The Singing and Praying Bands of Maryland and Delaware

2014 National Heritage Fellows
Rev Jerry Colbert

Photo by Tom Pich

Music Credits:  Excerpt of “Bye and Bye” performed by The Singing and Praying Bands and recorded by Clifford R. Murphy on September 18, 2011 at Asbury-Broadneck United Methodist Church, Broadneck (Annapolis), Maryland (USA). Courtesy of Maryland Traditions/Maryland State Arts Council.

                                    Excerpts of tracks 3 and 5 from the recording that accompanied Together Let Us Sweetly Live: The Singing and Praying Bands written and recorded by Jonathan C. David; published by University of Illinois Press, 2007. Used courtesy of Jonathan C. David

Transcript: Reverend Jerry Colbert

Music Up

Jo Reed: That is the Singing and Praying Bands of Maryland and Delaware. It was named a 2014 National Heritage Fellow and this is Art Works the weekly podcast from the NEA. I'm Josephine Reed. The Singing and Praying Bands practice a form of religious worship: singing hymns in ways that blend both West African and European traditions.  it is one of the oldest and most historic African-American performance traditions, predating gospel, blues, and jazz. The Singing and Praying Bands tradition was born out of the secret devotions of enslaved African-Americans in the Chesapeake Tidewater regions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They  eventually became a central piece of African-American Methodist churches in the region, although it wasn't part of the formal worship service.  At one point in the mid 1950s, thousands of people took part, but the numbers have decreased over the past half-century and now the Singing and Praying Bands of Maryland and Delaware is the sole practitioner of this tradition. This week, it was honored with a National Heritage Fellowship for keeping alive one of the oldest forms of African-American music.  Over the Summer, I spoke with Reverend Jerry Colbert, one of the leaders of the group.  Here's our conversation. and a point of clarification, when Reverend Colbert mentions "Saints" he's talking about the  band members.

Jo Reed: Let’s establish right from the get-go that the singing and praying bands is a prayer group. This is a spiritual mission. This isn’t about performance.

Rev. Jerry Colbert: Absolutely. It’s a ministry. It’s been in existence and this area-- Annapolis, Baltimore, Delaware Peninsula, Dorchester County-- for some hundred and fifty years. And it is a worship-service experience. It’s not a performance. We try to explain that to our audience that we want you to get involved, we want you to participate, but this is church outside of the church, but we’re still in worship.

Jo Reed: Where does the service take place?

Rev. Jerry Colbert: The services take place primarily still in churches and sanctuaries. There are some venues in Delaware and Dorchester County where they have an outside pavilion where we worship in the outside under a pavilion. And it’s pretty much something that you would see back in the days of when you watched westerns on TV and you have the campfire and everyone would come and sit around the campfire and as a matter of fact in Frankfurt, Delaware, they have cottages build around the pavilion and so during their camp services folks come to the back side of their cottage and sit on their porch and enjoy the service.

Jo Reed: The way it works is that there is a religious service. There’s typically preaching, and then after that, after the formal service, that is when the singing begins with praying interspersed with singing. Is that correct?

Rev. Jerry Colbert: That is correct. Yes. There is a formal service and usually in the past what we call camp meeting, it was the evangelistic push for the Methodist and the AME movement. And this evangelical push just brought the community together. And after the formal service, the prayer bands would come together and, actually, during that singing and that movement, there was a prayer for healing if someone that they knew was sick in the community. There was a prayer for those that we call “lost, not saved,” and that was the movement. It was to bring people together to save souls and to develop good relationships.

Jo Reed: We should also say that when we say “band” we’re not talking about a musical band, but it’s rather a spiritual circle or a prayer circle.

Rev. Jerry Colbert: Absolutely. I’m so glad you asked that question because as we try to hold onto this tradition and especially in the Methodist movement, where we’re only assigned to a particular parish one year at a time-- of course, we may be re-assigned, but there have been ministers who have not been familiar with this movement. And when we say, “Rev, we’re gonna have camp meeting and the prayer band’s gonna be here,” and I’ll never forget my mentor, she said, “Brother Jerry, all these people here! Where’s the band?! Where’s the band?!” you know. I said, “Right there.” “I don’t see any instruments,” you know. I said, “Okay, Reverend Sara, okay. This is not that type of band.” And she grew to love us. I mean, she really did. But I’m glad that question was asked. Yes.

Jo Reed: And you’re called-- even though you’re one band, one group rather, you’re called “the singing and praying bands”, plural.

Rev. Jerry Colbert: Plural, yes, yes. And like you said, we’re from many churches and because we are so few we come together as one. And it’s the bands come together.

