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Troy Demps: African-American Hymn Liner

By Robert L. Stone

In his powerful, dark baritone, Deacon Troy Demps recites a line to a hymn. He and the congregation of Mt. Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church in Orlando then sing the line, unaccompanied by musical instruments. "What a friend we have in Jesus," they sing. The words are familiar enough, but the melody is different, the sound is archaic. The voices glide and swoop. Words with two syllables are given six or more. Demps is "lining" or "raising" a hymn, a tradition he has practiced for more than fifty years.

A History of Hymn Lining

As early as the seventeenth century, a small number of slaves in the American colonies worshiped with their masters or attended services especially arranged for them. A large number of slaves were converted to Christianity during the Great Awakening, the first large-scale religious revival movement in North America, which began about 1734 in New England. The leader of the New England movement was Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), who taught absolute dependence on God and divine grace with great religious zeal. The religious fervor of the movement demanded music more lively than the hymns that were in use at that time. English writers produced most of the hymn texts during the Great Awakening. Isaac Watts was one of the most prolific and well known of the hymnists. Brothers John and Charles Wesley, who founded the Methodist church in 1729, were also among the most popular writers.

The Great Awakening spread throughout the country and had a profound impact on the American South. According to the religious ideology, true Christians were those who read the Bible, attended church regularly and sang hymns. Slaves were permitted to attend church services, either in a special section of the church or at separate services arranged by the slave owners. Since slaves (and many whites) could not read and the number of hymnals was limited, they "lined out" or "raised a hymn." This style of singing had been established in the colonies in the 1640s. A church elder or minister (sometimes called an "exhorter") who could read would recite a line, then sing it with the congregation. The process was repeated until the hymn was completed.

Characteristics of Hymn Lining

Since hymn writers wrote only lyrics with no melodies, a system of tunes that fit the poetic meters of the hymns was devised. The system evolved to include a variety of meters. Today these include common, long, short, hallelujah, and long and short particular meters. Each meter describes accented and unaccented short and long syllables, as well as a pattern that includes the number of syllables per line and the number of lines per stanza.

The two most frequently used meters are common and short. Common meter consists of a stanza of four lines, the first and third with eight syllables and the second and fourth with six syllables each. The poetic foot, or meter, consists of one short unaccented syllable and one long unaccented syllable. An example of a common meter hymn is "Amazing Grace," written by former slave trader John Newton.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound (8 syllables)
That saved a wretch like me (6)
I once was lost, but now I am found (8)
Was blind, but now I see. (6)

A short meter hymn consists of a stanza of four lines and a poetic foot composed of a short, unaccented syllable and long, unaccented syllable. The first, second and fourth lines of a short meter hymn each contain six syllables and the third line contains eight syllables. "The Day Is Past and Gone" is an example of a short meter hymn.

The day is past and gone (6 syllables)
The evening shades appear (6)
Oh may we all remember well (8)
The night of death draws near. (6)

One characteristic of African-American vocal music is the liberal use of melismas. A melisma is a vocal element in which a number of musical notes are sung to one syllable of text. For example, the word "Jesus" might be sung "Je-ee-ee-ee-suh-uh-uh-us." This is a total of eight musical notes for two syllables of text. When lining a hymn, the number of musical notes in each melisma and the pitch of those notes is determined by the leader. However, individual members of the congregation may take some liberties with the notes.

Troy Demps

Troy Demps was born in Plant City, Florida, in 1927. He grew up during the Great Depression in the rural area near Live Oak, where his family attended Mt. Sinai Baptist Church. Times were hard and musical instruments for church services were scarce and unaffordable. "We didn't have musical instruments," recalls Demps. "We only had lined hymns." As time went on, musical instruments gradually began to appear at Mt. Sinai. "First we had a harmonica, then we had a guitar, then eventually we got a piano. I was almost a teenager before we had a piano."

Demps has sickle cell anemia. Consequently, as a boy he frequently spent time at home during bouts with his illness. His mother lined hymns as she completed the household chores. "It was something she did in her daily routine," he recalls. "Not a day passed that I can remember that she didn't sing a hymn of some type." She did not just sing the hymns, she actually lined them out, reciting a line first, then singing it back. "I'd like to think she did hers that way because I was present," says Demps. "My mother must have known hundreds of hymns," he says, regretting that he retained only a fraction of her repertory. "You knew how my mother felt by the hymns she sang during the day. When she sang 'What a Friend We Have in Jesus' I knew she was in a good mood. When she sang 'Father I Stretch My Hands to Thee,' I knew she needed instant help."

