Selections from the Complete Friends of Old-Time Music Concert (Live) (Live) Georgia Sea Island Singers & Mississippi Fred McDowell

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  • 1Read 'Em John (Live)01:32
  • 2Buzzard Lope (Dance) - In That Old Field (Live)02:12
  • 3Chevrolet (Live)04:22
  • 4Marching on the Mississippi Line (Live)03:08
  • 5Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning (Live)03:29
  • Total Runtime14:43

Info zu Selections from the Complete Friends of Old-Time Music Concert (Live) (Live)

Bessie Jones, John Davis, and the Georgia Sea Island Singers gained wide renown during the 1960s and '70s for their powerful performances of traditional songs from the African American Gullah Geechee community on St. Simons Island, Georgia. Most in the group were born and raised on St. Simons, and could trace their ancestry to the enslaved West and Central Africans who worked on the island's cotton plantations. Throughout the '60s, the Georgia Sea Island Singers were prominent voices in the civil rights movement, bringing hundreds of years of Black musical tradition to bear on a pivotal time in American history. This previously unheard recording captures their complete Friends of Old Time Music concert of April 1965, at which they were joined by legendary bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell, cane fife player Ed Young, and folklorist Alan Lomax, who acted as emcee. The album showcases a variety of traditional music from the Island and beyond, including stirring work songs, emotionally charged spirituals, jubilant songs for children, and revelatory renditions of Mississippi blues.

“We’re on the road to world peace, and freedom, and integration,” says famed folklorist Alan Lomax brightly in his introduction to the concert. Behind him on the stage, some of the greatest Black folk singers of their time say nothing. Their thoughts on Lomax’s overly optimistic prediction come through in the songs they presented that evening. Songs that prayed to a Biblical God for justice, songs that spoke of the pure barbarity and horror of slavery, the death and murder of so many brought from Africa over the centuries, songs that spoke of the thousands and thousands of marchers in America at that very time during the Civil RIghts movement. “If I can’t march, I can sing,” said Mable Hillery of the Georgia Sea Island Singers, herself a noted Civil Rights activist and frequent marcher who had stayed back from protests to testify before this crowd of mostly young, white people in New York City. Captured on a Nagra tape recorder and a good Sony condenser microphone by noted field recordist Peter Siegel, the entire concert is presented here for the first time, each song a revelation. “It’s rare that you could put out every song from the concert and they’re all good,” says Siegel. It was also a very visual concert. The Georgia Sea Island singers presented actual religious ceremonies, like the complicated dancing and rhythmic percussion of the ring shout, which brought a lot of energy. Everyone in the audience surely felt this energy during the concert, and you can hear the musicians egging each other on.

That energy of a great live performance is the reason that Siegel left the concert wholly intact, but he was also interested in the larger contexts of the concert. The way Lomax interacts with the performers is key. He positions himself not only as the MC for the evening, but as the arbiter of their traditions. They looked on him kindly, but also recognized the power divide. Davis jokes at one point, after Lomax spun a tale for him about the song he was going to sing, that “all I have to do is do it now!” Lomax was just one in a line of white interpreters who had been presenting Georgia Sea Islands music since the early 1900s. Contrasting starkly with the academic comments and optimistic beliefs of Lomax as the white intermediary, the songs presented that evening ranged from Biblical to terrifyingly apocalyptic. The Georgia Sea Island Singers, and especially Jones and Davis, knew that presenting traditional music from the time of slavery was a powerful connection to help audiences understand what slavery really was, and they took this as their core mission.

