Introduction to Delta Pieces: Northeast Louisiana Folklife

Map: Cultural Micro-Regions of the Delta, Northeast Louisiana

Working in the Delta

Worshiping in the Delta

Making Music in the Delta

Telling Stories in the Delta

Delta Archival Materials

Asserting Tradition: The Building and Maintenance of African-American Baptist Rock Ceremony in Northeast Louisiana

By Janet L. Sturman


As guest pastor, Reverend Seth Bebley prefaced his sermon during the 1991 Easter Rock ceremony at the Springfield Baptist Church of Clayton, Louisiana, with these words:

Today is an opportunity to remember what's gone on before. It's important for the church to do some things that we have found, so we can remember where we lost some other things. When you've lost something, or fear it left you for good, instead of turning the house upside down, sit down, and try to remember when you had it last.

The occasion at which the Reverend spoke marked a revival of interest in the black Baptist ceremony known as the Easter Rock. The last time the Reverend's church had hosted an Easter Rock was 28 years ago in 1963. This Easter vigil is one of a number of traditional events called "rocks" associated with the old plantation churches of the Mississippi Delta flood plain in Northeast Louisiana. Until recently, scholars believed that the tradition had vanished. This article examines the revival of the Easter Rock and what that revival reveals about the meaning of this very old tradition. This is a rare, old tradition with modern claims, but the processes that keep it alive are neither rare nor modern. It is in this regard that a study of the Easter Rock encourages a reexamination of the understanding of tradition. Flexible construction rather than invariant practice preserves the critical values associated with the Easter Rock. Practitioners draw on a mixture of sources across time and space to reinforce key values that come alive in the practices associated with the sacred rock.

This study is based upon two years of participant observation at the Easter Rock, numerous interviews with participants and others familiar with the sacred rock tradition, in addition to a study of relevant scholarly literature. The ideas of Edward Shils and George Lipsitz have especially influenced my decision to focus on the role of assertion in the contemporary efforts to revive the Easter Rock. In this case, intentions to maintain traditional practice are tied to claims of a collective identity. By reclaiming and reshaping heritages historically denied to African-Americans, the Easter Rock transforms the forbidden into the permissible and asserts an identity that paradoxically derives power from both dimensions.

To assert is to make a claim, but traditions are rarely built by the claims of a single voice, certainly not in a tradition bespeaking an African heritage. Furthermore, the persistent pattern of actions upon which traditions rest result from consensus. In other words, the claims that shape traditions are communal claims. In the case of the tradition of Easter Rock, assertions of unity from a fragmented community find powerful expression in the musical component of the ceremony.

The description below of the sequence of activities associated with the Easter Rock ceremony reveals some of the complexity of the communal consensus shaping the tradition. The following examination of the spiritual "Walk Together Children," and its role in the ceremony, illustrates more completely the layers of assertion that keep the tradition alive.

Video Player
Easter Rock ceremony at Springfield Baptist Church in Clayton. Video: Janet Sturman, 1991.

Description of the Ceremony

The ceremony takes place in church on Easter eve. The pews are pushed against the sides of the sanctuary, leaving a wide center aisle. A long table, draped in white cloth, sits in the middle of the aisle. People begin to gather between 9:00-9:30 p.m. The ceremony begins with a typical worship service. The call to worship is initiated by an elderly male deacon, who leads the congregation in prayer and the singing of traditional hymns, including those associated with the Easter season ("Calvary" is a popular choice, for example). After the first hymn, a line of twelve women wearing white dresses (seven in some ceremonies) process into the sanctuary moving down the middle aisle, each carrying a white cake. They encircle the table, and before joining the seated congregation, they place the cakes in an evenly spaced line down the center of the table.

The singing of additional hymns is followed by a sermon which culminates in the retelling of the resurrection narrative. After the sermon, the women in white again process down the center aisle of the church; this time each bears a kerosene lamp. As the women move into the sanctuary, they sing a popular spiritual such as "When the Saints Come Marching In," or "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning." The entry of these women, called "saints" in the past today often identified simply as mothers of the church, ushers in a chain of actions that defines the contemporary Easter Rock and which recalls a diverse body of historical practice embracing music, dance and drama.

