Significant Recording at the Library of Congress Originated by Chance Meeting at Berea College

What do Joan Baez, Sly Stone, Steve Martin, Sesame Street, and Old Regular Baptists have in common? All of them have recordings named by the Library of Congress as American treasures. But one selection has a common connection to Berea College.

James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress, recently announced the latest list of recordings to be added to the library’s National Recording Registry. Each year, the Library of Congress selects 25 sound recordings—which are at least 10 years old—that are recognized for their cultural, artistic and/or historical significance to American society and the nation’s audio legacy. “By preserving these recordings, we safeguard the words, sounds and music that embody who we are as a people and a nation,” Billington said.

Loyal Jones

Loyal Jones

One of the albums, “Old Regular Baptists: Lined-out Hymnody From Eastern Kentucky” [Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 1997 (SFW 40106)], resulted from the chance meeting of several people at Berea College. Loyal Jones, noted Appalachian scholar and founding director of the Appalachian Center at Berea College that is now named for him, (and an American treasure himself) provides the back-story with the following narrative:

 “In the mid-1970s I had a visitor to the Berea College Appalachian Center where I worked,” Jones says. “His name was William Tallmadge, a professor of music at the State University College at Buffalo, New York. As an authority on American rural hymnody, he had been in eastern Kentucky during the summer recording the hymn singing of three groups of Baptists, the Primitive, Old Regular, and United Baptists. He said that when he retired from his position in Buffalo that he would be interested in being associated with Berea College to continue his research. I sent him to see William Stolte, then the Vice President for Academic Affairs. Tallmadge and his family moved to Berea in 1976, and he taught an additional eleven years in the music department while doing further research.

 “Tallmadge soon proposed that we hold a national symposium on rural hymnody and asked me to assist him in this project. He knew most of the leading ethnomusicologists, folklorists, and hymnody specialists in the country, and we invited a few of them to help plan the symposium and more to present papers. We obtained a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and we held the symposium April 26-29, 1979, with over a hundred people from all over the U.S. and Canada in attendance. More than a dozen scholarly papers were presented, with discussion, and three singing groups presented their contrasting music, including singers from the Mt. Olivet Church of the Indian Bottom Association of Old Regular Baptists from Blackey, Kentucky. They were led by Elder Elwood Cornett, who explained that they were ”demonstrating” rather than “performing“ their lined-out style of singing, a tradition going back four hundred years in America and Britain. On Sunday, we took the invited presenters to Floyd County, Kentucky, to attend the worship service at the Left Beaver Old Regular Baptist Church.

“Among the presenters at the symposium was Jeff Todd Titon, an ethnomusicologist from Tufts University in Massachusetts. He was “blown away” by the Old Regular Baptist singing and was eager to return to interview and record them.

“Also attending the Symposium was Philip Rhodes, a composer from Carleton College, then in residence for the year at Berea. He had been visiting the Old Regular churches with William Tallmadge on week-ends. Rhodes had composed several orchestral works inspired by Appalachian music, including the “Concerto for Bluegrass Band and Orchestra” for the McLain Family Band, originally from Knott County, Kentucky, but in Berea at the time where Raymond K. McLain was a member of the music department of the College. The McLain Family Band performed this concerto with numerous symphony orchestras across the country.         

“Another important person was John Wallhausser, who had come to Berea College as the Lilly Professor in the philosophy and religion department. Wallhausser, Yale educated, was a devout Lutheran whose family had fled Hitler’s Germany. He was born in Honduras, but the family soon moved to the U.S. where he grew up. Philip Rhodes had taken Wallhausser to Old Regular church meetings and had introduced him to Elder Cornett. Wallhausser later received a Mellon Foundation grant to do a theological study of the Old Regular Baptists, after which he quipped that he had become ‘an Old Regular Lutheran.’

“Jeff Titon came back to Berea College in 1990 as the Goode Visiting Professor of Appalachian Studies to teach and to do field recordings with the Old Regular Baptists,” Jones continues. “Titon was by then Professor of Music and head of the Ph.D. program in ethnomusicology at Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island, and in the meantime he had produced an LP on the Fellowship Independent Baptist Church in Stanley, Virginia, and its pastor Brother John Sherfey: Powerhouse for God: Speech, Chant, and Song in an Appalachian Baptist Church (University of North Carolina University Press, 1983). He then did a book with the same title (University of Texas Press, 1988), followed by a documentary film (1998).

“From his research, John Wallhausser had written a perceptive article on the theology of the Old Regular Baptists, ‘I Can Almost See Heaven From Here,’ published in Katallagete (Spring 1983; Vol. 8 No.3), so it was natural for him and Titon to get together on the project to interview and to record in the Old Regular Baptist churches.