Jo Reed: And, again, “bands” as in “circle of prayer”.

Rev. Jerry Colbert: Yes.

Jo Reed: Tell me a little bit about the history of the signing and praying bands. It’s a very long, long history. It pre-dates the blues.

Rev. Jerry Colbert: Yes. Actually, it goes back to John Wesley the founder of Methodism. And back in England they had prayer circles and prayer groups and he brought this to Savanna, Georgia. It moved slowly up the Mason-Dixon Line and when the Methodists in Baltimore gave birth-- that’s when the camp meetings circuit and this prayer band movement really came alive and churches connect one with another. So it’s been in existence for over a hundred and fifty years.

Jo Reed: Well, from what I’ve read it’s one of the oldest surviving forms of African-American music.

Rev. Jerry Colbert: Yes, it is. Yes, it is. Mount Zion McAfee, who has a prayer group, their prayer band ministry goes back to a missionary that was sent to the West Coast of Africa and she picked up this ring-shout type of praise and worship and brought it back to the United States. So, yes, this goes way back in history.

Jo Reed: And it really is kind of this marriage of West African tradition and Western tradition.

Rev. Jerry Colbert: Absolutely. Absolutely. The two have merged together and it’s just a part of the Afro-American movement. It’s part of the thing that the old folks says keep the soul together. You know, when you have nobody else, you have God. And I can just sing to myself and I can just praise God by myself. But when I get in communion with my other sisters and brothers that’s a shout, that’s a shout.

Jo Reed: Explain what happens during a service.

Rev. Jerry Colbert: Well, after the formal service we used to have in the Methodist Church, an A.M.E. Church, prayer corners, amen corners. And the amen corners, they had benches and that was called the mourners’ bench. And that’s where sinners would come and get prayed over. After the formal service we pull that bench out. And for churches that no longer have that bench, we set a row of chairs and that’s signifies the praying bench. The men who were always the leaders in this ministry stood on one side of the bench and the ladies faced them and the service starts off with a slow climax. And as each verse is song, the tempo picks up. And then, at the end of a particular verse hymn, then there is a line that is repeated. And that particular line could be “Oh, weepin’ friend, don’t weep for me while standing around my bed. I know the way to Galilee, thank God I have no dread.” And you get caught up in that. You get really caught up by that and that would move on for a while and then the men would bring the folks back down-- okay, let’s come back down. We’re not done yet. We have some praying to do. And then one of the men will call on one of the ladies or another man and say, “Let’s pray.” Now that could be a general prayer for anything or a prayer that’s what’s on the person’s heart or we could say, “Brother Jones is here today and he just come through a major surgery and he believes in the healing hands of prayer. So let’s pray for him.” And so we go through these prayer channels and then we would sing another song. And this will go on perhaps for an hour-- forty-five minutes to an hour-- or longer depending upon how we engage and connect with the Spirit. It’s a call and response. The men will say one line, the ladies would answer. And then, when we’ve felt as though we have done what we’ve been called to do, we call it the grand march and we will march around. And this will give the ladies an opportunity to raise their voice in a song or to take the lead in a particular song. And then we will march out of the church and that’s what our service consists of. That’s start and finish.

Jo Reed: You know, I heard a field recording of a service and it struck me that in the beginning, the tempo is very slow. But it’s so somber it felt so sorrowful, almost as though it was all the cares that one was expressing, and then the level to which it would pick up and the joyousness. And you hear the entire build up to that joyousness.

Rev. Jerry Colbert: Yes, yes, yes. It’s where the saints bring all their cares to the Lord, all of their joys to the Lord, and that somber sound credendos into a loud shout, you know. And it’s just like all of yesterday’s problems are gone. All of this morning's problems are gone. I have now communion with God and the Holy Spirit and I’m able to take on the world now. I am just caught up in this thing and we can take it on, we can take on the world and that’s how that builds up to that point and, like I said, we don’t care who’s in the building, who’s looking at us, who’s sitting next to us, because by that time we have forgotten about everybody in the church, in the arena, because now we have that connection and we pray that that connection will reach someone in the congregation or the auditorium so that they can feel something and experience some of the something that we have.

Music Up

Jo Reed: So they’ll want to join and become a part of it as opposed to sitting back and observing it.

Rev. Jerry Colbert: Absolutely, absolutely. Now that we’re out of the box and into public arenas, you know, we just encourage those who never heard of us and been a part of this prayer band unit, if you would like to become a part of us, this is no secret organization that you have to sign some type of contract to sign, you know. It’s a Christian-based organization, ministry.