Demps joined the Navy in 1945 and served in the Korean conflict. Upon completing his military service in 1949, Demps attended Michigan State University under the GI Bill. He studied agriculture in order to help small farmers, with whom he identified from his rural upbringing in north Florida. When Demps graduated, however, he found that small farmers had been largely replaced by corporate agribusiness. Instead of agriculture, he went to work for General Motors as an automation technician. "Then they called it automation," says Demps. "Now we call it computers." Although he lived in Michigan for twenty years, he never fully acclimated to the cold winters. He welcomed an invitation from Walt Disney World in 1969 to install and maintain computers in Orlando. Demps eventually went on disability due to his sickle cell anemia and retired in 1991. He has been an active volunteer in the Sickle Cell Foundation for some time, serving as state vice president and local chapter president for more than ten years. He also devotes time to his church and his family, which now includes his wife, four children, twelve grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

Over the years, as musical instruments, choirs and other singing groups became more popular in African-American churches, hymn lining became less common. When Demps was discharged from military service he moved to Michigan. "I came out of the service in 1949 and hymn lining was just about gone," he recalls. "When I came back to Florida in 1969, it was just about extinct." In the decades that followed, Demps noticed a further decline in the practice of hymn lining. "Hymn liners aren't easy to find," he observes. "Here in Orlando, for instance, I know maybe four or five pastors or ministers who line hymns. But you don't find many day-to-day Christians who line hymns. That's why we need to keep hymn lining before us, because it's a dying art. It's leaving us. Where we used to have hymn lining, now we have praise singers. I have nothing against praise singers, but there is only so much time in a church service. Our youth isn't learning the value of hymn lining, and I think that hymn lining is something we should always have."

One reason Demps is such a devoted practitioner and advocate of hymn lining is that he believes the singers more easily become attuned to the Holy Spirit than if they were singing from a book. "Your mind is focused," he says. "We're all focused on one accord. All they have to do is listen to what I say and repeat it. Plus, I'm singing along with them. They don't have to look down to read the words. They don't have to read any music. All they have to do is listen and focus their minds on what I line, what I say. It focuses all our minds on the same wavelength and in the Spirit."

Demps has memorized dozens of hymns. Yet like many other hymn liners, he refers to his hymnal, which has text but no musical notation, when raising a hymn. "The leader has to be real careful. That's why most hymn liners always carry the hymnbook. It's not that they don't know the hymns," he says, "but because hymns and words are so familiar that you can be singing one hymn and saying words from another. We know so many hymns with the same meter we can easily get confused." Having the book in hand keeps the leader on track as the leader and congregation are increasingly filled with the Holy Spirit. "When you get caught up in the Spirit, you can vary, you know," explains Demps.

Like his mother, Demps finds great practical use for hymns in daily life. "Hymns are like prayers to me," he explains. "You can find a hymn for just about everything that comes up in your life. If you're distraught, there's a hymn to calm you and bring peace. If you are lonely, a hymn will come to mind, if you know a lot of hymns. A hymn can be a prayer and a hymn can be so many things that a Christian can find comfort in. When I lost my son, I sang 'Father I Stretch My Hands To Thee' to find some comfort. So hymns serve a great purpose in life."

A Master Folk Artist

From 1994-1995 Demps taught hymn lining as a master artist in the Florida Department of State's Folklife Apprenticeship Program. He was selected again to serve as a master artist in the 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 Programs. The experience not only heightened his interest in hymn lining, it also created a sense of responsibility about learning the tradition in more depth. "In order for me to know where I'm going, I needed to know where I came from," he asserts. Demps began to research hymns and hymn lining in public libraries. He was surprised to learn that virtually all the important hymnists, including the popular Isaac Watts, were white Englishmen. "All the black preachers that I was raised up under, when they'd sing hymns, they'd say 'we're going to sing one by Dr. Watts'. I just knew he was an American, and I thought he was black. When I started doing research, I found out he was an English Presbyterian minister. He had a Doctor of Divinity degree."

Demps' research resulted in a deeper understanding of hymn lining meters. "I knew there were different meters, but I could only sing the songs that I had heard. I couldn't sit down and put a song in meters myself. But now I can. And that's what I need to pass on to my apprentices. It's not enough anymore just to be able to line a hymn because they heard me line it. If they find a hymn in that book that they don't know how to line, they will be able to sit down and put it in syllables and meters and poetic feet and do it themselves."

As a result of Troy Demps' work, the African-American tradition of lining hymns has strengthened in Orlando. "I can say itis stronger now. It's not as strong as I'd like it to be, but it's a little stronger. I feel blessed to have been chosen to do this work, because it is something that I have loved doing all my life and now that I can do it and share it with so many people, it's a fulfillment that I didn't ever dream I'd have. I have been blessed to have two good apprentices. One of them, Eddie Banks, will take it to higher heights than I have, because he wants to be a master himself. And he feels about hymn lining as I do. We don't want it to die. We don't want it to go away. If it doesn't come back like it once was, we at least want enough of it left so that our grandchildren will be able to do it. That's our purpose in life."


Boyer, Horace Clarence. The Golden Age of Gospel. Music in American Life Series. Reprint of How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000.