Due to their isolation and their geographical location off the coast of Georgia, the formerly enslaved community of African descent on the islands were able to keep their traditions without as much outside interference as other Black communities endured. The result is that the songs of the Gullah Geechee people of the Georgia Sea Islands have kept powerful undercurrents of commentary in their songs up to the present day. Though many songs have roots in the Bible, they’re interpreted through West and Central African customs and perspectives. Because the Georgia Sea Islands were so isolated, there wasn’t the same threat of death or injury for keeping these traditions alive that other Black communities experienced, so these songs are able to present a direct perspective on slavery and oppression. Knowing this history, Jones, Davis and Mable Hillery all believed that the songs of the past could inform the protests of the present. One song, “Read ‘Em John”, draws a direct parallel to the impending passage of the Voting Rights Act that same year, 1965. Hillery wrote one of the most direct songs of the evening, “Marching on the Mississippi Line,” which directly references the activist work that Hillery was engaging in, fusing Black spirituals with contemporary political movements of the time. Perhaps the most haunting song of the evening, “Buzzard Lope,” is presented at first by Jones as a folkloric dance that people would perform in the fields. But as she points out, the dance portrays buzzards picking the bones of the bodies of enslaved Black people cast into the field to rot. The blood that fed these old folk songs is very real in this recording, not least for Jones, who was the granddaughter of an enslaved person herself.

Mississippi Fred McDowell and fife player Ed Young may not have been as direct in their protests at the time, but their music rings with power. “Don’t Ever Leave Me” brings Hillery’s voice together with McDowell’s powerful guitar, a moment that shows her deep roots in the blues and his empathic accompaniment. McDowell himself was one of the great stars of the folk revival, first encountered in Mississippi by Lomax right before Lomax returned to the Georgia Sea Islands in 1959. Lomax’s assistant at the time, the soon-to-be famous British folk singer Shirley Collins, said she’d never forget meeting McDowell, remembering the image of him walking out of the woods with his guitar after picking cotton all day. His guitar playing has a tranced out sound to it, heralding him as a precursor of the Mississippi Hill Country Blues that others like R.L. Burnside and The Black Keys would popularize. Listen to his guitar work opening up the song “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning.” McDowell lasers in on a much slower, rawer tempo for this powerful old spiritual, while the Georgia Sea Island Singers lift their voices beneath him. From the same region as McDowell, Young’s fife playing is so old as to almost be primordial. It was the oldest Black American instrumental music that had survived, though it had fused with military traditions at a certain point. Young and McDowell weave in and out with the Georgia Sea Island Singers in creative ways throughout this evening’s program, delighting in the collaboration and creating something new and indelible together.

By bringing out an unheard tradition of Black American music and showcasing the music in such a direct, engaging way, all the performers on stage this one evening in 1965 hoped to leave a lasting mark on the audience. They reveled in playing together, and they found common ground across very different Black communities in the United States. But as Siegel pointed out, they had very clear motives for their music. “Bessie Jones and John Davis were very aware of their mission to help people understand this music,” Siegel says. “Where it came from and how it could inform the future.”

Mississippi Fred McDowell and the Georgia Sea Island Singers

Digitally remastered

Georgia Sea Island Singers
are a group of African Americans who travel the world to share the songs, stories, dances, games, and language of their Gullah heritage.

Started sometime in the early 1900s and composed of many individuals over time, the current generation of singers includes Frankie Sullivan Quimby and Tony Merrell. Together they have presented educational programs that testify about the history of enslaved Africans from coastal Georgia and celebrate the rich language, culture, and traditions that developed on and near the Sea Islands of the Georgia coast —in relative isolation from the rest of the South—for more than 200 years.

The famed Smithsonian Institution folklorist Alan Lomax discovered the Georgia Sea Island Singers in 1935, while visiting St. Simons Island with writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. He returned in 1959-60 during a collecting trip through the American South. His field recordings of the singers from that trip can be found on two volumes of Rounder Records’ Alan Lomax Collection, Southern Journey Series. Since that time, the singers have performed for three presidents, including Jimmy Carter at his inauguration, and have made numerous appearances at a variety of events, including the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival and the National Book Festival, both held in Washington, D.C.; the 1994 Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway; the National Black Storytelling Festival; and the G8 Summit on Sea Island in 2004. In 1990 the group received the Governor’s Award in the Humanities.

Past associates of the group have included the legendary Bessie Jones, who was a key figure in the group’s history, along with Joe Armstrong, John Davis, Peter Davis, Mabel Hillary, Henry Morrison, Doug Quimby, and Emma Ramsey. Many members of the group were born or raised in or near Brunswick, St. Simons Island, and other Georgia sea islands. All evidence suggests that amateur folklorist Lydia Parrish organized the group as the Spiritual Singers Society of Coastal Georgia around 1920, partly to perform at the Cloister Hotel on Sea Island.

