The Singing and Praying Bands of Maryland and Delaware practice a form of religious worship that encompasses one of the oldest and most historic African-American performance traditions that is still active today, predating gospel, blues, and jazz.
According to oral tradition, the bands began with secret outdoor meetings in antebellum times. Later, this tradition became a part of Methodist prayer meetings that began with lined-out hymns (a way of singing initiated by a leader who would chant a line of a song and the congregation would sing it back) and concluded with a form of ring shout that blended West African traditions of song and movement in a circle. In the early 19th century, the early manifestations of this tradition occurred in areas around Baltimore and Philadelphia, as well as southeastern Pennsylvania, southwestern New Jersey, Delaware, and the rural Maryland tidewater area surrounding the Chesapeake. Currently, the singing and praying band tradition is found only in tidewater Maryland and Delaware.
During worship, men and women face each other with a long bench, or "mourners' bench," between them. The singing begins slowly with each verse gaining momentum and becoming more spirited with prayers interspersed with the hymns. Eventually the group begins to move in a circle around the bench while repeating the refrain of a song.
Until the late 1950s, thousands took part in singing and praying bands at Methodist churches in Maryland and Delaware. Currently, due to a decrease in participants, on the Sunday when one church holds a meeting, all the current band members come together in that church and hold their service together as one ensemble. At their strongest, today there are 50 participants. Though they sing as one group, they continue to refer to themselves in the plural as "Bands" in order to maintain their distinct church affiliations.
Recently, the Bands have been the subject of a scholarly monograph called Together Let Us Sweetly Live, published by University of Illinois Press. In 2011 they began to share this tradition with audiences outside the church setting at public events such as the Maryland Traditions Festival, the Kennedy Center, and the Library of Congress. In 2011, the Singing and Praying Bands received the Maryland Traditions ALTA (Achievement in Living Tradition and Arts) Award from the Maryland State Arts Council.
Video credit: Produced by Shane Carpenter in collaboration with Aaron Henkin of WYPR and Cliff Murphy from the Maryland State Arts Council and co-director of Maryland Traditions. Photo & Video by Shane Carpenter
Photo by Edwin Remsberg, courtesy of Maryland State Arts Council
Excerpt of “Bye and Bye” and “Holy Holy, Someone Touched Me,” 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.
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.