This fieldwork initiative began in 2010 to document what is likely the oldest living sacred musical tradition in Maryland and Delaware: the Singing and Praying Bands. The Singing and Praying Bands tradition was born out of secretive “brush arbor” devotional traditions of enslaved African-Americans in the Chesapeake Tidewater regions of Maryland and Delaware in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Combining lined-out Christian hymns with aspects of West African sacred music (ring-shouts), it has since become a central piece of African-American Methodist camp meetings in the region.
In time, this musical tradition was formalized within the Methodist churches of Maryland and Delaware, where each church’s uniform-clad “band”1 would play a key role in camp meetings and fundraising. This tradition was widespread and robust as recently as forty years ago, but has since become greatly diminished. Today, the fifty men and women who actively participate in the tradition form a single band that travels a circuit, visiting each host church, from spring until fall.
I came to know about the Singing and Praying bands through folklorist Jonathan David’s remarkable book, Together Let Us Sweetly Live: The Singing and Praying Bands,2 a rich historical and ethnographic portrait of the tradition and the community. As both an ethnomusicologist with an interest in American vernacular music, and as the director of Maryland Traditions,3 I wanted to learn more about the tradition and discuss ways that the Maryland State Arts Council might be a resource for a community at a crossroads. I reached out to Jonathan David, who has been researching the bands continuously since he encountered them while doing survey research for the Delmarva Folklife Festival in 1983. He connected me to Reverend Jerry Colbert, pastor of John Wesley United Methodist Church in Annapolis, Maryland, and one of the leaders of the Singing and Praying Bands.
Clifford R. Murphy, Ph.D., serves as the director of Maryland Traditions, the Folklife program of the Maryland State Arts Council.
1 Though called “bands” it is important to note that these groups functioned without musical accompaniment.
2 David, Jonathan. 2007. Together Let Us Sweetly Live: The Singing and Praying Bands. University of Illinois Press.
3 Maryland Traditions is the folklife program of the Maryland State Arts Council.
by Clifford R. Murphy
This article was originally published by Smithsonian Folkways Magazine. with illustrative media.