Bessie Jones - vocals, percussion
Big John Davis - vocals, percussion
Henry Morrison - vocals, percussion
Emma Ramsay - vocals, percussion
Mable Hillary - vocals, percussion
Evidence suggests that amateur folklorist Lydia Parrish originally organized the Spiritual Singers Society of Coastal Georgia around 1920, the group that would eventually develop into the world-renowned vocal group, the Georgia Sea Island Singers. Discovered 15 years later by folklorist Alan Lomax on a visit to St. Simons Island, the group performs gospel music, slave songs, dances, and shouts in an interactive manner, perpetuating the Gullah traditions of their ancestors. A Capella call-and-response singing, hand clapping, foot stomping, and speaking in the Gullah dialect are often included. During the group's live performances, the singers move around the stage in a circular flow, as they follow the calls of the lead singer, echoing the engaging quality of their African religious traditions.
Several historically significant singers have figured in the group's history, including Joe Armstrong, John Davis, Peter Davis, Mabel Hillary, Henry Morrison, Emma Ramsey, and most legendary of all, Bessie Jones. Although Jones joined the group in 1933, it wasn't until Alan Lomax returned to the islands in 1959-1960 that the first two volumes of field recordings of the Georgia Sea Island Singers were made. These recordings led to Jones being invited to New York City to record on her own as well.
Jones originally moved to the islands following her marriage to her husband George and soon became deeply immersed in the rich island culture. Born in 1902 in Lacrosse, Florida, she learned to sing traditional folk, gospel, and blues songs from her grandfather, Jet Samson, who was born in 1836 and died at the age of 105 in 1941. Samson was brought to the American South to work as a slave when he was a young boy and the bulk of Jones' earliest material was sourced from the spirituals and slave songs that Samson sang while working on the plantations of Virginia and Georgia.
The Georgia Sea Islands represent a fascinating chapter during American history, specifically during the Civil War, and to fully appreciate the cultural heritage of Jones and the group, an understanding of this strategic location goes a long way. Prior to the Civil War, the Georgia Sea Islands consisted of large plantations. Early on in the Civil War, the Union seized the islands so that they could blockade food and supply shipments to the rebelling Southern states. The original landowners fled the islands leaving an estimated 10,000 slaves behind in the process. Now known as the Port Royal Experiment, the governing and security of the island was handed over to these newly freed slaves. For the first time in American history, African-Americans were allowed to govern and protect themselves. Upon the conclusion of the Civil War and up through the 1930s, the islands remained an isolated location and the Sea Islanders developed a rich culture, which included a style of music unlike any other, based on deep religious faith, endurance, and freedom.
This remarkable Ash Grove recording of Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers captures one of the most remarkable lineups of the group, embraced by an audience immersed in the folk and blues revival of the early 1960s. As the recording begins, the group has already filed through the audience and is on stage belting out one of the most popular peace anthems of the era, "Down By The Riverside." The next three numbers, "In My Father's House," "I Believe," and "Jesus Got His Arms Around Me," feature Bessie Jones and Big John Davis taking turns leading the group through songs of endurance and redemption. These themes run central to much of this performance, but unlike most non-secular music of the era, these are often joyous songs celebrating deep religious faith, and these performances will likely warm the soul of even those who usually find gospel music overbearing.
Next up is "Call Me Anywhere, Lord," which Jones explains is a dance number known as "the buzzard's lope." Essentially a call and response led by Jones with the group echoing her lead, this is anchored by intricate percussive foot stomping, tambourine shaking, and hand clapping as the group dances around the stage. This is followed by even more harmonious singing with Jones leading the group through "I Know I Got Religion." This number exemplifies much of what is so appealing about the Georgia Sea Island Singers, as few of their songs dwell on anything negative, but rather embrace and celebrate life. However, the group goes in a different direction next on what may be the highlight of this set, "Oh Death." Countless interpretations of this song have been recorded over the years, with many of the best emphasizing the creepy nature of the lyrics. Bessie Jones and the group deliver a powerful performance that, despite the doom-laden lyrics, doesn't emphasize fear of death, but instead conveys the yearning to be granted another year of life. Tambourines and hand clapping provide the rhythmic base, over which Jones' voice can truly soar.
The last two numbers are quite engaging and also veer off the path of faith-based music. The longest performance of the set, "What A Time," features Big John Davis leading the group through a virtual travelogue of World War II, before Henry Morrison's highly emotive voice leads a unique vocal arrangement of "Hesitation Blues" to close the set.
Spanning nearly two centuries of music, this recording is a testament to a musical and cultural heritage that developed in relative isolation from the rest of the American South and that continues to endure to the present day. Thanks to Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers and all their members before and since this 1963 recording, the rich cultural history of the slave population in coastal Georgia will never be forgotten.
Written by Alan Bershaw