By James Calemine
"I'm gonna sail like
A ship on the ocean..."
--The Georgia Sea island Singers
Coastal Georgia exists as a treasure trove of America's earliest history. The Florida writer Zora Neale Hurston visited the area with Folklorist Alan Lomax in 1935. Lomax later declared--with compelling argument--the Golden Isles of Georgia were the home of the American song.
I grew up in this part of the world on St. Simons Island, and I've long been fascinated by the same things that drew in Lomax - the lore, song books and music of the Sea Island Singers, Bessie Jones and the St. Simons Island Singers as well as various other old-time groups. There's a lot of history to be found in my backyard. Just 30 miles up the road from St Simons lies the state's second oldest city, Darien, Georgia.
In January 1736, Darien, Georgia, was born. Located in McIntosh County, Darien rests on the Georgia coast almost halfway between Savannah and Jacksonville. The state's oldest fort (Fort King George) was built in 1721 in Darien. The English influence in Darien spread to Georgia's barrier islands such as St. Simons, Cumberland and Sapelo.
Historic events that took place around these environs shaped American history. Some of the first slave ships to arrive in this country came to Darien. During the Civil War the oldest African American Church in the country (The First African Baptist Church) was burned to the ground in Darien. In the 1900s, Darien served as a fertile lumber and fishing village.
So, here in the hot summer of 2012, the Smithsonian Institute has come to this sleepy coastal town to preserve and celebrate the earliest cultures in Georgia. On Saturday July 21, I attended the Grand Opening of a brilliant exhibition called New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music, a collaborative festival-of-sorts engineered by the Smithsonian Institution and the Georgia Humanities Council in Darien, Georgia. This exhibition celebrates Native American to African to European influences that originated new forms of American music born in Georgia.
The Grand Opening commenced the New Harmonies exhibit that runs until September. State Senator William T. Ligon welcomed the crowd. Darien songwriter and author Vic Waters made an appearance. The musical acts during the afternoon included The McIntosh County Singers, Jordan Edwards, Steven Smith & Patty Strickland, Michael Dyche & Courtney Timmons. The Sea Island Singers received a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Over the next six weeks there will be an arsenal of lecturers and rare films shown to the public. The first guest speaker counts as George DeGolian. He produced the film Gullah Tales. Another, Wayne Daniels--a DJ from Atlanta--wrote a book called Pickin' On Peachtree, and he will discuss various traditions aspects of Georgia music. Retired UGA professor and archivist Art Rosenbaum will speak on August 8 about his Grammy-winning recordings and many years as an archivist. Deidre Kindthistle will discuss the life of Lydia Parrish, and the seminal book Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands. On August 29, Fred Fussell will discuss Georgia's Native American music.
The film series will occur every Thursday. Films featured until September will include The Language You Cry In, Daughter's of the Dust, Dreams and Songs of the Noble Old, Sing My Troubles By, We Juke Up In Here and Desperate Man Blues. Events transpire at various historic locations in Darien such as The Trailhead Center, The Historic Darien Hotel, St. Cyprians Episcopal Church (built in 1876), Ida Hilton Public Library, Waterfront Park and the Archie B. Meyers Sr. Fine Arts Center.
This project was spearheaded by Susan Durkes who introduced me to the Mcintosh County Shouters and various other good folks. Susan put in a lot of hard work on this exhibition. I met her through Southern Soul Barbeque proprietor Griffin Bufkin. After I visited the displays at the Historic Darien Hotel, I also ran into my old high school classmate Dana Roberts who was in charge of the chitlin circut display of the tour. I also spoke with another old friend there, Kathy Patelidas, whose grandfather ran the Darien Hotel from 1916 to 1926.
Future exhibitions include the Georgia towns of Perry, Moultrie, Toccoa, Bremen, Thomson, Nashville, Americus, Waycross and LaGrange. The nucleus of this celebration displays eight panels of exhibitions on display such as Robert Winslow Gordon's Collection of Folk Songs of America. Local writer Stanley Booth will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award for his timeless work regarding Georgia music on August 25. A few relics on display include photographs, my 2006 interview with the Sea Island Singers' Frankie & Doug Quimby, a 1931 Brunswick News article documenting a singing competition between four black gospel groups at Sea Island's venerable Cloister Hotel and hundreds of other news items and photos. There is even a panel in the exhibition dedicated to musicians such as Otis Redding, James Brown, Ray Charles and Little Richard who performed on The Chitlin Circut that passed through Brunswick, Georgia, back in the 1950s and 60s. This exhibition contains a complete perspective of Georgia music...
The old music from this area--to me--captures the essence of the human condition from large issues like death, taxes, politics and war to lying lovers, hate, greed, family issues, karma, life-altering mistakes, intoxication, hard times, religion, friendship, work, loss and wisdom. This music evokes a close to the earth spirit. The people who made this timeless music didn't have much, but the songs last longer than the money. This old music serves as the foundation of blues, soul, country, R & B and most certainly rock & roll. For the most part, Darien, Georgia, still looks like it did 100 years ago. Here you can still find marsh, oak trees, Spanish moss, oysters, shrimp, mosquitoes, water moccasins and fish camps.
The New Harmonies exhibition puts America's music in perspective because it exposes the oldest roots of music. Afterall, how many musicians can say they arrived in this country on a slave ship?