Jo Reed: Well, I’m glad you brought that up, because you decided quite consciously to come out of the box as you say and that was in 2011, was it?

Rev. Jerry Colbert: Yes.

Jo Reed: Talk about that decision to come out of the church and into the public, ‘cause that was a very thoughtful, complicated decision.

Rev. Jerry Colbert: Absolutely. It was not a easy decision for the group. They felt they would lose their identity. They didn’t know how they would be received. And the thing that they wanted to hold onto was the tradition and not get lost in performance. As we work through this and pray through this, I encouraged them that this is a way for us to spread the Good News outside of the arena that we used to, so that someone else may realize that there is another form of worship and praise and this is different and I like to be a part of it. And so in leading this group to these other venues, we hold on to the fact that we are Christian-based and we’re not going to entertain, but we’re going to nurture their souls.

Jo Reed: Now fifty- sixty years ago, singing and praying bands had thousands of people who were involved. How many are involved now?

Rev. Jerry Colbert: Right now, I would say approximately thirty-five people and that is inclusive of about eighteen churches. When I was a little boy at the tender age of, I don’t know, twelve- thirteen- fourteen or whatever, my home church, Asbury Broadneck, had eighty members alone. One church: eighty members. So back in the fifties and sixties and up until the middle seventies in this area it still was a large movement, but, of course, as the older saints died off, no one was replacing them. And because of our change in worship styles and trying to attract younger people to keep our congregation alive and active, the prayer band ministry kind of got pushed in the corner for contemporary music with the drums and the guitars and the tambourines to encourage families with children to come into the church. But yes, it has dwindled and we’re hoping to rebuild.

Jo Reed: And what about choosing the hymns. Do people take turns within the bands to do that?

Rev. Jerry Colbert: Yes, they do. And usually the hymns are a hymn that they remember that someone in their family sang when they were in the prayer band or something that they have heard and it take residence in them. There are times when they would say to their band captain-- at this present time they say to me, “Reverend Jerry, Brother Jerry, can we take this hymn-- this is my favorite hymn, ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’. Can we take this hymn? Can we tune this into a prayer band tune?” And so then I have to go into my repertoire of, okay, how can we do this? <laughs> But, yeah, that’s where the hymns come from. And the members share in that.

Jo Reed: You the giving-out hymns, which are like the call and responses. You call it “singing to help”.

Rev. Jerry Colbert: Mm-hm.

Jo Reed: And then you have the straight hymns. What are the differences?

Rev. Jerry Colbert: The difference that I see in a the call and respond, it’s more of a sermon and that you receive and you get caught up in. And a straight hymn is something just repetitious, “All my appointed time I’m gonna wait till my change come. All my appointed time I’m gonna wait until my change come.” And then someone may pause and say, “The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the L--.” Then you go back, “All my appointed time I wait for my change come.” A straight hymn is just repetitious.

Music Up

Jo Reed: And you get into a trance, I would imagine, singing that over and over again?

Rev. Jerry Colbert: Absolutely. Can you imagine, “All my appointed time,” you know, “I’ve worked so hard. I try so hard. I’m gonna wait for my change come.” You just get caught up in that. You know, you say, “Okay, God, if this is my appointed time, okay, let it be." You know.

Jo Reed: It’s almost like by singing those words over and over again, you embody the message.

Rev. Jerry Colbert: Absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely.

Jo Reed: And then you have camp. Describe what happens at camp. What’s the tradition of that?

Rev. Jerry Colbert: Camp meeting, the format stays the same. The only thing difference between a regular gathering and camp meeting is the crowd’s larger and there’s food. Camp meeting resembles more of what the prayer band movement was about when they gathered in fields during John Wesley time because during John Wesley time, of course, they would bring their picnic baskets and they would stay there for the day and share everything. And today, of course, we come together for the purpose of spiritual enrichment, but there is that time of fellowship.

Jo Reed: It takes a weekend typically?

Rev. Jerry Colbert: Because of the small size of the group now, usually this is just all day Sunday from ten in the morning probably until ten at night. And they’ll be two or three different preaching services. And folks can come in, they can get up, they can go outside, they can eat, when they want to hear some more of the prayer band or some more preaching, they come back into the facility, that’s what camp meeting is today.

Jo Reed: And does it take place all year-round or mostly in the warmer weather?

Rev. Jerry Colbert: The camp meetings are warmer weather. It starts in May and it goes through the end of September.

Jo Reed:  And then you’ll meet every week--

Rev. Jerry Colbert: Not necessarily every week, but we at least come together, at least monthly-- for that fellowship.

