“I had to quit after three helpings of Mrs. Cobb’s homemade peach ice cream.”
“This year the two young men reciting Langston Hughes and Martin Luther King. Jr. – all from memory! — really impressed me!”
“I clapped and clapped when the McIntosh County Ring Shouters compared words and saying in the Gullah language to school taught language.”
“Music. Music. Music.”
“I enjoyed watching Stanley knit the cast nets.”
Celebrating the Musical Traditions of the Georgia Sea Islands
For over thirty years the Georgia Sea Island Festival on St. Simons Island, Georgia has celebrated the African American musical traditions, crafts, and food of the coastal barrier islands. Smoked mullet, fried fish, sweet potato pone, homemade ice cream, and demonstrations of traditional Gullah Geechee knitting cast net and sweet grass baskets attract visitors from around the nation. Each year the highlight of the festival are the musicians – young, old, and some “with an old heart” -- who perform traditional spirituals, work songs, and plays handed down by their ancestors.
The festival on St. Simons Island was first organized in 1977 by members of the Georgia Sea Island Singers, Mable Hillery and Bessie Jones, and carried on today by Frankie Quimby and the St. Simons African American Heritage Coalition.
In 1935 folklorist Zora Neale Hurston introduced fellow folklorist Alan Lomax and his father John to Bessie Jones and early members of the group. The Lomaxes worked for the Archives of American Song at the Library of Congress and they traveled across the nation collecting “folk” music, songs handed down by elders. Alan returned to the Harrington community on St. Simons Island in 1959 and 1960 and made extensive recordings of the singers – Bessie Jones, Peter and John Davis, Emma Lee Ramsey, Henry Morrison, Mable Hillery, and others. Recordings and photographs from these trips have recently been digitalized and are now available on-line at www.culturalequity.org thanks to The Global Jukebox, a program of an organization Lomax founded after he left the Library of Congress.
At a time when folk music and the Civil Rights movement were finding a political voice, Lomax put Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers on the national stage. They performed at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival on the same bill with Peter, Paul and Mary; Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and John Lee Hooker. In 1960 Lomax hired them for a movie for Colonial Williamsburg entitled “Music at Williamsburg.” Dressed in 18th century slave costumes, they sang work songs and rowing songs that contrasted with the Anglican hymns and harpsichord concert at the Governor’s House. Harry Belafonte, an avid student of folk music, invited Jones and the group to add their songs to The Long Road to Freedom (1961-1971) an anthology of African American songs with musical roots from West Africa. In 1968 they conducted workshops at the Poor Peoples March on Washington. For the next fifty years, under the direction of Bessie Jones (who passed away in 1984) and then Frankie Quimby and her husband Douglas (who passed away in 2006) the Georgia Sea Island Singers have shared their music with Presidents at the White House and Sierra Leone, world leaders at the G-8 Summit, crowds at the Olympics and the Smithsonian’s Folk Festivals, and countless schoolchildren at festivals and schools across the nation.
They were work songs sung in the fields, on the docks in Brunswick, or in rowboats on the sound. They were spirituals sung in African American churches and hummed by domestics working on the island. These songs formed the background tunes recalled by both blacks and whites who grew on the islands.
In 2004 the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress acquired the Alan Lomax Collection, which comprises the unparalleled ethnographic documentation collected by the legendary folklorist over a period of sixty years. It brings together the material Lomax and his father collected in the 1930s and 1940s and while Alan served as the Archive of American Folk-Song ‘s “Assistant in Charge, and all the work he collected that became part of his organization The Association for Cultural Equity. Because of this collaboration, you can now view photos and listen to Join the Band, the Georgia Sea Island Singers’ first stereo recordings that showcases their unique hymns, spirituals, ring shouts, and work songs. You may purchase the recording for your MP3 player via Amazon’s MP3 Store and iTunes. (http://culturalequity.org/features/globaljukebox/JointheBand/ce_features_JointheBand.php)
Mable Hillary, the famed singer of blues, spirituals and children’s games and songs, was more than a preserver of traditions. She was the catalyst for the Georgia Sea Island Festival. Mrs. Hillery obtained the grant money that funded the first Georgia Sea Island Festival. Although she passed away before the first festival, her spirit, songs and stories inspired it.
Mrs. Hillery was born on July 22, 1929 in La Grange, GA. She moved to St. Simons Island in the early ‘50s and in 1959 she joined Peter and John Davis. Emma Ramsey and Bessie Jones of the Georgia Sea island Singers and sang with them throughout the country. In 1968 she moved to New York City where she worked at the Interdependent Learning Follow Through Program , teaching teachers to use the material on children’s games and songs she collected. She also taught and acted as consultant for a number of educational programs. She died on April 26, 1976 at the age of 46 and is buried in Strangers Cemetery on St. Simons Island.
