Music

The Georgia Sea Island Singers Inspired a Musical Movement. Now You Can Hear Them Like Never Before. 

The new “Complete Friends of Old-Time Music Concert” features Mississippi Fred McDowell, Ed Young, and other unsung artists who paved the way for folk musicians like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez

Photo: Diana Davies Photograph Collection, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections

The Georgia Sea Island Singers performing at the Poor People’s March in Washington, D.C., 1968.

The American folk and blues revival that peaked during the 1960s amid the Civil Rights Movement enraptured predominantly white, Northern audiences. But for every Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Pete Seeger, there was a trail of long-forgotten Black musical pioneers who developed the nation’s original roots music under largely oppressive conditions.

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“At that time, a lot of people in the cities and in New York heard a lot of great folk music,” says folk archivist and music producer Peter K. Siegel. “We heard Pete Seeger and Odetta and all kinds of great people, but we didn’t really get to see the people who represented the communities from which these traditions sprang.”

Even iconic songs that emerged from the movement, like Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”—which he played at the 1963 March on Washington, just before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech—were based on old spirituals. “You have these folk artists who are going down South to hear these songs,” Siegel says. “And then you have some of the songs by Bob Dylan influenced by what he’s hearing from these African American songs, these spirituals.”

photo: Alan Lomax
Mississippi Fred McDowell.

Those long-overlooked artists are finally getting their due. Out today, the new Smithsonian Folkways album The Complete Friends of Old-Time Music Concert, featuring Bessie Jones, John Davis, and the Georgia Sea Island Singers, with country-blues artist Mississippi Fred McDowell and fife player Ed Young, resurrects a recording Siegel made of one such performance at New York’s New School in 1965. He hadn’t thought about the tapes for decades until he revisited them as he prepared a three-CD collection released in 2006 as Friends of Old Time Music: The Folk Arrival 1961-1965. Eventually, people began asking what else he had tucked away.

photo: Diana Davies/Rinzler Archives
Bessie Jones.

The Georgia Sea Island Singers, led by Jones and Davis, grew out of the Gullah Geechee culture on St. Simons Island, Georgia, where descendants of enslaved West and Central Africans lived in relative obscurity for hundreds of years.

“Because the island was somewhat isolated from the mainland—the only way you could get there was basically in a rowboat—they passed down these songs pretty much intact,” Siegel says. “So, we get to hear songs passed down from enslaved people about slavery.”

photo: Alan Lomax
From left: Emma Ramsey, Ed Young, Mable Hillery, John Davis, and two unidentified children.

Denied the use of hand drums and other musical instruments by plantation overseers, Gullah Geechee people developed songs and rhythms as vocal performances, with clapping techniques substituting traditional percussion. The lyrics and movements were encoded with messages of resistance to slavery and oppression. In the introduction to “In That Old Field,” for instance, Bessie Jones explains how the remains of animals were discarded in boneyards on the plantations, and how that practice inspired the spiritual and its accompanying “buzzard lope” dance. “They were telling people they didn’t care what they did with their body,” Siegel says. “They said their soul lived with God.”

Such expressions of the Gullah Geechee people’s collective experience didn’t sit well with everyone in the folk and blues scene of the sixties, when the Georgia Sea Island Singers performed for audiences far beyond the islands where their ancestors grew cotton, rice, and indigo under systems of slavery and sharecropping.

“Many of those in the Civil Rights [Movement] wanted to not sing the old enslaved songs,” says musicologist Dr. Eric S. Crawford, who has authored several books on Gullah Geechee culture. “They wanted to do the more bluesy versions, the more soul versions of songs, and Bessie Jones up and said, ‘These songs got us through the enslaved period, and these songs are equally important now.’ She really was that pivotal force.”

photo: Alan Lomax
Members of the Georgia Sea Island Singers. In front row, from left: Willis Proctor, John Davis, an unidentified child, and Bessie Jones.

Siegel, for his part, became somewhat of an accidental archivist for events such as the Friends of Old Time Music concerts. He got permission from Ralph Rinzler, one of the founders of Friends of Old Time Music, to record the performances for his own personal use with just a single microphone and his reel-to-reel tape recorder. But they’ve since become important historical documents.

“It was a very informal thing,” he says. “There was no money involved in it. I bought the tape and brought my own equipment, but I think Ralph understood that if I recorded those concerts, there would be a record of them.”

Listen to The Complete Friends of Old-Time Music Concert, out now.


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