"Like a River Flowing with Living Water": Worshiping in the
by Joyce Marie Jackson
In the view of many people, the American South is a complex phenomenon. One aspect of its
complexity is that cultures brought there from Africa and Europe interacted with one
another despite efforts to keep them separate, and so African Americans and European
Americans have assimilated to a certain extent, and adapted similar religious traditions.
Yet, though some congregations are now integrated, especially the Full Gospel churches,
religious life in the South continues to be divided along racial lines. The assertion that
11:00 a.m. on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in American society is probably
as valid today as it ever was. However, the segregated nature of Southern religion is one
that African Americans and other ethnic groups chose, in order to worship not only with a
sense of dignity and independence but also in their own style.
outside Bethlehem No. 2 Missionary Baptist Church, Shaw, Mississippi. Photo
© Tom Rankin
This article attempts to examine briefly the richness and diversity of worship
experiences in the Mississippi Delta. Looking at oratory, music, ritual, and sacred spaces
also helps us understand what Anglo- and African-American sacred folk traditions have in
common and where they differ.
SINGING THE WORD
The tradition of Southern oratory includes roaring campaign speeches from the back of a
pickup truck as well as "fire and brimstone" preaching at a backwoods church
revival. The central figure in the religious oratory folk community is the preacher. An
indispensable part of his art and skill is to be able to respond to, engage, and raise
spiritual energies during the performance of a sermon without a written text.
Where the sermon was first chanted, and by whom, is very difficult to determine. Bruce
Rosenberg places the background of present-day fundamentalist beliefs and the chanted
spiritual sermon in the 19th century by relating them to the Second Great Awakening of
1800-1801. Certainly the Great Awakening ushered in the age of the informal folk preachers
in America and did much to modify the image of the clergy. In fact, the clerical
profession in general has not been the same since the spiritual services took to the brush
arbors and camp meetings.
It is probable that the Great Awakening provided African-American preachers their first
significant public exposure; however, their preaching style and long, colorful, narrative
prayers had been developed earlier, during the institution of slavery. The chanted sermon
style - once held to be altogether European in origin - has historic precedents in several
West, Central, East, and South African groups. Because many African cultures emphasize
oral tradition, the artful manipulation of "the word" (from precolonial epics of
the West African griot to playing the dozens or rapping in the streets) is a highly prized
skill among people of African descent. Although both African Americans and Anglo Americans
perform the folk chanted sermons - and may go beyond chanting to actually singing - the
tradition has been most fully developed in the African-American community.
Timing is a vital factor in the building of the sermon, which normally begins in prose and
moves into metrical verse. The rhythm of the lines must be properly maintained throughout
the performance for it to be effective, and the congregation's response, often in terms of
call-and-response, plays a key role in the rhythmic structure of the sermon. The
preacher's individual style - his preference for particular melodies, rhythms, formulaic
expressions, and themes - continually recreates the tradition.
SONGS OF THE SPIRIT
Another important aspect of worship is, of course, music. Spirituals, the sacred folk
songs created by enslaved African Americans during the ante-bellum era, are still being
performed in their traditional a cappella (unaccompanied) style in many rural
African-American churches. Urban churches have added piano accompaniment as well as other
forms of instrumentation, and spirituals have also been arranged as gospel songs.
Rev. Lionell Wilson leads the "rocking" procession and carries
the banner which symbolizes the cross. The table is ornamented with twelve lamps
representing the twelve disciples and twelve cakes representing the twelve tribes of
Israel. This sacred ritual takes place in the Winnsboro community in the Louisana Delta
region. Photo © Nash Porte
Although Anglo- and African-American Baptists in the Delta rarely share
their pews, they do share some of their hymns. Common to both churches is the lining-out
style of the Dr. Watts and other long-meter hymns (Dr. Isaac Watts was an 18th-century
English Methodist hymn writer).
Lining-out is a hymn-singing tradition that arose out of necessity. There was a lack of
hymn books and an abundance of people who could not read; therefore, one person was
designated to 'pitch' the song for the whole congregation. Both African and Anglo
Americans practice this tradition in different performance styles. In the Anglo tradition
the congregation sings almost the exact melody and rhythms of the leader, with some
variation from individual singers; in the African-American tradition, the lead voice and
congregation overlap melodically and rhythmically and decorate the hymn tunes with various
vocal embellishments and moans. This produces an extraordinary effect sometimes called
surge singing. In many churches this style is still performed a cappella.