Bessie Jones was known in the Georgia Sea Island area as a national treasure long before the Smithsonian and folklore experts designated her as such. Through her collecting and singing of songs, through her performances of games and through her respect for people and history, Mrs. Jones made an invaluable contribution to the preservation of Georgia Sea Island are culture.
Born in Smithfield, Georgia on February 8, 1902, she grew up and lived in Dawson Georgia and first visited St. Simons Island in 1919. Fourteen years later she moved to the island and “Miss Bessie” was asked to join the Coastal Singers of St. Simons, who performed traditional African American songs of the coastal area. Touring with the group led to a solo singing career for Mrs. Jones which included a performance at Carnegie Hall. After touring solo for two years, Mrs. Jones contacted the singers Emma Ramsey, John and Peter Davis, and Henry Morrison on St. Simons to join her in California. Mable Hillery joined them and they all performed as the Sea Island Singers. In 1959 Mrs. Jones’s grandchildren joined the tour. In 1969, Frankie and Douglas Quimby came to the group and they toured as the Georgia Sea island Singers. In 1972 Mrs. Jones, with folklorist Bess Lomax Hawes published “Step It Down” and in 1983 “For the Ancestors.” Mrs. Jones died September 4, 1984. We continue her tradition of “Passin’ It Down.”
Born on St. Simons Island, Frankie Sullivan Quimby traces her ancestry back to the Foulah tribe on the Niger River in Africa. She was the oldest of thirteen children descended from slaves who belonged to the Coupers of Cannon’s Point. After emancipation her family took the name Sullivan and settled in the Harrington community of St. Simons Island. Mrs. Quimby joined the Georgia Sea Island Singers in the 1940s. She is dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage of her ancestors who came to St. Simons from Africa. Many of the songs performed by the Georgia Sea Island Singers were handed down through generations.
Doug Quimby started singing at the age of four. He was born in Baconton, Georgia in 1936, where his family were sharecroppers earning as little as $9.25 for an entire year of work. Douglas and his wife Frankie shared a common musical heritage though they grew up miles apart. Doug's grandfather spoke in the Gullah dialect, indicating that many of his ancestors worked on the coastal plantations before being sold to inland landowners. In 1963 Doug joined the Sensational Friendly Stars, a well-known gospel group, and six years later he became a member of the Georgia Sea Island Singers. His rich, deep bass voice never ceased to amaze audiences as he led them to join in singing sea chanteys and call-and-response songs. His story of Ebo Landing on St. Simons Island, where 18 tribesmen chose death over servitude, held the audience spellbound. His powerful voice commemorated this tragedy in the song?"Freedom, Freedom Over Me."??Sadly, Doug passed in August 2006.
Thomas (Tony) Merrell has been a member of the Georgia Sea Island Singers for ten years. Born in Fort Valley, Georgia, Tony has made his home in Brunswick for the past 43 years, where he built and owns his own mechanic shop. In 2001, he closed his shop in order to travel and carry on the heritage of the Sea Island Singers. As a background member of the group, Tony has been learning the dances, history, and culture of his ancestors. He is now becoming one of the lead performers, specializing in rhythmic demonstrations and the performances of a number of different drums, including the jimbay drum, talking drum, and stick box drum.
Each year festival visitors forward to watching Mrs. Quimby teach the children to shoo the turkeys and Tony Merrell explaining the “jimbay drum.” Their recordings are great but nothing beats sitting under the live oaks with the marsh breezes while Frankie’s grandson performs “Hambone, Hambone” carrying on a tradition that has been passed down for over one hundred years.
Georgia Sea Island Singers Heritage at Library of Congress
CD Recordings by Georgia Sea Island Singers:
Southern Journeys: Georgia Sea Islands Biblical Songs and Spirituals (Vol. 12) and Southern Journey: Earliest Times, Georgia Sea Islands Songs for Everyday Living (Vol. 13) released by the Alan Lomax Collection on Rounder Records. Willis Proctor, Ben Ramsey, Alberta Ramsey, Nat Rahming, Ed Young, Hobart Smith joined the group on songs recorded on these two albums.
Rounder Heritage Records released a two-CD collection of Bessie Jones Put Your Hand on Your Hip and let your backbone Slip with her songs from So Glad I’m Here (1973) and Step It Down (1979).
Seh Deh De Cumin (2006), Georgia Sea Island Singers, Frankie and Douglas Quimby. Out of print.