“The third member of the team was Elwood Cornett, Moderator of the association as well as of the Mt. Olivet Old Regular Baptist Church in Blackey, Kentucky. He was one of 12 children from a family that settled in eastern Kentucky before the turn of the nineteenth century. He was educated at Stuart Robinson School, Caney College (now Alice Lloyd), Cumberland College, Morehead State University, Eastern Kentucky University (B.A. and M.A.) and the University of Tennessee (Ed.S). Old Regular Baptists do not pay a salary to their preachers (another of their long-time traditions), so Cornett was a lifelong educator for his day job, first in a two-room school, and later as an eighth-grade teacher. He then became the director of the Kentucky Valley Education Cooperative in Hazard that was prominent in initiating a suit against the state of Kentucky for the unequal financing of schools, resulting in the Kentucky Educational Reform Act of 1990, one of the noted school-improvement movements in the country. He was named a ‘Distinguished Educator’ under the act and worked to improve education in the Harlan and Bell County High Schools.

“Titon, who believed deeply in a ‘democratic’ approach in his work, saw from the beginning that, Cornett’s love and respect for the ancient hymns and his passionate efforts to preserve and extend their performance into future generations, was to be the heart and soul of the project. Therefore, Titon saw him as an active participant, not just a subject of the project,” Jones says. “Titon, an ethnomusicologist, not a theologian, also saw the importance of having Wallhausser’s help in historical and theological matters. All three were involved in most of the interviewing and recording sessions, and all three wrote introductory essays for the recording. 

“Titon had state-of-the-art recording equipment and was adept in using it. Also, he was a known and respected scholar at the Smithsonian Institution and at the Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, so that his project was readily accepted by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

“The citation by Library of Congress for this particular recording reads: ‘These hymns are considered the oldest type of Anglo-American religious music passed down orally in the U.S. They represent a historic type that can be traced back to the music of the 16th-century Parish church and the Protestant reformation. Once a very common way of singing sacred songs in the American colonies, the Old Regular Baptists of southeastern Kentucky are one of the few groups who still worship using the old style of ‘lining hymn.” Lined-out hymns have no written musical notation to guide the singers. A single song leader guides the congregation through the hymn one line at a time. Typically, the leader sings the line quickly and then the congregation repeats the words in unison, but to the tune much longer and more elaborate than the leader’s original chant or lining tune. The congregation’s response has no regular beat or harmonizing parts and are often very emotional. The intent is not to sing with the unified precision of a practiced choir. The result is heterophonic, a musical texture characterized by the simultaneous variation of a single melodic line sung by many voices, unique in Western music.’

“In 2003, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings released a second CD of additional hymns and spoken word, ‘Songs of the Old Regular Baptists: Lined-Out Hymnody From Eastern Kentucky, Vol. 2’ (SFW CD 50001) from the recordings described above and were by Jeff Titon and Elwood Cornett.

“While Titon was in residence at Berea, he also studied Kentucky fiddlers and traditional fiddle tunes, with the help of such experts as John Harrod, of Owen County, whose field recordings are housed at Berea College, and whose daughter Anna, also a fiddler, is a student there,” Jones states. “Titon, himself a fiddler, guitarist, and banjo player, published in 2001, Old-Time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes (University Press of Kentucky), with biographical information on 36 fiddlers, musical notations for 171 tunes, and a CD with 26 tunes.

“There is one more part to this story,” Jones adds. “The three persons who did this project became fast friends, with a deep respect and admiration for one another. They came from different places and cultures and circumstances, different religious beliefs, different commitments, but their love and respect for one another has remained strong over a quarter of a century beyond this job of work that they did together. They have made visits to one another’s homes: Jeff’s in Little Deer Isle, Maine; Elwood and Kathy Cornett’s in Blackey, Kentucky; and John and Mary Wallhausser’s in Berea. In a world that is becoming more contentious and disrespectful, in terms of differences, especially in religious matters, I am fond of this story.”

Selections named by the Library of Congress to their registry of the top 25 recordings feature a rich and varied array of spoken-word and musical recordings—representing nearly every musical category—spanning the years 1890-1999. Among the selections this year are “Joan Baez,” the artist’s first solo album; Tennessee Ernie Ford’s 1955 “Sixteen Tons”; Sly and the Family Stone’s 1969 “Stand!,” one of the most successful albums of the 1960s; the “Lovin’ Feelin’” of the Righteous Brothers; Steve Martin’s comedy album “A Wild and Crazy Guy”; and 20 classic songs compiled in the 1995 “Sesame Street: All-Time Platinum Favorites.”

Other selected recordings include radio coverage of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s funeral, including announcer Arthur Godfrey’s emotional broadcast; and Charles Laughton’s non-musical theatrical production, “John Brown’s Body,” and a collection of 600 wax-cylinder recordings from the turn of the 20th century and rare recordings from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair demonstrating “world music” from numerous countries around the globe. For a complete list of the 25 recordings selected by the Library of Congress, visit: http://www.loc.gov/today/pr/2015/15-041.html

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