Monday, August 15, 2016

Down Home Black Talk In The YouTube Discussion Thread For Pastor E. Dewey Smith, Jr. Singing "Higher Ground" (A Gospelized Hymn)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post showcases a 2010 YouTube video of Pastor E. Dewey Smith, Jr. leading his choir and congregation in a rendition of the Christian song "Higher Ground".

In addition to showcasing the way that Pastor E. Dewey Smith, Jr and his choir and congregation sing "Higher Ground", this pancocojams post focuses on selected comments from that video's YouTube discussion thread. I believe that these selected comments demonstrate the purposeful use of African American English and particularly, the use of "down home" (20th century Southern Black United States) English.

The content of this post is presented for cultural, religious, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to Pastor E. Dewey Smith, Jr and others who are featured in the two YouTube examples that are showcased in this post. Thanks also to all those who are quoted in this post and thanks to the publishers of these YouTube examples.

"Higher Ground" is also known as "Plant My Feet On Higher Ground", "I'm Pressing On" and other titles. The hymn was composed in 1898 by Johnson Oatman Jr, an Anglo-American.

Pastor E. Dewey Smith, Jr., his choir, and his congregation sing "Higher Ground" as a "gospelized hymn", meaning as a Christian hymn that is sung in a Black Gospel style.* A standard rendition of "Plant My Feet On Higher Ground" is given below for comparison's sake.

Click for another gospelized rendition of this hymn- a 1989 video of the Mississippi Mass Choir featuring James Moore.

Also, click for the lyrics to Johnson Oatman Jr's hymn "Higher Ground".

*Notice that I wrote "a" Black Gospel style as there are a number of different Black Gospel styles.

In 2013 I coined the term "putting on the Black" to refer to what I believe is an online (internet) custom of purposely code switching from standard English to down home African American English by commenters who are likely African American (based on their screen photo and/or their comments, along with this type of "languaging"). I speculated that those commenters "put on the Black" to express themselves and/or signal to others participating in that discussion or reading that discussion that they are Black (African American).

One example of switching from standard English to down home African American English is writing "Lawd" instead of "Lord". Another example is purposely spelling church "chuch" to approximate how that word is sometimes pronounced by old school (old time, "country") Black folks (African Americans). In these and other examples, that code switching isn't meant to make fun of that style of talking, but to announce and express one's kinship with those who used to and may still talk that way some of the time or all of the time apart from the internet.

Here's an excerpt from "Black Talk On A Bishop Marvin Winans YouTube Comment Thread", the first post in the "Putting On The Black" pancocojams series
"My observation is that when African Americans post on YouTube comment threads and other blogs we often purposely "put on the Black". By "put on the Black" I mean that African Americans sometimes purposely use “down home”[old Southern] words, or African American Hip-Hop vernacular, or some other form/s of African American vernacular English (AAVE) to signal to other posters that we are African American, and/or as a way of enjoying ourselves and basking in (taking great pleasure & satisfaction in) the company of other persons who are assumed to also be African American.

My contention is that African American Vernacular English exclamations such as "Lawd have mercy!" and "Sang it!" (Sing with a lot of soul) not only express one's approval in how a person sings (or some other action or aspect of what is observed or heard). Those types of African American vernacular expressions also have dramatic, even playful elements and they are used to show off one's Blackness-even among other Black folks. But phrases like "That man's a beast." (That man is superhuman, i.e. He's very very good at what he does.) and "He's bad" or "That's sick" (with both "bad" and "sick" in that context meaning "very good") are statement of opinions which don't have the dramatic, playful elements as the previous examples. However, while those descriptors may be used in "regular" conversation, the persons using them still may be purposely demonstrating that he or she is "hip" to the latest Black vernacular. Therefore, he or she is still "putting on the Black".
[These comments include slight revisions: August 17, 2016]
This post specifically focuses on the use of what I refer to as "down home" (old Southern USA) African American Vernacular English. The term "down home" refers to the fact that most (but not all) African Americans can trace their roots to one or more Southern states. In the selected comments that written in the discussion thread that is highlighted in this pancocojams post, I particularly noticed the use of the word "Lawd", a variant spelling and pronunciation of the standard English word "Lord" (meaning God or Jesus). "Lawd" is an example of what I call "down home African American Vernacular English.