Members of a shape-note singing convention perform at
Union Chapel Baptist Church in Monroe, Louisana. Shape-note singing is a system of notated
music commonly using four or seven shapes in lieu of the round notes found in statndard
European notation. This singing school system facilitates learning the music by note. Photo © J. Nash Porter.
Another style of religious music still prevalent today in the Delta is
sacred harp, in which a system of four shapes - a triangle, circle, square, and diamond -
is employed to designate the musical syllables fa, sol, la, and mi (shape-note singing is
also called fasola singing). This system, a popular and effective way of teaching people
to "read" music, was an outgrowth of the New England singing school movement and
the Great Awakening. Published in Philadelphia in 1801, William Little's The Easy
Instructor, or A New Method of Teaching Sacred Harmony introduced the shape-note
system to the general public. Later in the 19th century the publication of books employing
the shape-note system began to spread south. William Walder's Southern Harmony (1835)
and Benjamin White and B.J. King's The Sacred Harp (1844) have been two of the
most widely used.
The Anglo-American sacred harp singing conventions that take place in the Delta are
usually all-day affairs, and everybody is expected to participate in these religious
social events. What follows the singing is another tradition -
"dinner-on-the-grounds," a communal feast contributed to by all participants.
Most of the singing is still done a cappella with the hymns sung first using the
The Oldham Family quartet is a sacred English/ Scots/ Irish group based
in the First Church of God in Oak Grove, Louisana. The group sings hymns learned in
singing school with the seven-note system. Photo © Susan Roach
Although shape-note singing has been called White spiritual and White
gospel singing, the system was adapted by certain African-American congregations in the
South during the 1880s using texts of songs drawn from old hymns, gospel songs, and a few
spirituals. There is only one collection of African-American sacred harp compositions, The
Colored Sacred Harp (1934) by Judge Jackson.
The African American Shape Note and Vocal Music Singing Convention Directory for
Mississippi and Areas of Northeast Alabama was published through the efforts and
coordination of Chiquita Willis to "foster and support a network of African-American
shape-note music singers and supporters that will facilitate interaction among
conventions." In August 1993, nearly 300 people, including delegations from twenty
different singing conventions, attended the two-day West Harmony Singing Convention held
at Pleasant Grove First Baptist Church in Grenada County, Mississippi. This convention and
the work of Chiquita Willis have demonstrated that Mississippi has a much larger, more
widespread shape-note tradition than previously thought.
Among the various African-American shape-note singing groups in the Louisiana Delta area
are the Winnsboro Senior Citizen Singers and Mr. and Mrs. Orland Johnson, a singing couple
from Start, Louisiana. They participate along with other groups, most of whom sing a
cappella, in the parish-wide, state, and regional convention and singing schools.
The shape-note singing conventions also led to the formation of some a cappella gospel
quartets. The Oldham Family from West Carroll Parish in Louisiana is an
English/Scots/Irish quartet that sings hymns learned in shape-note singing schools with
the newer seven-note shape-note system.
A number of African-American quartets in the Delta started with the shape-note system as
well. The Pleasant Star Singers (formed in 1946), one of the oldest a cappella quartets in
the Winnsboro, Louisiana, area, still sing with the singing conventions. The Convention
Specials Quartet (with members from various Delta parishes), the Mighty Soul Guides, and
the Royal Newtown Spiritual Quartet from Monroe can usually be found at church programs
and quartet anniversaries.
Gospel music has contributed tremendously to the Mississippi Delta region's unique musical
heritage. This new sacred music of the 20th century reflects the concerns of urban life
and to a large extent has replaced other sacred styles like the folk spiritual and the Dr.
Watts hymn. In the African-American community during the 1920s the gospel tradition began
to emerge in small, urban, Pentecostal "storefront" churches, then gradually in
Baptist churches. Now the genre has found its way into the sanctuaries of African-American
congregations of virtually every religious denomination, including Catholic.
When Anglo-American settlers moved into the Delta, they brought with them their fiddling,
ballad-singing, and sacred music traditions. Their gospel music can be found in
performances of gospel quartets, family and community groups, and country and bluegrass
bands. Many of these styles are rooted in the shape-note singing tradition.
