Bessie Jones - vocals, percussion; Big John Davis - vocals, percussion; Henry Morrison - vocals, percussion; Emma Ramsay - vocals, percussion; Mable Hillary - vocals, percussion; Guest: Ed Young - vocals, recorder flute, percussion
Bessie Jones was just one of several important African-American vocalists who were members of the Georgia Sea Island Singers, a historic musical congregation. Although the majority of these tracks feature Jones as lead vocalist, the entire group contributes equally to the intensity of the music presented here. Although Bessie Jones unquestionably became the most notable member of the group, several key singers passed through the ranks of the Georgia Sea Island Singers, including Joe Armstrong, John Davis, Peter Davis, Mabel Hillary, Henry Morrison, and Emma Ramsey.
Several of the group's landmark songs are featured in this show, which marked their triumphant return to the Ash Grove after a successful run of shows two years prior, in 1963. Among those included are "This Little Light of Mine," "I'm Gonna Lay Down My Life For My Lord" (with John Davis on lead vocals), and "Walk Daniel (Walk Believer, Walk)." Most of the songs have lengthy and interesting verbal introductions. Special friend and guest Ed Young contributes a rhythmic instrumental with his recorder flute entitled "Oree." On "Little Johnny Brown," the group features Mable Hillary as a powerful counterpoint to the direct vocals of Jones. "Walk Daniel (Walk, Believer, Walk)," known as a "shout" song, is another highlight of the set.
The group is believed to have been formed in 1920, under the direction of Lydia Parrish, a well-known folk archivist. Originally called the Spiritual Singers Society of Coastal Georgia, by the following decade they had become Georgia Sea Island Singers. Dedicated to preserving the art-form of traditional Negro Spiritual music, slave songs, dances, and shouts, they were pioneers of what would become popular gospel music.
Born in 1902, Jones learned to sing these traditional folk, gospel, and blues songs from her grandfather, Jet Samson. Samson, who was born in 1836 and died at the age of 105 in 1941, had been captured in his native Africa and brought to the American South to work as a slave when he was a young boy. He taught her the bulk of her material from the wealth of Negro Spirituals he sang while working on the plantations of Virginia and Georgia. Jones joined the Spiritual Singers Society of Coastal Georgia in 1933, and shortly thereafter instituted a change in the name to the Georgia Sea Singers. Although she also worked as a poet and an author, she performed with the Singers for decades.
When Library of Congress archivist Alan Lomax went to the Islands for a vacation in 1935, he heard the group for the first time. It was not until 1959, however, that he returned there to seek out Jones and the group and record them for future generations to study and enjoy. Eventually, he recorded both her music and her life story (she later co-authored an autobiography with Lomax's daughter-in-law), and helped launch her into the growing folk/blues circuit. Jones, who would go on to sing for thousands around the world, would become a national musical treasure by the time she died in 1984.
Jones was honored decades after her death when electronica pop artist Moby sampled her Lomax recordings for his multi-platinum, 18 album.
This recording of Bessie Jones was made in July 1965 at the historic Ash Grove club in Los Angeles. Between 1958 and 1973, the Ash Grove was known as a musical sanctuary for some of the greatest and most influential folk, blues, gospel, bluegrass and rock 'n' roll acts to ever perform in the U.S.
Written by Alan Bershaw