I assume that the commenters using down home African American Vernacular English also speak and write in standard English. And I emphasize that the code switching from standard English to down home African American English is probably done on purpose to debunk the view-for example- that the people writing "Yes Lawd" always spell and/or pronounce "Lord" that way. Maybe it's because I've had very little experience in the South, but I don't think that most African Americans say "Lawd" anymore unless we are purposely code-switching.

I hasten to say that some of the bloggers whose comments I consider examples of "Putting On The Black" may not be Black. As shown in the examples below (and noted as such when there is a screen photo) White people and other non-Black people use exhortations such as "Glory!" and "Lord have mercy!". That said, I still think that there is some value in noting that it's likely that bloggers who use down home American Vernacular English words and expressions are purposely code switching rather than not knowing how to use standard American English.

Other pancocojams posts in this series can be found by clicking the "Putting on the Black" tag below.

Example #1: Higher Ground hymn lyrics

isbaptist Toronto, Uploaded on Jan 6, 2011

used for worship at our church. If you like the song, support the artists and buy it.

Example #2: 'Higher GROUND'- Pastor E.Dewey Smith Jr Singing Old School HYMN

BrothaRollins, Uploaded on Dec 16, 2010
total number of viewer hits as of August 15, 2016 (3:00 PM) - 492,900 views; total number of comments - 97.


I've included all of the comments in that video's discussion thread to date that I consider to be examples of down homeAfrican American English. "Down home" African American words and expressions hark back to the nostalgic past (in the context of church worship services) which might be as recent as the mid 20th century. "Old school" used to be referred to as "old time" (old timey") or "the olden days". However, the descriptor "old school" is usually much more positive than "old time" or "olden day". Also, "old school" doesn't refer to centuries of United States slavery and the post slavery reconstruction years. African Americans aren't nostalgic about that past. Therefore, the 19th century dialectic Black American English with its "gwine" (instead of gonna or going to), "dese" instead of "these" and "heben" (instead of "heaven") are definitely not what I (and I believe what most Black Americans) mean when we refer to down home Black American ways of talking, singing, worshiping, and socializing.

A number of comments included the term "old school" (in the context of this discussion thread, singing a song like it was sung in the past-with the past probably meaning the mid 20th century). But while the term "old school" term is an example of African American Vernacular English, it isn't "down home"-referring to the culture of the African American South. Instead, I'd categorize "old school" as an example of contemporary (1990s?, early 2000s?) form of African American English, whose source is probably Hip Hop culture. Another example of Hip Hop influenced African American English is the 2013 comment "bass player killing it right now" (i.e. He's playing very very well). Also, while the word "old school" was used in the video's title and in a number of these comments, the word "down home" (or should it be written "downhome"?) wasn't used in any comment in that discussion thread. That said, I think "old school" means the same thing as "down home", at least in the context of this discussion thread.

These comments are given in relative chronological order, with the oldest dated comments given first, except for responses. However, these comments may not be in consecutive order. I've assigned numbers to these comments for referencing purposes only.

Comment examples #4, #7, #18, #20, and #22 below are given for context and not because they include any down home African American Vernacular English words or phrases. Comment #8 is given because it is a rather widely used African American church saying.

1. Change2be1
"SIng pastor sing!"

2. GospelMan85
"Yes lord sing brother lord plant my feet on higher ground"

3. quetaminated
"Lord have mercy.......this reminds me of my Mississippi roots"

4. MINJDuckett
"this is a song that touches your soul

This is the kind of singing that gets down into the depths of your soul!! God Bless this preacher for keeping the old time way alive!!!!!"

