Sea Island Singers: Bringing It All Back Home to St. Simons

Sea Island Singers. From the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Used courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity.

Sea Island Singers. From the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Used courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity.

Even if you don’t know the Georgia Sea Island Singers by name, chances are good you’re familiar with several of the troupe’s classic vocal tunes. From its 1920s beginnings on this once-isolated island, the Sea Island Singers went on to perform at the 1994 Winter Olympics, for three sitting presidents (including at Jimmy Carter’s inauguration), and to be enshrined at the Library of Congress.

Legendary folklorist/musicologist Alan Lomax made repeat visits to St. Simons Island in the mid-20th century to document the Singers’ traditions. As Harry Belafonte once explained, “When you listen to Bessie Jones, you’ll find the earliest roots of black music…the beginnings of spiritual music in American religious communities as interpreted by black citizens of our nation.”

Bessie Jones. From the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Used courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity.

Bessie Jones. From the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Used courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity.

Group leader Jones later traveled to New York in the early ’60s to enlist Lomax’s help bringing the Sea Island folk traditions to a wider audience. The process comes full circle Feb. 25-27, 2016, when the Coastal Georgia Historical Society and the St. Simons African American Heritage Coalition host a weekend of events surrounding the “repatriation” of Alan Lomax’s Sea Island Singers recordings.

Jones, who became the face of the Sea Island Singers, was born further south in Dawson, Georgia, and moved to Sea Island after marrying into a local family. She joined a group that, while already recorded by Lomax in a 1935 session, had until then emphasized traditional gospel material. “Bessie brought with her these other songs (like work songs), and modernized the repertory through sheer force of personality,” explains Nathan Salzburg of the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE), the Lomax family foundation.

“Lomax saw Bessie as a performer, but also someone who wanted to do the work of preserving the culture,” Salzburg continues. In Lomax’s view, “it wasn’t enough to document these cultures, but to create a feedback loop, to empower them.”

ACE has done roughly 30 of these repatriation events to date, “but not many on the scale of Georgia’s. It takes an engaged community to make that happen.” Enter locals like Patty Deveau, who has worked to pull the weekend’s events together and as President of the Friends of Harrington School, to renovate and preserve the last remaining African-American schoolhouse on St. Simons and the purported site of many of the Lomax recordings.

Anna Lomax Wood, daughter of Alan and ACE President, will be among the speakers at the repatriation. “Anna has a great, fun story about when Bessie and the group went up to New York to ask for help becoming a touring group,” Deveau recalls. “She was living with her father at the time, so she wound up doing the cooking and cleaning for them.” It’s an interesting role reversal, given that most of the Sea Island Singers earned their living as domestics for the wealthier white families on St. Simons.

Frankie Quimby, who has led the Singers since Jones’ passing in 1984, will also be speaking and performing. Quimby hopes to extend the group’s legacy in part by training a choral group from the College of Coastal Georgia in the traditional songbook as part of Friday’s festivities.

Georgians are well acquainted with the natural beauties of Sea Island and St. Simons Island. From February 25-27, these one-time historical and cultural events create a powerful combination.

For more information about the repatriation weekend, contact the St. Simons African American Heritage Coalition.

glen-headshotGlen Sarvady is Georgia’s official Music Explorer. He has lived in Atlanta for more than 20 years, and has written about music both locally and nationally for at least as long. More recently, he has written regularly for the music/arts publication Stomp & Stammer as well as GeorgiaMusic.org.