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Friday, March 21, 2014

Singing the Past: Gullah Heritage & the Georgia Sea Island Singers

There are endless things to say--or sing--about the ways in which music unites us. Throughout history, people have raised their voices in choruses of faith, of protest, of hope and joy. One power of music, among many, is the ability to compress time between generations, to echo the words and voices of ancestors separated from us by so many years. For the unique culture of the Gullah people, folk traditions of music, storytelling, games, and dance form very real connections between the past and present. Exploring the legacy of the Georgia Sea Island Singers helps illuminate the powerful and little-told history of Gullah heritage, and the power of song. This post contains images of the Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers, captured by photographer Diana Davies, whose extensive documentation of folk performers, festivals, civil rights marches, and more is housed in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections.

The Georgia Sea Island Singers performing at the Poor People's March, Washington, D.C., 1968. Diana Davies Photograph Collection, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections
In the mid-18th century, thousands of acres of plantation land in coastal South Carolina and Georgia and on the neighboring Sea Islands were being developed primarily for rice production. As a result, there was a boom in popularity for slaves from the Windward Coast of West Africa, or “The Rice Coast,” imported for their knowledge of rice cultivation and irrigation techniques. Many scholars believe Gullah derives from “Angola” where many of these people originated. High prices were paid for slaves from these Western regions, and due to the slaves' skillful growing practices, white planters enjoyed immense profit and success.

Because of diseases carried by mosquitoes in the subtropical climate of the region, many plantation owners avoided the islands and lowcountry during much of the year, leaving African overseers in charge. Through the years to come, the isolation of these rice-growing ethnic groups, who re-created and blended their native African cultures, traditions, and community life, led to the formation of the unique Gullah identity. “Gullah” was originally used to designate the spoken language of Gullah people (also referred to as “Geechee” by some scholars) but its meaning has evolved to refer to the Gullah’s creole language and distinct ethnic identity. In addition to the unique situation of having little contact with whites, the Gullah people were able to strongly preserve many African cultural traditions because of a constant influx of African slaves from the same Windward region--which helped renew and numerically strengthen their community on the islands.

Georgia Sea Island Singers Bessie Jones and Leola Polite Harris, on St. Simon's Island, 1966. Diana Davies Photograph CollectionRalph Rinzler Folklife Archive and Collections.

After the Civil War, much of the land in the Sea Islands was turned over to former slaves who remained and made livings through farming and fishing. The geographic isolation of the Gullah people, and the microcosm formed by their unique situation, created a community in the United States in which African cultural heritage has arguably remained the least changed.

Bessie Jones at home on St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, 1966.
Diana Davies Photograph Collection,
Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archive and Collections.
During the early 1900s, Lydia Parrish--wife of artist Maxfield Parrish--began documenting folklife on St. Simon’s Island, where she was living at the time. She collected traditional songs, recorded memories of slave descendants, and helped with the formation of the Spiritual Singers of Georgia, which included member Bessie Jones (who would later lead the Georgia Sea Island Singers).

In addition to Parrish’s documentation, which was published in 1942 as The Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands, extensive fieldwork was conducted by folklorist Alan Lomax, beginning in 1935 when he first visited the island with writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, and continuing through the late 1950s. Lomax made many recordings of the Spiritual Singers, and was told by Jones of her desire to “teach the chillun,” as she shared with him a wish to present Gullah culture more publicly. With Lomax’s help, Jones worked to solicit bookings for the singing group which, by this time, had been renamed The Georgia Sea Island Singers. With Jones as the song leader, the group was also comprised of Big John Davis, Peter Davis, Henry Morrison, Emma Ramsay and Mable Hillary. See footage (located in the Human Studies Film Archives) of the Singers from a 1964 performance in California.

Bessie Jones at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival. Diana Davies Photograph Collection
Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archive and Collections.
A loyal commitment to authenticity echoed within the group, and continued even through years of changing members. This dedication to and internal reminder of the power of a focused, collective voice aided the Singers in teaching and performing the slave songs, dances, games, and shouts of their ancestors with people around the world, engaging with audiences in an interactive way that demonstrated the engaging quality of the traditions. Throughout the years, the Singers performed at such events as the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, the Inauguration of President Jimmy Carter, the Poor People's March in Washington (where they acted as staff culture-workers), and the 1967 Festival of American Folklife. In addition, Bessie Jones appeared individually on Pete Seeger’s television show The Rainbow Quest, in 1966, and received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1982—the same year she died of complications from leukemia, at the age of 82. Here are two songs from Jones’ 1962 performance at the University of California, Berkeley Folk Festival.

The legacy of the Georgia Sea Island Singers has continued into the present. Currently, the group is comprised of members of the Quimby family (read more here) who are keeping the rich Gullah tradition alive, performing every year for global audiences. Through their performances, the singers continue to offer insight into the history of their traditions and to emphasize the power of remembering the spirit and roots of a culture. Frankie Quimby, who was born and raised on the Sea Islands, has said: “I’m a firm believer that you can’t know where you’re going until you realize where you’ve come from. We have dedicated our lives to trying to preserve that rich heritage and culture that our ancestors handed down to us.” The Georgia Sea Island Singers, with their Gullah heritage, are a striking example of the resilience of human creativity and spirit. They demonstrate a powerful community dedicated to the living preservation of its history, and we are reminded to shout and stamp and clap--echoing voices of the past and celebrating a freedom to sing.

The Georgia Sea Island Singers performing at the Poor People's March, Washington, D.C., 1968. Diana Davies Photograph CollectionRalph Rinzler Folklife Archive and Collections.

To hear more from the Georgia Sea Island Singers, check out this Folkways recording:

Elizabeth Lalley, Intern

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