Get In Union: Bessie Jones with the Sea Island Singers and Others: Alan Lomax Recordings 1959-1966
By James Calemine
Alan Lomax once declared the Golden Isles of Georgia home of the American song. Get In Union: Bessie Jones with the Sea Island Singers and Others, a 2 CD set, features 26 previously unreleased tracks. This collection truly captures essential roots of American music.
Produced by Grammy-nominated Curator of the Alan Lomax Archive, Nathan Salsburg, spearheaded this collection that includes unheard Sea Island Singers collaborations involving Rev. Gary Davis, Sweet Papa Stovepipe, Mable Hillary and others. These remastered recordings come from Alan Lomax's original tapes.
Bessie Jones exists as one of America's seminal singers. Alan Lomax first visited St. Simons Island, Georgia, in 1935 with folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. Lomax met Bessie Jones there in 1959. Songs from Get In Union were recorded between 1959-1966. Lomax recorded the Singers twenty years before for the Library of Congress and he wrote this about the group:
"The Sea Island Singers kept to the speech of their ancestors, and in some places still speak dialects in which many African words and syntactical features survive. Their folk and animal tales show a rich admixture of European and African traits at an early stage of blending. Their funeral customs, their religious ceremonies, indeed, their whole way of life bear the stamp of antebellum days. Yet this is no decadent culture. It has simply grown strong around a conservative base that is part pioneer, part planter gentility, and part African."
In 1959 when Lomax returned to St. Simons Island he noticed the tourist trade creeping in, but Bessie Jones remained alive and singing amid her rustic environs. History lurks in these lands. The Creek Indians occupied this island when the Spanish discovered the Georgia coast in 1540. English general James Oglethorpe infiltrated the Georgia island around 1736 from the British colony in Charleston. Oglethorpe decided St. Simons served as a strategic location to fortify against Spanish forces threatening from Florida. Oglethorpe prevailed--establishing the historical course of this country’s culture since English, not Spanish, became the native language.
St. Simons retains a dense history amid traces of today’s local hurried activities near oak groves older than the War Between the States. From 1773 to 1778, botanist William Bartram traveled the southeast coastal region. Bartram documented the journey in his timeless book, Travels of William Bartram, inspiring poets like Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth as well as providing a meticulous document of valuable biological information about the area. English actress Frances Anne Kemble published her documented stay on St. Simons in Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 .
Upon arriving on St. Simons, the Ebo, an African tribe brought to the island on a slave ship drowned themselves in Dunbar Creek to defy plantation owners. During the Civil War, Union soldiers smashed the organ, burned pews, and broke windows in the second oldest Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Georgia, Christ Church--located at the north end of the island. Old music lingers in the low country...old ghosts...
Slave cabins remain preserved on St. Simons and Cumberland islands along with well documented songs from Lydia Parrish’s priceless Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands. Lomax steeped himself in the history of the area for years, and he knew the Sea Island Singers were a treasure trove of American heritage. When the slaves were brought to these southern shores...they sang their songs and from these fertile grounds emerged as The Sea Island Singers. The Get In Union liner notes provide the deep musical roots Jones possessed:
"A singer and song-bearer of monumental proportions, Mary Elizabeth Smith Jones had been raised in Dawson, GA. in a large and deeply musical family. If someone couldn't sing, they played an instrument. She learned many of her songs from her mother Julia--a dancer, singer and autoharp player--and her step-grandfather Jet Sampson.
"Sampson, who was born in Africa in 1836 and sold into slavery as a child, taught young Bessie about the slave experience and 'the old ways'. With further formative musical experiences of church, school, and social functions, she was steeped in song."
Bessie Jones picked cotton from Bridgeport, CT., to Brunswick, GA. She also sold moonshine, gambled and sang the blues before she was born again in the Holiness Church. She knew the many faces of the world and understood them with a biblical gravity. During his last trips to the Georgia Sea Islands, Lomax recorded 60 different pieces of music, childhood recollections, ghost stories, interviews, biblical exegesis, healing tips and music from Bessie Jones and the Sea Island Singers.
Bessie Jones explained to Lomax her essential musical education: "I remember a hundred games, I suppose; I would say a hundred because there are so many of them. We had all kinds of plays; we had house plays, we had outdoor plays. Some of the plays have songs, some have just plays—you know, just acts or whatnot…. In my time coming up, the parents they would give quiltings and they would have songs they would sing while they were quilting and we would listen at those songs. And we would have egg crackings and taffy pullings and we would hear all those things—riddleses and stories and different things. That’s why I’m so loaded…. And then I has a great remembrance of those things, that’s another thing about it."
Jones also wrote a book titled Step It Down, a study of African-American children's game songs. In 1960, Lomax brought the Singers to Williamsburg, VA. to record. During the Civil Rights era, Lomax exposed the Sea Island Singers to the public at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, the Poor People's March in 1968 and Jimmy Carter's inauguration in 1977. They also performed college campuses and hip rock & roll spots like the Ash Grove in Los Angeles.
Get In Union deals with matters of the soul. I heard these songs from an old album I recorded to cassette at writer Stanley Booth's Brunswick home in the late 80s. I always felt proud to be one of the few in my generation exposed to this music...and it all took place in my backyard. I grew up on St. Simons Island. I've heard the mysterious stories that linger around the barrier island, and the Sea Island Singers' music always conjures a mysterious, soulful sanctuary for me. Get In Union blows like a soothing sea breeze.
The informative book that accompanies this release includes rare Lomax photographs, session notes and handwritten lyrics. In 1965, Lomax connected Bessie Jones and the Sea Island Singers to Ed Young and the Southern Fife and Drum Corps and Rev. Gary Davis at the Newport Folk Festival Preview Concert in Central Park.
The musical personnel on the recordings include the Georgia Sea Island Singers: Bessie Jones, Joe Armstrong, George Cohen, Jerome Davis, John Davis, Peter Davis, Jerry Harris, Leola Harris, Viola McQueen, Henry Morrison, Willis Proctor, Ben Ramsey and Emma Lee Ramsey. Hobart Smith sings and plays banjo. Ed Smith blows the fife and Nat Rahmings beats the drum. McKinley Peebles sings and plays guitar.
The session including "Throw Me Overboard" features legendary bluesman Rev. Gary Davis, Peter Davis, Mable Hillary, Bessie Jones and Emma Lee Ramsey. Every song on this collection is a story unto itself, but highlights for this writer include: "No Hiding Place Down Here", "O Death", "Dead And Gone", "This Is A Clean Train", "Beulah Land", "Prodigal Son", "Take Me To The Water", "Drinking That Wine", "One Morning Soon" and "Buzzard Lope"
In 1982, Bessie Jones was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She died of leukemia on July 17, 1984 in Brunswick, Georgia. Get In Union preserves the legacy of Bessie Jones and the Sea Island Singers in all its timeless grace...