Georgia Sea Island Singers
The famed Smithsonian Institution folklorist Alan Lomax discovered the Georgia Sea Island Singers in 1935, while visiting St. Simons Island with writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. He returned in 1959-60 during a collecting trip through the American South. His field recordings of the singers from that trip can be found on two volumes of Rounder Records' Alan Lomax Collection,
Past associates of the group have included the legendary Bessie Jones, who was a key figure in the group's history, along with Joe Armstrong, John Davis, Peter Davis, Mabel Hillary, Henry Morrison, and Emma Ramsey. Many members of the group were born or raised in or near Brunswick, St. Simons Island, and other Georgia sea islands. All evidence suggests that amateur folklorist Lydia Parrish organized the group as the Spiritual Singers Society of Coastal Georgia around 1920, partly to perform at the Cloister Hotel on Sea Island.
Bessie Jones joined the group in 1933, and at some point thereafter, the name was changed. In the introduction to folklorist Bess Lomax Hawes's book, Step It Down (1972) cowritten with Bessie Jones, Hawes writes that Jones moved from her childhood home of Dawson to her husband's home on St. Simons Island, where "she met the Georgia Sea Island Singers, a Negro choral group whose early period has been described in a book by Mrs. Lydia Parrish." Parrish's book, Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands (1942), along with the compilation of information found in Step It Down, are two of the best resources on both the group's early history and Gullah traditions.
The Georgia Sea Island Singers' work has been collected on volumes 12 and 13 of Rounder Records' Alan Lomax Collection, Georgia Sea Islands: Biblical Songs and Spirituals (1998), and Earliest Times: Georgia Sea Island Songs for Everyday Living (1998). Bessie Jones has three recordings on Rounder: So Glad I'm Here (1975), Step It Down (1979), and Put Your Hand on Your Hip, and Let Your Backbone Slip (2001).
Bessie Jones, For the Ancestors: Autobiographical Memories, ed. John Stewart (1983; reprint, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989).
Bessie Jones and Bess Lomax Hawes, Step It Down: Games, Plays, Songs, and Stories from the Afro-American Heritage (1972; reprint, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987).
Lydia Parrish, comp., Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands (1942; reprint, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992).
Art Rosenbaum, Shout Because You're Free: The African American Ring Shout Tradition in Coastal Georgia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998).
Savannah Unit, Georgia Writers' Project, Work Projects Administration, Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies among the Georgia Coastal Negroes (1940; reprint, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986).
Adrienn Mendonca, Mendonca Consulting
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.