Maryland Traditions Folklife Area
Singing & Praying Bands of Maryland and Delaware
African American devotional music
Anne Arundel and Dorchester counties, Maryland, and Sussex County, Delaware
photo credit: Edwin Remsberg Photographs
The Singing & Praying Bands of Maryland and Delaware practice a form of religious worship that encompasses one of the oldest, most historic African American performance traditions still active today.
With origins in West African religion, Christianity, and African American ring shout traditions, singing and praying bands emerged throughout the Mid-Atlantic during slavery. For two centuries, their ministry has taken place in host churches, often at Methodist camp meetings after an evening preaching service. Men and women face each other with a long bench, or “mourners’ bench,” between them. A leader lines out a hymn, they say a prayer, and end with a spiritual. Singing begins slowly, gaining momentum and becoming more spirited with prayers interspersed with the hymns. Eventually the group forms a circle and marches counterclockwise onto the church grounds while singing.
Today this tradition exists only in Tidewater Maryland and Delaware. Almost half of the Methodist churches around the Chesapeake once had their own band; since the 1950s, numbers have diminished, and singers have consolidated into one large band comprised of 50-100 members from 20 to 30 churches. They come together most Sundays in the spring, summer, and fall at a different church each week.
They recently began to share this tradition outside the church in such places as the Kennedy Center and the Library of Congress. The Singing & Praying Bands have received the Maryland Traditions ALTA (Achievement in Living Traditions and Arts) Award from the Maryland State Arts Council as well as a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.