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. Al 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 deeply immersed in the folk and blues revival of the early 1960s. As the recording begins, the group can be faintly heard off-mic as they begin the performance by parading and singing through the Ash Grove on their way to the stage. This opening number, "When I'm Gone To Come No Mo'," (which is briefly reprised three songs later in the set) displays Bessie Jones rich voice leading the group through a song of endurance and redemption. These themes run through much of this performance and continue on the next number, "Jesus Got His Arms Around Me," a joyous song celebrating the peace of mind that comes with deep religious faith.
The next number, "Knee Bend, Didn't I Call You" is known as a shout, which in this case is essentially a dancing number. Beginning as a call and response between Big John Davis with the group echoing his lead, this suddenly shifts to a high-speed tempo, which is anchored by intricate percussive foot stomping as the group dances around the stage. This is followed by a reprise of the set opener, featuring even more harmonious singing than before, prior to Bessie 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 in a most joyful manner. Bessie Jones maintains the energy level by next leading the group through the harmonious gospel number "Look Out For Me Jesus (Sinners On My Track)." This features tambourines and hand clapping providing the rhythmic base, over which Jones' voice can truly soar.
Henry Morrison's highly emotive voice is next featured on "Beulah Land" and is one of the most moving vocal performances of the set. Clocking in just over seven minutes, this a soaring performance that is guaranteed to warm the soul of even those who usually find gospel music overbearing. Big John Davis' deeper voice propels the next number, "I'm Going Home On The Morning Train," which allows the singers to express themselves individually as well as collectively. These two songs are excellent examples of the group gradually building the dynamics within a relatively loose structure. As percussion elements are added and the singing becomes increasingly ecstatic, these two songs display an extraordinary control of pacing and delivery.
As the group winds the set to a close, Jones and Davis humorously chat with the audience prior to Jones launching into "So Glad I'm Here," one of the group's signature songs that simultaneously celebrates their faith and the joy of performing before such an appreciative audience. The conclude the set with the appropriately titled "You're Going To Miss Me (When I'm Gone)." This serves much like the set opener, but in reverse, as the group harmonizes while exiting the stage, parading through the club and out of recording range.
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