Randall Black has fond memories of growing up singing in a small church. He recalls the hymns offered up at Carbondale’s Grace United Methodist Church, and he remembers the way those songs were sung.
“When we sang, we followed Wesley’s instructions for signing,” he says, speaking of the guidance given for song by John Wesley, the founder of what became Methodism. “We sang with full heart, and we were heard above and all around.”
Black, now a professor of music at Murray State University, says he has noticed few congregations follow Wesley’s advice, and he finds that troubling.
“That sense of corporate worship is really missing in many churches,” he says. “When we sing, we need to be heard by others so that we can support them in community in their own worship. Hymns should be a part of corporate worship, but in many places it’s not what it used to be.”
He says his experience is many men no longer sing aloud in church, instead just mouthing the words or letting those around them sing. Other churches, especially smaller, rural congregations, do not have pianists or song leaders.
“There are many small churches that do not have significant musical leadership,” he added.
Wanting to address both issues and to promote the hymns themselves, Black — a nationally-acclaimed tenor, along with pianist and retired Murray State University music professor Marie Holifield Taylor began a labor of love. The result of their efforts is a project called “The Old Country Church,” a collection of hymns available online for download and use by churches or individuals, free of charge.
“We both grew up in the church, singing hymns all of the time,” Black says. Part of a very musical family, he says he remembers singing hymns on car trips and gives credit for this new project to his father, the late Frank Black of Carbondale. “In my mind’s eye and ear, I can still see and hear my father singing some of these hymns with such feeling. I want to help make that live on and continue.”
It was his father who first encouraged Black to record a compact disc of favorite anthems and church solos several years ago. A later project paired Black with Taylor for a recording of favorite Christmas music. It was during those sessions that conversations turned to preserving classic Christian hymns.
“We started recording about a year and a half ago,” Black explains. “We meet together for an hour or two and record as many as 12 or 13 hymns for churches to download. It’s fun.”
More than 100 hymns are available on the project’s website with many more planned. Black says 60 additional hymns have been recorded and are in the process of being engineered and converted to a downloadable format. MSU is donating both the recording time and hosting services for the website, Black says. He added that the songs can be made available without any copyright infringement issues, since all of the services are provided free.
While the goal of the project is to provide music to churches which can play the recordings as a way of leading and accompanying congregational singing, Black says he knows individual listeners are also taking advantage of the collection.
“We know that some people may be using the site for personal enjoyment, and if they are going to do that, we ask that they donate to music in some fashion, such as to their home church’s music ministry or to music scholarship funds so that we can train other musicians.”
To achieve that goal, Black has established a scholarship in honor of Taylor at MSU.
“She is a wonderful servant of God,” he says. “She plays at several nursing homes as a volunteer every week and she helps with this project. She is a professional that gives of herself.”
Response to the project has been very positive, Black says.
“I’ve had some ministers of music comment that this is a great gift,” he says. “Another person told me that he had a very tiny church that did not have any professional musicians. ‘The Old Country Church’ allows them to sing these hymns.”
Black says he plans to continually add to the collection and revise the website from time to time. The focus, however, will remain on sharing the great hymns.
“We hope that people will share this with one another and with other congregations,” he adds. “It’s the sharing that has to happen and that’s what makes the difference. We are just trying to promote hymns and to preserve hymn singing as well as giving small churches some support and joy.”