After placing the lamps on the table so that they alternate with the cakes, the women regroup and begin a new spiritual as they process around the table. At the head of the procession, the leader carries a banner in the shape of a frame drum mounted atop a tall pole, all wrapped in white. Descending from the sides of the banner are two streamers made of braided cloth, called "pulls". These streamers are pulled in rhythm by the processant directly behind the banner carrier. Their voices now augmented by those in the congregation, the women continue to sing spirituals and circle round the table employing a distinctive rocking step. The congregation takes turns joining this "rock". Participants alternate between sitting and rocking. This portion of the service may continue for an hour or two before the congregation breaks for refreshments.

After enjoying cake and coffee, or other food brought out from the kitchen, the service resumes with announcements, and a series of solo and choral song presentations. A wide range of music is permissible as long as it contributes to the momentum. Before concluding there may be more rocking around the table. Ideally the service concludes at dawn when the congregants move outside to watch the sun "shout" as it rises in the glory of the risen Christ. This ideal is rarely met in modern times. Today's services typically end around midnight or one a.m.

The history of the Easter Rock at Springfield Baptist Church (in Clayton, Louisiana) begins in 1930. Church elders tell of one of their deacons, then just a youth, who traveled to Wisner, a town approximately 30 miles to the north. He found the rocking at St. Paul's Baptist Church irresistible. The following year his home congregation claimed the practice as their own.

The narrative of the elders clearly indicates that the Easter Rock practice predates the 1930s and was passed from congregation to congregation. Indeed, other reports, both written and oral, confirm this conclusion and stress the strong appeal of participating in the rock. Lea and Marianna Seale (1942) note participants who remember the tradition as pre-dating the Civil War. Hence the practice has its roots in slave custom. Indeed the spiritual singing and rock choreography bear strong resemblances to the ring-shout ceremonies practiced by plantation slave congregations described by Epstein, Ware, and others. Here, from the diary of Charlotte Forten, is a description of the shout as she observed it in 1864 on the Georgia Sea Islands.

On this, as on several other large plantations, there is a "Praise-House," which is the special property of the people. Even in the old days of Slavery, they were allowed to hold meetings here; and they still keep up the custom. They assemble on several nights of the week, and on Sunday afternoons. First, they hold what is called the "Praise-Meeting," which consists of singing, praying, and preaching. At the close of the Praise-Meeting they all shake hands with each other... afterward, as a kind of appendix, they have a grand "Shout" during which they sing their own hymns ...The children [and adults on some plantations] form a ring, and move around in a kind of shuffling dance, singing all the time. Four or five stand apart, and sing very energetically, clapping their hands, stamping their feet, and rocking their bodies to and fro. These are the musicians', to whose performance the shouters keep perfect time. (Epstein 279280)

While the order of the service and its location in a plantation church resemble the Easter Rock as described above, the Louisiana rock differs from the shout observed by Forten in that musicians do not stand apart from those who circle round the center of the church. Nonetheless, the ritualized group activity of moving counterclockwise in a circle, with feet that never cross and usually do not lift from the ground1 is as characteristic of the Easter Rock as it is the Southern shout tradition described by contemporary observers circa 1860.

Forten does not mention a table of food, a procession of women in white, or the banner in her account of the shout; nor do other reporters. Such features are, however, described in other types of Afro-American ceremonies, which suggests that the Easter Rock is a carefully constructed collection of activities drawn from a variety of contexts: Baptisms, Funerals, Jubilees, Revival camp meetings, as well as non-Protestant religious ritual associated with vodoun, or other Afro-Caribbean forms. Occasions for shouting, like the one described by Forten, were typically associated with holidays and feast days, when the slaves, later plantations hands, were given their longest stretches of free time. Even in the last 30 years in the Delta, rocking was not relegated solely to Easter. The elders of Springfield Baptist Church note the practices of other congregations and explain that it is possible to rock on any day of the year. Their decision to rock on Easter was, to quote Springfield Baptist's Rev. Smith "basically a way to make Easter special for the children." It is worth noting that while both adults and children participate in the rock today the practice of ring-dancing was most frequently associated with children in the nineteenth century and the shouting was always seen as entertainment as well as worship.