Bessie Jones joined the group in 1933, and at some point thereafter, the name was changed. In the introduction to folklorist Bess Lomax Hawes’s book, Step It Down (1972) cowritten with Bessie Jones, Hawes writes that Jones moved from her childhood home of Dawson to her husband’s home on St. Simons Island, where “she met the Georgia Sea Island Singers, a Negro choral group whose early period has been described in a book by Mrs. Lydia Parrish.” Parrish’s book, Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands (1942), along with the compilation of information found in Step It Down, are two of the best resources on both the group’s early history and Gullah traditions.

Formed to perpetuate the traditions of their enslaved ancestors, the Sea Island Singers teach and perform the songs, dances, shouts, and games with audiences in a participatory, interactive manner, echoing the engaging quality of the traditions themselves. Throughout their performances, the singers also offer insight into the reasons behind the development and sustenance of their traditions. A capella call-and-response singing, hand clapping, children’s games, and speaking in the Gullah dialect are often included in the group’s performances, as is a demonstration of the ring shout dance, described in Hawes and Jones’s book as a “religious exercise, a form of worship, born out of African tradition and neatly distinguished from secular activities.” The dancers move in a circular flow, with their feet never leaving the floor and their legs never crossing each other, as they follow the calls of a shouter.

The Georgia Sea Island Singers’ work has been collected on volumes 12 and 13 of Rounder Records’ Alan Lomax Collection, Georgia Sea Islands: Biblical Songs and Spirituals (1998), and Earliest Times: Georgia Sea Island Songs for Everyday Living (1998). Bessie Jones has three recordings on Rounder: So Glad I’m Here (1975), Step It Down (1979), and Put Your Hand on Your Hip, and Let Your Backbone Slip (2001).

Mary Elizabeth "Bessie" Jones
was born February 8, 1902, in Smithville, Georgia. When she was seven months old, her parents moved to Dawson. She grew up in a large, extended family that included her stepfather, James Sampson, and his parents, Jet and Julia Sampson. It was from the Sampsons, especially Jet, that young Bessie first learned about slavery and "the old ways." Music was as important as storytelling in her family. Her Uncle Gene sang and played guitar. All the men in her family played guitar or banjo, and they made their own banjos. Jet played the accordion and made banjos out of wood. Her mother played autoharp.

When Bessie was only nine years old, she got her first job doing childcare. That same year, her stepfather died, and the family moved to Osterfield to be closer to relatives. Bessie finished her last year of formal schooling in 1913, and the following year she met and married Cassius Davis, and soon thereafter gave birth to her first child, Rosalie. Davis lived on St. Simons Island, but had come to the mainland looking for work. Bessie began working as a farmhand, taking Rosalie to the fields with her.

After Davis's death around 1926, Bessie and her cousin decided to go to Florida to find better jobs. In Key Largo they were hired to do washing and ironing for a crew laying railroad track. After a short time there, she went to Miami and worked as a cook and maid. In 1928, she moved on to Okeechobee to farm; there, she met and married George Jones. Together, they became migrant workers and followed the crop harvests from Florida to Connecticut. During these years she also traveled to Brunswick, Georgia, and St. Simons Island, visiting both George's family and her deceased first husband's family.

By 1933, Bessie and George settled on St. Simons Island. They continued to do migrant work, but kept their home on the island. In the off-season, Bessie worked as a maid and cook, and joined Lydia Parish's Spiritual Singers Society of Coastal Georgia.

Her second child, George L., was born in 1935, followed by her third child, Joseph, in 1937.

From 1939 to 1945, Bessie also took jobs as a nurse for the children of wealthy white families who lived or vacationed on the Georgia coast. In 1945, her husband George died. Bessie continued living and working on St. Simons Island, and was active in the founding of the Harlem Church of God in Christ.

