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Week 23 – MUSIC – Georgia Sea Island Singers

"The old ones (songs) make you feel good, the new ones don’t make you feel anything.’ (Ben Davis to Lydia Parrish)

Bessie Jones was born in southwest Georgia. She arrived on St. Simons Island with her baby and husband Cassius Davis, nephew of Spiritual Singer Big John Davis. Although mainlanders, her family had always been singers and Bessie, close to her four grandparents, had learned storytelling, games, plays, and “the old ways” from her elders especially her grandfather Jet Sampson who was enslaved in Africa and brought to Western Hemisphere in 1843 with his five brothers. Sampson died in 1941 at the age of 105. Thanks to her “buoyant personality, extensive repertoire, and experienced singing style,” her husband’s family invited her to join their group.

Around this same time 1935 at the suggestion of Florida folklorist Zora Neal Hurston, John Lomax and his son Alan came to St. Simons Island. They were searching out folk songs for what would become the American Folklife Collection at the Library of Congress. Alan Lomax met Bessie Jones in 1959 when he returned to St. Simons Island with modern equipment to record some of the singers he had encountered two decades earlier. The music was still strong, although Lomax reported that the conditions for recording at the Harrington schoolhouse were like “recording in a barrel.”

In the early 1960s the interest in folk traditions and the growing civil rights movement came at a time when the group was ready to step on the bigger stage. They performed at Carnegie Hall and at the Newport News Folk Festival (alongside Pete Seeger and Peter Paul and Mary). The Georgia Sea Island Singer were selected as one of the first groups to perform at the first Smithsonian Folk Festival on the Washington, D.C. Mall (1967) thus cementing their place in American folklife.

The role their music played in the civil rights movement was among their proudest. In 1964 Bessie Jones participated in two workshops designed to develop songs to support the freedom marches: (The Highlander Folk School and the Sing for Freedom Workshop in Atlanta). When others implied that only new songs would work, Bessie argued that the older spirituals provided a much longer tradition of protest and opposition on which freedom songs could draw. “One of their prized experiences was as staff culture-workers for the Poor Peoples March in Washington (1968) during which they taught their music to thousands of African Americans and poor whites.” (cover notes to album Southern Journey). In 1976 the group performed at the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter.

In the 1970s Jones and Mabel Hillary held the first Georgia Sea Island Festival on St. Simons Island. Along with traditional foods (smoked mullet) and demonstrations of traditional African American skills/jobs (net knitting and rice pounding) there were musical performances celebrating the variety of African American heritage. Thanks to Sandy Jones, you can “visit” the festival by viewing the video she posted Here. The SSAAHC continued hosting the festival until the pandemic.

The Georgia Sea Island Singers toured for almost a decade and performed locally at The Cloister and at Altama for the Jones family. They continued to work “day jobs.” Bessie Jones was a migrant farm laborer, domestic, cook, and even moonshiner. Emma Ramsey worked for the Aikens. Aiken was president of the bank and his wife was descended from slave owners at Retreat Plantation. Big John and Peter Davis were brothers. Peter was a yardman at Frederica Yacht Club and John was a crabber and fisherman. Henry Morrison had the fishing camp at end of south Harrington Road where neighbors could hear the group practicing. Mabel Hillary toured early on with the group. Eventually, as Bessie put it, Mabel “went off to blues” and became a well- known solo performer in NYC. Bessie Jones passed away in 1984. One by one, the original members either stopped performing or passed away, but Frankie Quimby and her husband Douglas embraced the mission to share the Gullah culture, which Bill Moyers calls “a heritage so rich no price tag can measure its value.”

For over thirty years, the Quimbys and Tony Merrell took the music to The White House, to Africa, to world leaders at the G8 Summit and to thousands of school children across the nation. Frankie felt that their most powerful performances were given to new generations of “her people” at the annual Georgia Sea Island Festival and the SICARS festival on Sapelo Island. In 2016 Bessie Jones, the Quimbys and the other members of the singers were celebrated in “Around the world and Back Again” at the Coastal Georgia Historical Society when the Lomax recordings were brought back to SSI to be saved at their archives. Three generations of singers performed at the program. The next day, Frankie gathered the children at the historic Harrington schoolhouse and did the play songs that their grandparents had enjoyed so many years before.

Sources: ACE, The Association for Cultural Equity, and the Library of Congress.