In further support of the initially arbitrary linkage between the Easter holiday and the practice of rocking the church elders also tell of another Delta congregation that sponsored a weekly rock to attract youth to the church and keep them out of trouble. Rocks on New Year's Eve (known as the Ship of Zion ceremony) and to celebrate Harvest days (for example the Harvest Rock on the first Sunday in November) are the most frequently mentioned. Rocks associated with calendrical holidays often feature specific dramatic components akin to pageants or skits, complete with props. For example, the Easter Rock ceremony today feature lanterns associated with the Biblical parable, and the banner representing the cross or staff of Jesus. The use of these "props" is the result of a series of consensual agreements.

The cooperation between congregations is a significant form of assertion. Historically, congregations cooperated in transmitting rock practices, an activity that persists today, but which is transformed by the need to co-host contemporary rocks. The revival of the Easter Rock at Springfield Baptist results from the efforts of three different congregation/communities working together. Organizers from each of the congregations deliberated on the features of the ceremony and agreed to omit striking dramatic components traditionally included in one location, such as the reenactment of the disciples rolling away of the rock covering Christ's tomb. Clearly the Easter rock has always been defined by local variations. While earlier accounts (Seale and Seale 1942) tell of the ceremonial imbibing of wine called "angel liquor," others recall no such practice, and one elderly woman insists that Easter Rocks in her childhood in Delhi, Louisiana, involved no pageantry whatsoever, "it was just like regular church with special food."2

The modern conditions of the revival of the Easter Rock lend new significance to traditional efforts of cooperation. With the relatively recent demise of the black communities associated with individual plantations and the subsequent scattering of congregations attached to each plantation church, few of these churches still stand. Those that do, have congregations too small to support weekly services, let alone sponsor special social/religious activity.3 By agreeing to re-collect into new congregations, the community both reclaims and redefines historical bonds to create strength and stability.

Rev. Bebley's plea to "remember what's gone on do some things that we have found so we can remember where we lost some other things" resonates in the words Shils uses to connect memory to tradition.

Memory is more than the act of recollection by recollecting persons. Memory leaves an objective deposit in tradition. The past does not have to be remembered by all who reenact it; the deposit is carried forward by a continuing chain of transmissions and reception. But to become a tradition, and to remain a tradition, a pattern of assertion or action must have entered into memory (Shils 167).

Shils does not discuss the selective nature of memory, nor does he highlight the transforming power of the results of repackaged assertions - both actions are revival efforts. Yet, in the pattern of assertion has always been flexible. When to rock, and exactly how to rock, have been variable from the root of the tradition. What Shils might call the objective deposit of the Easter Rock involves more than revered forms; it includes an attitude towards performance. Spiritual song and associated choreography have been at the core of the Easter Rock worship practice for generations, but so also has been their flexible realization. In the Easter Rock the past is asserted in music - especially in the spirituals- in ways that define the present.

Walking Together in Song

The layers of tradition invoked in the contemporary Easter Rock are evident in the spiritual "Walk Together Children," featured in both rocks I observed. Like a great many spirituals, "Walk Together Children," is sung by participants a cappella in call and response form. The song leader sings the opening line, "Walk Together Children." The congregation responds singing "Don't get weary." This exchange takes place three times. Then all participants unite to sing the final line, "There's a big camp meeting in the promised land." The sound of feet as "rockers" move round the table falls on the down beat; left empty in the syncopated deliver of the melody. Handclapping cuts across those two rhythms. Yet another rhythm is created by the opposing actions of banner carrier and banner puller, and these cut across the rhythms created by feet on the raised wooden floorboards. The resulting complex of polyrhythmic activity gains such momentum that periodically, the rockers stops singing altogether and let the celebration be carried forth by the percussive sound alone.

Though participants in today's rocks may not remember or know the details of past practice, similar action has been described in ante-bellum records of slave shouts, and jubilees. Forbidden drums by their white colonial masters, slaves recreated a traditional African percussive texture without instruments. The wrapped banner of the Easter Rock, may well have been a silent symbol of the missing drum (see Thompson 244-267). Today's participants more regularly associate the banner with the staff of Moses, or the cross of Jesus, although it originally may have been a re-creation of the kinds of banners found so frequently in African processions, especially in funeral processions or processions honoring tribal chiefs. All of these meanings are accessible to today's participants, who by performing together claim a unity denied them, although for different reasons today than in the past.4

Nowhere is this more evident than in the musical sounds associated with the ceremony. The sonic texture of the spiritual embodies the principle of coordinated social action delineated in John Miller Chernoff's African Music and African Sensibility. This aesthetic comprises an objective deposit that transcends both temporal and geographical boundaries. Here music "mediates conflicts" and merges boundaries between leader and follower, young and old, modern and traditional, African and American.

