I can't stop listening to this beautiful Baptist lining hymn

Mar 18, 2015 at 2:12 pm

“Lining out” is the practice of singing or stating the upcoming lines of a hymn for the congregation by a song leader or preacher. Typically, the words are stated quickly, and then sung in a drawn-out, slowly rhythmic moan.

Ever since finding it for a collaged-together program of gospel videos I curated for Portland's historic Hollywood Theatre three and a half years ago, I've been mesmerized by the above performance of C.P. Preston's hymn "A Charge to Keep I Have," shot at Evergreen Baptist in Fort Lauderdale 15 years ago. 

There's a recording of Leadbelly singing the song, "Look Away to Heaven," and in introducing the tune, the singer says that in his experience at the Baptist church he attended as a child, it was “sisters in the Amen corner” who performed the role of introducing the lining hymn. 

Today lining hymns are the principal form of singing—purely a capella lined-out hymns—in the Southern Old Regular Baptist church; there are several excellent recordings of this material on Folkways. The tradition seems to have been equally strong in both black and white churches, from what I can tell.

It took me years to realize that the infamous gospel blues recording from 1927, “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” by Blind Willie Johnson — a song that is included on NASA's golden Voyager record, and which was the single influence on Ry Cooder's Paris, Texas soundtrack — is above all else—and this would have been instantly familiar to his audience at the time— an example of a capella lined-out hymnody (one that just happens to be largely wordless). Those first nine notes picked out on the fourth string mimic the song leader, while the moaning melody is then repeated back using the slide.