Though country and bluegrass music differ in their themes and instruments, bands from both
genres usually perform sacred songs. You can also find an occasional sacred instrumental
band in the Delta. Rev. Gerald Lewis, who grew up in Ferriday, Louisiana, plays gospel
piano in his Pentecostal Band and built a ministry in several rural churches in Swartz,
Louisiana. His cousins Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Gilley, and Jimmy Swaggart took that
small-town background and musical skill to the top of the rock and roll, country, and
television evangelism fields.
Rites of passage such as birth, death, and marriage mark a change in a person"s
socioreligious position. Baptism in the Delta region, a symbolic ritual of purification
and initiation, is a significant rite of passage. As late as the 1950s, river submersion
was common in both African- and Anglo-American Protestant churches but continues today
primarily among African Americans.
Nowadays, after their week-long annual revival, Rev. L.D. Oliver, pastor of St. Paul
Baptist Church in Monroe, Louisiana, and Rev. Roosevelt Wright, Jr., pastor of the
Tabernacle Baptist Church, gather their congregations together for the river baptism. In
this setting the old, traditional spirituals such as "Take Me to the River,"
"I Know I've Got Religion," and "Wade in the Water" are sung. Rev.
Oliver works to remind other area ministers and youth about their heritage of river
baptism from the biblical example set by John the Baptist baptizing Christ in the Jordan
Rituals involving immersion in bodies of water are also prevalent in traditional African
religious ceremonies. They are symbolic of purification, washing away evil and healing the
physical as well as the spiritual being. The ritual act of immersion carries the hope of
renewal and freedom, ideas that have driven African-American spirituality.
The ministers in Rayville and Alto still take their congregations to the nearby Beouf
River, and in Monroe the Ouachita River at the Foot of Pine Street has been used for
several generations. This sacred place is called by the elders of the community the Old
Burying Ground, an appropriate name for the place of ritual baptism in which "the
candidate is symbolically buried in Christ, sins are washed away, and one is raised up to
walk in newness of life."
Another sacred ritual that takes place in rural African-American Baptist churches in
northern Louisiana is the Easter Rock ceremony held on the eve of Easter Sunday. In this
ritual the elders sing some of the old traditional spirituals such as "Oh, When the
Saints Go Marching In" and "King David." The songs are sung in a chant-like
manner, as the participants move counterclockwise with circular rocking movements around a
table placed in the middle of the church floor. Dr. Watts and other long-meter hymns such
as "I Know the Lord Will Answer Prayer" and "I Love the Lord, He Heard My
Cry" are also very prominent in the context of the Easter Rock. The congregants dress
in white, and the leader carries a circular banner representing the cross. The table is
decorated with white tablecloths, and twelve lamps and twelve cakes, representing the
twelve disciples and twelve tribes of Israel. The Easter eggs on the table symbolize new
This ritual clearly has African and Caribbean antecedents; there are many accounts of
sacred circular dances throughout the African diaspora. Some of the elderly Delta
participants recalled their parents remembering the tradition as pre-dating the Civil War.
The "rock" had vanished for awhile, then certain individuals became interested
in the history and began to revive the tradition. The ritual has been passed on by the
Addison family for many generations. Now Hattie Addison coordinates the Winnsboro Easter
Rock, and people from various congregations in the area participate. The Original True
Light Baptist Church, pastored by Rev. J.L. McDowell, is ideal for the "rock"
because its wooden floors contribute to the percussive effect, and movable pews make room
to "rock" in a circle. The whole ceremony is done a cappella; only hand clapping
and foot stamping accompany the songs. Easter Rocks were once held around Ferriday,
Louisiana, in Clayton and Sicily Island; however, those have not been organized in the
last few years.
The religious experiences of many people are tied to specific places where rituals are
performed. Some people also construct personal sacred space to their own specifications.
On Old U.S. 61 in Kings, Mississippi, just outside of Vicksburg, one man's sacred space
has been under construction for several years. Rev. Herman Dennis is spreading the word of
God not only through his spontaneous sermons but also through his craftsmanship.