The larger performance format reinforces this sense of mediation. Cherished old time spirituals form the core of the rock, but they are buttressed by performances of more modern, commercial gospel songs, often featuring piano accompaniment when possible.

Finally, and the most important, in their performance forbidden roles and behavior become permissible. African modes of worship were prohibited in the new world, but African-Americans share the act of circumventing these restrictions. This last merger becomes clearer when one examines the lyrics of the spiritual sections offered during a rock.

The lyrics to the pre-civil war spiritual "Walk Together Children" operate on multiple levels today as in the past.5 On the most literal level, slaves were enthusiastic participants at revival camp meetings as early as the eighteenth century. These meetings, more common in the following century, afforded slaves much needed and rare opportunities for joyful, communal socializing. In their studies of slave religion, Raboteau and Sobel each note that on both the physical and the metaphysical level the camp meeting was equated with heaven. In ante-bellum days the promised land referred to a worldly land of freedom obtained best by cooperative effort. Today, as experienced in the music and dance of the Easter Rock, all these meanings conflate to suggest that participants be prepared to rock long into the night. In practice, the congregation easily shifts from singing "walk together" to "rock together" as they continue singing.

Set against the other activities of the service, the lyrics also remind participants that the road to genuine equality must still be walked, preferably together. A focus on the goal of following Jesus (potentially represented in the banner) suggests that all who literally walk with him in the Easter Rock, will reach the promised land and be saved. This interpretation is reinforced by the repertoire, such as a lined-out version of "Precious Lord" associated with the rock (c.f. Harry Oster's recording). These desires for salvation are mirrored in other prominent features of the ceremony, such as the lanterns, which some associate with the lamps of the virgins awaiting their bridegroom in the Biblical parable (Matthew 25:2-13), as well as to the lanterns serving as signals for the underground railroad.

These brief examples illustrate that from the beginning, flexibility of interpretation has been at the heart of the sacred rock practice and is not a condition of modernity or born of a desire to revive old practices. The opportunity to claim selected practices, has always been embedded in the tradition of the sacred Afro-American rock. Keeping the past alongside the present requires constant negotiation from the practitioners of the Easter Rock. Each new enactment represents a new consensual contract. But, as Shils reminds us, "Consensus is not the explanation of a tradition's persistence. The explanation lies in the ground of the acceptance of and the searching for tradition."

It is not enough to note the agreements at the root of a tradition. We must also consider the terms on which such agreements have been formed. In the case of the Easter Rock, the terms revolve around the right to create a community, the right to assert community values, and the right of self-definition. These terms are encoded in the music and symbols of the ceremony.

The unity of the present community does not rest on a single historical past. The lyrics of the spirituals, the characteristics and contexts of their delivery, and the sacred dancing that accompanies them, all reveal an array of pasts. Acknowledging the unifying resonances of this array offers basis for shared communal identity. To participate is to relive that past and to make it a source of power.

Returning to the words of Rev. Bebley, the revival of the rock tradition signifies a re-collection of resources. The Easter Rock reunites a community by reminding it of its shared, but multifocal heritage. While the conditions that shape the present differ from those of the past, this condition of multiple frameworks remains constant. The Easter Rock reminds us that a tradition born of multiple frameworks is not unique, nor modern, nor as George Lipsitz suggest a result of the influence of modern media (see note 5). Today, as in the past, the Easter Rock has been shaped by selective memory, and by negotiations that reinterpret and code those memories. Decisions regarding which features to preserve emerge from a consensus regarding fundamental and shared values. In the Easter Rock, consensus is physically experienced via those musical forms that allow for the creative merging of the permissible and forbidden.


