Smithsonian Folkways announces historical album feat Georgia Sea Island Singers and Mississippi Fred McDowell in the Civil Rights Era

Taken from a key 1965 Live Concert in the midst of the Civil Rights Era

The Complete Friends of Old-Time Music Concert

by Bessie Jones, John Davis & The Georgia Sea Island Singers with Mississippi Fred McDowell and Ed Young

June 14, 2024 on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

The Complete Friends of Old-Time Music Concert (album cover photo)

A live recording of a concert can preserve one powerful moment indelibly in time. Coming June 14, 2024, Smithsonian Folkways will release The Complete Friends of Old-Time Music Concert by Bessie Jones, John Davis & The Georgia Sea Island Singers with Mississippi Fred McDowell and Ed Young, presenting a riveting, historic look at the intersection of Black folk traditions and civil rights activism. Taken from a concert in April 1965, this recording showcases the haunting songs of the Georgia Sea Islands Singers, led by Jones and Davis–Black folk songs and spirituals that have influenced everyone from Jerry Garcia to Afrofuturist Folkways artist Jake Blount. These songs of the Gullah Geechee people of Georgia even today retain deep connections to Africa, and were encoded with powerful messages of resistance to slavery and oppression. The concert also featured the country blues of legendary singer and guitarist Mississippi Fred McDowell and Mississippi cane fife player Ed Young. It was a star-studded concert, and the excitement of these seminal musicians joining together on songs and inspiring each other is palpable. But the powerful subtext of this concert was clear even then.

“Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” – Mississippi Fred McDowell and the Georgia Sea Island Singers

Georgia Sea Island Singers led by Mississippi Fred McDowell - "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning"

You can hear the creativity and inspiration of the evening in their rendition of this traditional gospel song, “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning”. Mississippi Fred 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.

“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.”

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