Jo Reed: You come together to sing about once a month?

Rev. Jerry Colbert: Yes. Yes. We go from church to church to church.

Jo Reed: Why do you think this singing has survived as long as it has?

Rev. Jerry Colbert: It has survived because the connection with our grandparents and our great-grandparents. My grandmother raised me. She was a singing and praying band member. So I didn’t have much choice but go to church all day on Sundays. And, of course, as I got older I just got tired of church. I just got tired of the singing and praying bands. But something within you grabs you back into this prayer circle and I found at the age of eighteen that I wanted to be a part of this prayer movement again and I think so many of the singing and praying members has the same connection-- they were brought up with it. And the survival is, “Let’s keep hope alive for granny. Let’s keep hope alive for Uncle Danny who was a great band leader and captain." And it’s a part of that tradition that becomes a part of you. And whatever the spirit that drew me back I am so glad it drew me back.

<laughter>

Jo Reed: What do you think it is about music that gives you this connection to the Spirit and to each other?

Rev. Jerry Colbert: Well, we’re Afro-Americans and I take it back to the days of slavery and I take it back to the days when our ancestors had to steal away from the big house just to get some rest and peace and they were still away down by the riverside. And back then even it was a call and response, you know. “Gonna lay down my burdens down by the riverside.” You know. Music does something to our souls that we can’t explain. And it’s a way of centering us. It’s a way of bringing peace and it can be a way of expressing ourselves. I just been burdened all week long. Society has beat up on me. But now I can come to this place of refuge. This place where the Spirit would speak to me. I don’t have to have the preacher preaching to me. I don’t have to have a counselor preaching to me. But the words of this hymn, you know, “The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord”. It just calms my inner soul and my inner peace. And so I think of the music as a way of a great communion with us and God.

Jo Reed: In reading about the singing and praying bands I’m just so struck by how long and rich that history is. And when you think especially in this area, Harriet Tubman was here. This is the music she heard. This is the music that she would use to give messages to people.

Rev. Jerry Colbert: Absolutely. “Steal away,” you know. They knew that it was time to meet at Jonas Green Park, you know. And she had a passage of freedom. And the singing and praying band movement, it’s a passage of freedom for us. Can’t nobody bother us, can’t nobody touch us; we have connected through that passage, we have connected through that underground tunnel. And we can just look at yesterday and say, “Yesterday is gone. Today is brand new.”

Jo Reed: Let me ask you this, Reverend, because you do now sing publically on a stage as opposed to in a church and I know the heart you bring to it is the same, but there are real differences. There's an audience, you have a time constraint, you can't sing until the spirit moves you to stop. You need to stop at a certain time. How do you handle that?

Rev. Jerry Colbert: That is a challenge for us, because in so many of the hymns it’s a slow pace. And now that we have this window to deal with. I leave that part of the movement up to me. I will tell them that there is a time reframe. And it does not allow me to get fully engaged because I’m watching my watch. And at that time, then I have to give the signal that we have to bring this to an end.

Jo Reed: So you’re the one who has to step back--

Rev. Jerry Colbert: Yeah, yes.

Jo Reed: Yeah, I can see how that would be a challenge. Do you see the younger generation in the past three years since you have been a little more public. I understand that’s a very short amount of time, but have you seen any movement of younger people becoming interested?

Rev. Jerry Colbert: It’s funny that you say that because we have now chartered two coaches to come to Washington, D.C. and a lot of these are what I would say are middle-aged younger people. And that is encouraging to me, you know, that they’re not going to see Al Green, they’re not going to see Aretha Franklin, they’re paying money to get on the coach to see a prayer group! So, to me, that speaks volume. I would like to see this movement come alive again. Let’s bring life and light back into it.

Jo Reed: Well, many congratulations again.

Rev. Jerry Colbert: Well, thank you. It’s just been an honor and a pleasure and we thank all those who have worked so hard to get us to this point, and it just has been a blessing, Jo. Thank you.

Jo Reed: Thank you.

Music Up

Jo Reed: That's Reverend Jerry Colbert. He's a leader in the Singing and Praying Bands of Maryland and Delaware, which was just named a 2014 NEA Heritage Fellow.  You can see the bands perform live  at the National Heritage concert. It's this Friday at the Lisner auditorium, and we're webcasting it live. Go to arts.gov for information.

You've been listening to Art Works produced at the national Endowment for the Arts.  Next week,   Dancer and founder of Dance Place, Carla Perlo.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Rev. Jerry Colbert shares one of the oldest African-American music traditions.