Skip to main content

Week 22 – MUSIC – Spiritual Singers: The Soundtrack of the Islands

The rhythms came with the slaves from Africa and the Caribbean. The tunes were nurtured by sweat in the rice fields and cotton fields. The cadences were counted at the mills and docks and with each sweep of the oars on the rivers and each stoke of the washtubs. Children clapped their plays in the yards of their segregated schoolhouses. Fathers and mothers sang hymns in wooden churches and offered prayers to God from the porches of the homes built by their freed parents. The Families were singing mostly for themselves and for those in their community.

They did not sing for performances. Nor for the public. And definitely not for >white folks. Until a Quaker lady from up North asked them to.

One hundred years ago Lydia Parrish, a Quaker lady from Pennsylvania wintering on St. Simons Island, took notice of the songs she heard that her domestic Julia Armstrong sang and hummed while doing housework at the Parrish home near Bloody Marsh. Parrish asked Armstrong, “Did she know others who sang? Who were the singers? What were the other songs? Would they share the songs with her?” Yes, Julia knew some “singing families who knew the old songs.” So, and in her own words, Parrish “took steps to insure that the songs “should not escape her.”

Parrish organized the “Spiritual Singers Society of Coastal Georgia” in 1924 and listed these families and “hundreds of others in a membership book of our Society” – a membership book which is sadly lost to us.

The singers included Julia’s family, the Proctors, from the South End — her brother Willis, their father Adam, and her husband stevedore Joe Armstrong. On the North End at Frederica and Harrington the Davis and Ramsey families were noted for their singing. Floyd White, Bill Tattnall and other members of The First African Baptist Church could be depended upon when it came time for performances. When the causeway to St. Simons Island was opened Parrish reached out to singing families from the mainland who worked for her friends, owners of Southern plantations. There was the Broadfield group – families who worked at Hofwyl Plantation, who lived at Petersville and who attended Needwood School and Church. From Sapelo came Katie Brown, Shad Hall, and the descendants of Sapelo Bilali. From McIntosh County came 100- year old Wallace Quarterman. And the Harris, Luke and Gibbs families from Camden County.

These were not professional performers. They were laborers, farmers, fishermen, laundresses, cooks, butlers, store owners, stevedores, mill workers, deacons, and pastors – many descendants of those who been enslaved at Cannons Point, Hamilton, Retreat, and other coastal plantations.

Bringing them together was not always easy because, as Parrish wrote, “These primitive songs…had been ridiculed, and the Negroes were ashamed to sing them in the presence of strangers. It took considerable brain-cudgeling to find a way to overcome their feelings that the traditional mode of expression was peculiar and old-fashioned, and to show the singers that many white people recognized its beauty.”

In 1929 Parrish built a small cabin on her land near Bloody Marsh for performances. She encouraged Howard Coffin to book the singers to perform at the new Cloister resort on Sea Island. The singers were paid with cash, transportation money, and liquor. And it was good pay for those times/years.

A competition held in 1931 under Mrs. Parrish’s direction featured four competing groups representing Darien, Harris Neck, St. Simons Island, and Freedman’s Rest (or Petersville). According to the article in the Brunswick News the St. Simons group won first place and custody of a silver loving cup (donated by Mrs. Eugene Lewis of Hampton Plantation and Detroit). The judges also voted an award (and a second loving cup) to the group from Darien who as described in the Brunswick News, “attracted particular attention and fascinated the audience with its singing and accompanying dramatization of the native ‘shouts’ in which the participants circle and weave with a peculiar shuffling step accompanied by gestures of the arms and swaying of the bodies interpretation of the chant’s repeated refrain.”[Today this tradition is continued by the McIntosh County Shouters and Gullah Geechee Ring Shouters]. An annual competition for Spiritual Singers in 1934 at Sea Island Casino brought 125 Singers from Negro communities 100 miles away to an audience of 300.

In 1942 Parish published The Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands which included essays by leading musicologists, song lyrics and musical notations, and photos of the singers. Her work was – and still is — a terrific compenium for an amateur who was very devoted to this music and to the persons who sang it.

Parrish concludes the chapter entitled “Concerning Slave Songs and Their Preservation” with this prediction: “Within the last year [1941], there are indications that up-to-date young Negroes are beginning to appreciate the authentic slave songs; and the increasing popularity of exotic African tones and rhythms among white people leads me to believe that the pendulum of taste is swinging toward the music of Africa and away from the European preponderance of melody and harmony. In this trend lies a ray of hope for the survival of the contribution made by the Afro-American slave.”

Sources: Lydia Parrish, The Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands (1942)