Sojourner's Place

sunday inspirations...the call and response  

Posted by SjP in

I remember how happy and excited I would be when I'd get a chance to spend a Saturday night at my cousins' house because that meant I'd be going to church with them on Sunday morning. I couldn't wait and wanted to make sure that we got there early because I never wanted to miss the old man who would always be sitting right under the pulpit get up and start singing. He'd sing something - never could really understand what he was singing - and then the congregation would come in singing something else I generally could not understand. All I knew was that I loved the sombre melody and reverence of the singers. It was certainly a departure from the Lutheran church I attended. We just didn't sing or worship like this there. And I must admit, I always wondered why.

It would be years before I learned that what I was listening to was termed "call and response" or Dr. Watts hymns, often taken directly from passages in the Bible and most commonly the Psalms. I understood the "call and response" but didn't understand why they were called Dr. Watts. Now, I know the answer.

Dr Isaac WATTS was an English minister who published several books: Hymns and Spiritual Songs, in 1707, “The Psalms of David” in 1717. The various Protestant denominations adopted his hymns, which were included in several hymnals, at that time.

Missionaries reported on the “ecstatic delight” slaves took in singing the psalms and hymns of Dr Watts.

In his book “The Religious Instruction of the Negroes in the United States” (1842), the White minister Charles Colock Jones recommended highly some hymns of Dr Watts (“When I Can read My Title Clear”, etc.). He wrote: “One great advantage in teaching them (slaves) good psalms and hymns, is that they are thereby induced to lay aside the extravagant and nonsensical chants, and catches and hallelujah songs of their own composing”.

However, in the early 1800s, Black ministers took seriously the admonition of Dr Isaac Watts: “Ministers are to cultivate gifts of preaching and prayer through study and diligence; they ought also to cultivate the capacity of composing spiritual songs and exercise it along with the other parts of the worship, preaching and prayer”. So, homiletic spirituals were created by preachers and taught to the congregation by them or by deacons.

During the post-Civil War period and later, some congregation conducted services without hymnbooks. A deacon (or precentor) set the pitch and reminded the words in half-singing half-chanting stentorian tones. The people called their songs “long-meter hymns (because the tempo was very low) or “Dr Watts”, even if they have not been written by this gentleman.

The particular feature of this kind of singing was its surging, melismatic melody, punctuated after each praise by the leader’s intoning of the next line of the hymn. The male voices doubled the female voices an octave below and with the thirds and the fifths occurring when individuals left the melody to sing in a more comfortable range. The quality of the singing was distinctive for its hard, full-throated and/or nasal tones with frequent exploitation of falsetto, growling, and moaning.

The beats of Dr Watt’s songs were slow, while there are other types of spirituals. These beats are usually classed in three groups: the “call and response chant”; the slow, sustained, long-phrase melody; and the syncopated, segmented melody; “Call and response”. For a “call and response chant”, the preacher (leader) sings one verse and the congregation (chorus) answers him with another verse.
In preparing this morning's Sunday Inspriations post, I learned something even more fascinating than the fact that Dr. Watts was real and that he was white. I invite Sojourners to listen to the YouTube video downloaded from SoulsSurvivor below. I am sure you will find it fascinating as well.


Sunday Inspirations, is the meme created in honor of my Mother for Mother's Day 2008 and is just one way to help get us through the week ahead, the trials we may face, and yes, to say Thank Ya and testify! I hope that you participate and share with us your Sunday Inspirations. Your weekly contribution may very well be the inspiration that someone else may need and has been looking for.



Obliged to you for hearing me,
and now old SjP ain't got nothin' more to say...
~~~ ~~~ ~~~
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This entry was posted at Sunday, April 26, 2009 and is filed under . You can follow any responses to this entry through the .

2 sojourners hollin' back

The old black church. There is nothing like it. But I certainly love it.

April 26, 2009 at 10:42 PM

As the granddaughter of a Baptist pastor this surely brings back memories of the congregation praying in this manner also. Call and response was an integral part of baptism (going down in the liquid grave and rising again spiritually anew.)

Amen Revvy Rev there's nothing like the Old Black Church.

April 27, 2009 at 4:14 AM
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