1. Previous observers, including Courlander, have stressed that the feet must never cross as a rule regulating the movements of the ring shout and similar sacred dances. In Slave Culture (p 22) Sterling Stuckey remarks that the persistent emphasis on this restriction has been misplaced. The shuffling circle dance characteristic of black sacred ritual never invited participants to cross their feet or legs. Stuckey's view seems supported by Krehbiel and Floyd who both note interesting comparisons between the circular dancing of the ring shout and processional movement, be it marches or second line dancing. In neither case would crossing ones legs lead to productive movement. In October of 1993 when I noted this view to an audience at the annual meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology, Bess Lomax Hawes spoke up and remarked that despite these objections to the no crossed legs rule," she distinctly recalls individual informants telling her how they found it impossible to participate in the ring shout because they were unable to refrain from crossing their legs. I'll conclude this aside by noting that none of those interviewed concerning the sacred rock tradition voluntarily mentioned this rule, and seemed to take it for granted if prodded to comment on it. I am tempted therefore to find Stuckey's position most convincing. My guess is that the issue of legcrossmg came about in attempts to contrast black sacred dance to Euro-American traditions.

2. It is worth noting that Mrs. Magdale recalls "regular church" as including the physical rocking movements as a basic worship practice. According to her the congregation did not always trace a circular line around the sanctuary, as customary in Clayton, Ferriday, region, but congregants could "rock in place." She also remembers the Easter Rock service lasting until dawn.

3. These events were encouraged by the replacement of human field labor with machines, resulting in blacks moving out of rural, plantation, housing and into the cities; all of which coincided neatly with the advent of the civil rights movement in South. (Gregory, personal communication 1993)

4. George Lipsitz writes in Time Passages that "time, history and memory become qualitatively different concepts in a world share electronic mass communication is possible. Instead of relating to the past through a shared sense of place or ancestry, consumers of electronic mass media can experience a common heritage with people they have never seen; they can acquire memories of a past to which they have not geographic or biological connection."

5. I would argue that the Easter Rock and similar ceremonies can create the same kind of constructed, non-linear, collective memory. Indeed I would argue that rituals that foster a physical, participatory understanding of tradition, like those in the sacred rock complex, have been doing that for many years. The process Lipsitz notes is not what is new; the mechanism is, as is the willingness to recognize it.

5. This spiritual, although with an additional opening verse and a different recorded melody, is discussed by Col. Wentworth Higgenson in his 1869 memoire of army life in the Civil War. He links it to camp revival meetings popular in nineteenth-century America.

Works Cited

Chernoff, John Miller. African Rhythm and African Sensibility. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Courlander, Harold. Negro Folk Music. U.S.A. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963.

Epstein, Dena J. Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War. 1977.

Floyd, Samuel A., Jr. "Ring Shout! Literary Studies, Historical Studies, and Black Music Inquiry." Black Music Research Journal 1.11 (1991): 265-287.

Gregory, H. F. "Africa in the Delta." Louisiana Studies. 1.1 (1962): 17-23.

Krehbiel, Henry Edward. Afro-American Folksongs: A study in racial and national music. New York: Frederick Unger, [1914] 1967.

Lipsitz, George. Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.

Oster, Harry. 1958. "Easter Rock Revisited: A Study in Acculturation." Louisiana Folklore Miscellany 3 (1958): 21-43.

Oster, Harry, with the Louisiana Folklore Society. "A Sampler of Louisiana Folksongs, sung by traditional performers." LSF-1201 (n.d.).

Raboteau. Albert J. Slave Religion: The 'Invisible Institution' in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Seale, Lea and Marianna. "Easter Rock: A Louisiana Negro Ceremony." Journal of American Folklore. 55 (1942): 212-218.

Shils, Edward. Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Sobel, Mechal. Trabelin' On: The Slave Journey to an Afro-Baptist Faith. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979.

Stuckey, Sterling. Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundation of Black America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Thompson, Robert Faris. Flash of the Spirit. New York: Vintage Press, 1984.

Washington, Martha. "The History of the Easter Rock" Unpublished manuscript read at Springfield Baptist Church, Clayton, LA. March 31, 1991.

Janet Sturman is an ethnomusicologist and Professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona. This article was originally published in the 1993 Louisiana Folklife Journal when Sturman was Assistant Professor of Humanities at the Louisiana Scholar's College at Northwestern State University where she taught courses in music and anthropology.