5. Alexander Sharpley
"Let's go back to CHUCH!!!"

6. Yannick S

7. AntiqueSteve
"I keep this video on my favorites..... if you can't feel the Lord and the joy of praising his name in this church you need to check in to the nearest hospital and tell them your Soul needs fixin!"

8. B Williams
"When Praises go up Blessing come down!"

9. muikologist
"Love Pastor Dewey... But he butchered this hymn. He doesn't know the hymn... Learn the song, then sing it brother pastor."

10. BTUMusic Smith
"Dr. Smith sings all of the hymns correctly. Whoever made that ignorant comment is probably a part of a dried up church with no life in it. E. Dewey Smith is the man!"
"BTU" probably means "Baptist Training Union". Here's some information about BTU from
"Baptist Training Union. Baptist Training Union has been a part of the African American Baptist Church since its early beginnings. It was a part of Christian education designed to instruct all church members in basic bible beliefs, Baptist doctrine, church membership, discipline, policy and procedures. It was traditionally held in most Baptist Churches on Sunday evenings, prior to evening worship. It began as a training ground for young people."...
It's rather common to hear and read of Black churches and other churches where people don't "get the spirit" and churches that don't sing in more contemporary Gospel styles being referred to as being "dried up" and "having no life".

11. vanessa lucio

12. Ritamae Milton
"Jesus Yes Lawd"

13. Chris Noe
"Lord, Mercy! Hallelujah. Any white folk in the building? : )"
This commenter's photograph shows a man who looks White. One commenter responded to that commenter and another blogger by writing that "of course you would black people welcome all people!"

14. Ms.Min.S.
"Needed a touch of 'this" today. Thank you for healing my body this morning. Healing is through praising. YES SUH!! A city girl knowing the deep down songs. Take it away pianist. Good ole music to "soothe" the soul. Let's have some "church" now!!"

15. Duray Dowell
"This made me miss my big mama!" 

16. Jamal_Davis

17. Carolyn Nichols
"My My My MY!!!!"

18. Lilie35morales
"I stumbled onto one of these videos, and I really believe that those older songs have so much more meaning , more Spirit-filled words, by Spirit-lead believers, than the SOME (not all) of what is called christian and gospel music today. I go to a church where we sing a lot of old "coros" (Spanish speaking church), and we are considered an "old people's church" bc of lack of a lot of "pizzaz" ( lack of state-of-the-art equipment , many musicians, lights, big screen, ECt) some would say. But THE WORD is taught there, and we sing unto The Lord and He moves there. I'm afraid to say that this does not happen in a lot of churches today. I am so glad to see this pastor sing, these great "old" songs that glorifies God and not man. God bless this Pastor and the one who uploaded this video."

19. Roosmeary Spragins
"Oh YEEEEEESSSSSSS! You better sang that good old school Pastor Dewey! Not only is a he a beast with the WORD, the man can sho'nuff minister through song. Umm the bass player, my lawd! That's talent."
The word "sang" in the phrase you better sang" to be a form of contemporary (Hip Hop influenced?) African American Vernacular English. In that comment "sang" is a present tense exhortation meaning "to sing very well, especially to sing soulfully very well". I don't think that meaning of "sang" is older than the 1990s. I also believe that describing someone as a "beast" (meaning being superhuman, excelling in what he or she does) has its source in contemporary Hip Hop African American Vernacular English.

20. beejay2850
"Please Lord! Touch these praise and worship leaders. We need to go to back to this so very badly. Praise and Worship service is so cold's like the frozen chosen in there today! Help us Lord!"

21. MommaJLowry90
This commenter's photo shows a woman who looks White.

22. Poster Chivenge
"grew up in zimbabwe in the 80s when we had missionries coming over and they used to sing like this and we found this style funny ! now l understand !!!pentecostal holliness church zimbabwe !! Mrs Pat our missionary"

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