a booklet from the Florida Folklife program. More

Posted by acapnews at February 12, 2004 8:33 AM

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