In the mid-1950s Bessie met folklorist Alan Lomax, who was conducting fieldwork in the Georgia sea islands and working to collect the music of the Spiritual Singers Society. In 1960, Bessie was "called to teach" — to pass on to others what she knew about slavery through songs and stories that she learned as a child. While participating in Lomax's film on the Spiritual Singers Society, she went to sing for a child's birthday party. She was going to start off the party by singing a lullaby, then changed her mind. "But when I got up," she recalled, "I said I was glad to do it because this is where my grandfather was brought up at, and that gave me a head to speak right there. When I said that, they stopped the beer right there, and everything, and I was getting ready to sing to the child, but wasn't nobody saying nothing. Then something told me 'You got to tell them everything in your mind.'"

That was the first time in public that Jones began to tell the stories she had heard as a child. "The Lord blessed me not to forget these things," she explained, "and keep them up among people who weren't studying it. White people know our backgrounds, but they're going to try to hold it back and keep us back as long as they possibly can." Guided by the "spirit," Jones recognized she had an opportunity to share the stories and songs about little-known aspects of the history of African Americans to others.

Over the next several years, Jones toured extensively, performing in clubs and concerts, and at festivals around the country. In 1963, she teamed up with a group of other singers to form The Georgia Sea Island Singers. This ensemble traveled together and was the subject of another film by Alan Lomax, The Georgia Sea Island Singers. At home, she continued to sing with the Spiritual Singers Society at public and private gatherings. She also participated in a prayer band that traveled during the Civil Rights Movement, marching with Martin Luther King in Beulah, Mississippi. It was during these years that Jones worked on her book Step It Down, published in 1972. In 1973 she released her first solo album, So Glad I'm Here, followed by Step It Down in 1975. Throughout the 1970s, Jones remained active singing with the Georgia Sea Island Singers and performing at inaugurations, in schools, and at festivals throughout the country.

Mississippi Fred McDowell
is widely viewed by blues aficionados as the most talented artist of his generation to be “discovered” during the blues revival of the late 1950s and 1960s. Despite his nickname, McDowell was a native of Tennessee, born in Rossville on 12 January 1904. He began playing guitar as a teenager and recalled that his main influences in Rossville were Raymond Payne, a native of Mount Pleasant, Mississippi, who taught McDowell to play in the open G or “Spanish” tuning, and an uncle who played guitar with a slide made from a dried steak bone. McDowell subsequently developed his own distinctive and influential slide technique using a pocketknife.

In Rossville, McDowell worked on his father’s small farm and performed at Saturday night fish fries and country dances. At around age twenty-one he moved to Memphis, where his jobs included building rail cars, stacking logs, and working at an oil mill and a dairy. McDowell traveled around Mississippi in the late 1920s, learning “Pea Vine Special” and other songs directly from blues pioneer Charley Patton while visiting the Cleveland area. McDowell moved to Como around 1940 and performed widely around the region until his music reached a broader audience after he was recoreded by folklorist Alan Lomax in 1959. McDowell features prominently on a four-volume set of Lomax’s field recordings, Sounds of the South (1960).

McDowell began performing on the festival and coffeehouse circuits, often receiving equal billing with other rediscovered blues artists who had been documented during the heyday of country blues recording in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Managed by Dick Waterman, McDowell appeared at many prominent venues, including the Newport Folk Festival in 1964. The following year he toured Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival tour.

Throughout the 1960s McDowell recorded widely in a variety of contexts. Albums on the Arhoolie and Testament labels feature McDowell performing with his wife, Annie Mae. Another Testament LP, Amazing Grace, features religious songs with McDowell accompanied by a group from his church, the Hunter’s Chapel Singers. Field recordings by George Mitchell feature McDowell with harmonica player Johnny Woods, and on the 1968 LP Levee Camp Blues, producer Pete Welding captured songs McDowell performed in his youth. One of the most popular of McDowell’s many recordings was I Do Not Play No Rock and Roll (1969). The album, recorded at the Malaco Records studio in Jackson and issued by Capitol Records, featured McDowell on electric guitar with a rhythm section and extended monologues on various topics.

McDowell’s slide guitar playing had already influenced young white artists, most notably Bonnie Raitt, and in 1971 the Rolling Stones covered McDowell’s version of the gospel standard “You’ve Got to Move” on Sticky Fingers. In the 1990s and 2000s his North Mississippi Hill Country blues style was popularized by his student R. L. Burnside and younger interpreters including the North Mississippi Allstars.

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