The Georgia Sea Island Singers
Preserving Coastal Music Traditions
By James Calemine
After four decades, Frankie and Doug Quimby continue to travel the world as the Georgia Sea Island Singers, sharing the Gullah culture with audiences from presidents to preschoolers. The group’s performance history includes prestigious gigs such as the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics, the Inauguration of President Jimmy Carter and the 2004 G-8 Conference, as well as engagements in Africa, Spain, France, Germany, Nova Scotia, and Canada. Now, for the first time, the venerable Georgia Sea Island singers have released their own record, entitled Seh Deh De Cumin. This inimitable collection illuminates the lyrical Gullah language, spiritual songs, games, and redemptive shouts passed down from the slaves on Georgia’s southeastern coast.
Over 250 years ago, plantation owners began importing slaves from West Africa to the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina. The slaves endured extreme hardship and injustice on the rice plantations where they were forced to labor. Isolated from the mainland on the humid, mosquito-ridden islands, however, the slaves were able to freely preserve their ethnic traditions. The blend of language and culture that survived and evolved is known as Gullah.
Frankie Sullivan Quimby was born and raised on Georgia’s Sea Islands and can trace her ancestry back to the Foulah Tribe, who once resided on the banks of the Niger River. Although her husband Douglas was born in Baconton, Georgia, near Albany, his grandfather spoke in Gullah dialect, as many members of his family once worked on coastal plantations before being sold to inland landowners.
The Quimbys are the second generation of slave descendants to perform in the Georgia Sea Island Singers. The history of the group goes all the way back to the early 1900s when Lydia Parrish, wife of Maxfield Parrish, began her own “folklife studies” on St. Simons Island, where she lived. She would pay men and women who lived on the island to share their songs and memories, which she documented. Around 1920, Parrish sponsored the formation of the Spiritual Singers of Georgia, who performed for guests at the Cloister Hotel. Bessie Jones, a young woman from Dawson, Georgia, who had moved to St. Simons Island with her husband, joined the choral group in 1933.
In 1942, Parrish published The Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands, a collection that, although it was compiled by an amateur, nonetheless remains an invaluable source of history. The other significant documentation of the group came from famed folklorist Alan Lomax. He originally visited the island in 1935, accompanied by author and fellow folklorist, Zora Neale Hurston. They met Parrish and Jones and experienced the Spiritual singers. Lomax returned in 1959 and 1960 to conduct extensive recordings of this group.
Bessie Jones shared with Lomax her desire to take this heritage to the people, to “teach the chillun”, as she told him. The two worked together to solicit bookings and it was agreed the group would now be called the Georgia Sea Island Singers. The members at that time, song leader Jones, community leader Big John Davis, Peter Davis, Henry Morrison, Emma Ramsey and Mable Hillary, toured together for almost a decade.
Douglas Quimby joined the group in 1969, after having sung with the Sensational Friendly Stars, a well-known gospel group, for six years. One by one, the original members either stopped performing or passed away, and the Quimbys embraced the mission to share the Gullah culture, which Bill Moyers calls “a heritage so rich no price tag can measure its value.” Tony Merrell, a lifelong resident of Brunswick and master of the jimbay and talking drums, joined the Quimbys in 2001.
Frankie Quimby once said, “I’m a firm believer that you can’t know where you’re going until you realize where you’ve come from. We have dedicated our lives to trying to preserve that rich heritage and culture that our ancestors handed down to us.” The 18 songs in the Seh Deh De Cumin collection serve as a direct link to the original source of slave songs that preserves a vital insight into Africa-American history. With honor we present this recent interview with Mrs. Frankie Quimby.
How long has your family lived on St. Simons and Brunswick?
FQ: Oh, well over a hundred years. See, John Davis and that generation were my relatives. Those are relatives of mine. I’m a Sullivan by birth. The Sullivans, The Davises and the Ramseys that lived on St. Simons were all brought to St. Simons from Africa.
Explain the origins of the group changing their name to the Georgia Sea Island Singers.
FQ: (The name changed) when Alan Lomax came back and recorded us. The old singers began to travel because they were singing at places like the Cloister and The King & Prince and for Lydia Parrish at her house on St. Simons. In those days it was Emma Ramsey, Henry Morrison, John Davis, and Bessie Jones—all of them singing. They all sung together for Ms. Parrish, but when Alan Lomax came…that’s when they began to travel off the island.
Were you and Mr. (Doug) Quimby already married by the time y’all joined?
FQ: Yes. John Davis had stopped going out with them by this time—so that’s how we started with Bessie Jones, because they weren’t traveling. She needed someone to sing, and she heard Doug singing in a quartet in a church and she asked Doug if he would go—that’s how we got started with her.
So, this is the first recording of the Georgia Sea Island Singers record in the last forty years.
FQ: Well, they did an album with Alan Lomax called Southern Journey. That was their first recording. John Davis called them the St. Simons Island Singers—he even called them the Coastal Singers in those days, but they had made another album. You know, Bessie Jones did some recordings. One was called So Glad I’m Here. Then she recorded an album with some children’s games—that was 1975.
Explain the title of the new CD, Seh Deh De Cumin.
FQ: That’s in Gullah. In English, it means Yonder Comes Day. They way they sang it on the mainland was “Yonder Comes Day”. On the island, it becomes Gullah language—it was “Seh Deh De Cumin”. On the new album, song five, “O Day”, is the same song. See, black people will say five or six different phrases and mean one thing. In Gullah it’s “Seh Deh De Cumin.” In English it’s “Yonder Comes Day”, and it turns out “O Day”. The slaves spoke in coded messages. They communicated with rhythms using their mouths, making music using their bodies as rhythm instruments.
Storytelling and explaining underlying meanings of some songs plays an integral part of your performances. Talk about Harriet Tubman and how slave songs corresponded with the “underground railroad”.
FQ: We had our underground railroad from here when the Seminole Indians would hide us in Florida, near Tallahassee, and that area, but with Harriet Tubman…they would go to North and South Carolina and when she got back, they would get out in the fields and they begin to sing in a coded message: “Way down In the Old Tar River”. The slaves on the surrounding plantations would hear him and understand that was a code when Harriet was back in the area. In those days, your voice would travel because there wasn’t pollution in the air and they would answer back because they were excited since they knew someone was gonna start the northern count to freedom that night, and they’d sing “The Old Tar river is black and dirty…” to fool the slave owners who thought they were talking about some regular river, but they were really talking about the underground movement with Harriet Tubman.
On other songs like “Moses”, “Liza Jane”, and “Little Sally Walker”, you demonstrate differences between how the mainland slaves sang, and how the Gullah sang these old songs. What are your favorites off the new CD?
FQ: I think “Moses” is my favorite. It was recorded in Brunswick—they did a beautiful job.
These songs obviously transfer well to live audiences…
FQ: Yes, besides the Gullah language, we can always talk about slave games and dances—we do sharecropping dances and shouts from the Georgia and South Carolina coasts. There’s a lot of history there to cover.