Dennis has decorated Margaret's Grocery Store (belonging to his wife) in red and white
brick with large brick columns of varying size. All bear bits and pieces of biblical
phrases and messages that travelers can read. He has also placed reproductions of various
symbolic designs in very strategic places. For example, on the wall, ceiling, and the
sidewalk he has placed the Masonic order symbol of the "G," which to him
To the right of the grocery store is a large brick tower where he plans to house the Ark
of the Covenant, which will eventually contain the Ten Commandments. Then, he believes,
Margaret's Grocery Store will attract people of all Christian faiths to worship. Dennis
believes that God, like himself, is a builder or a "craftsman." "The
Almighty is the greatest architect," he says, :"and I am his assistant."
These genres of worship in the Delta constantly reunite a region by reminding it of its
shared but multifocal heritage. Worship traditions are shaped by a collective and
selective memory. Decisions are made by regarding fundamental and shared values. To
participate in traditional worship traditions is to relive that past and to make it a
source of power for the future of the Delta.
Joyce Marie Jackson, an ethnomusicologist and folklorist, is Associate Professor in
the Department of Geography and Anthropology at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
She received her Ph.D. from Indiana University, Bloomington. She has been a Rockefeller
Fellow and has produced The Gospel Train: Zion Travelers Spiritual Singers, a
documentary recording on the a cappella quartet tradition. Her book, From These Roots,
which also focuses on the a cappella quartet tradition, is forthcoming.
Works Cited & Suggested Reading:
The African American Shape Note & Vocal Music Singing Convention Directory:
Mississippi and Areas of Northwest Alabama. 1994. Mississippi Folklife 27.
Davis, Gerald L. 1985. I Got the Word in Me and I Can Sing It, You Know: A Study of
the Performed African-American Sermon. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania
Ellington, Charles Linwood. 1969. The Sacred Harp Tradition of the South: Its Origin
and Evolution. Tallahassee: Florida State University.
Jackson, Joyce Marie. 1995. The Changing Nature of Gospel Music: A Southern Case Study. The
African American Review 29 (2):185-200.
_____. 1981. The Black American Folk Preacher and the Chanted Sermon: Parallels of a West
African Tradition. In Discourse in Ethnomusicology II: A Tribute to Alan P. Merriam,
ed. Caroline Card et al. Bloomington: Ethnomusicology Publication Group.
Jackson, Judge. 1992. The Colored Sacred Harp, For Singing Class, Singing School,
Convention and General Use in Christian Work and Worship. Montgomery, Alabama: Brown
Olsen, Ted. 1991 and 1992. The Voices of the Older Ones: The Sacred Harp Singing Tradition
in Calhoun County, Mississippi. Mississippi Folklore Register 25 and 26.
Rankin, Tom. 1993. Sacred Space: Photographs from the Mississippi Delta. Jackson:
University Press of Mississippi.
Rosenberg, Bruce A. 1988. Can These Bones Live?: The Art of the American Folk
Preacher. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Staten, Annie, and Susan Roach. 1996. Take Me to the Water: African American River
Baptism. In The Louisiana Folklife Festival Program Book. Monroe: Louisiana
Sturman, Janet. 1993. Asserting Tradition: Building and Maintenance of African-American
Baptist Rock Ceremony in Northeast Louisiana. Louisiana Folklife 27:24-32.
The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. The Best of the Five Blind Boys. MCA 28022.
_______. Precious Memories: A Tribute to Archie Brownlee. MCA 28002.
The Hawkins Family. Oo-wee Lord, You Have Been Good. LILSIL's Music, Dallas,
Hemphills. Home Cookin'. Heart Warming.
Hunter Brothers. 1995. The Ship. DDS.
Lewis, Jerry Lee. In Loving Memories: The Jerry Lee Lewis Gospel Album. Mercury
Mississippi Sacred Harp Singing. Southern Folklore 101.
The Pilgrim Jubilees. The Old Ship of Zion. MCA 28010.
Racy Brothers. 1996. Time Out. Ace.
Smith, Mother Willie Mae Ford. Mother Willie Mae Ford Smith. Spirit Feel 1010.
The Southern Harmoneers. He'll Make a Way. Hot Productions, Inc. HTCD 3701-2.
Swaggart, Rev. Jimmy. The Golden Gospel Piano. Jim R3607.
Tharpe, Sister Rosetta. Gospel Train. MCA 1317.