Okefenokee Swamp Folklore
The Okefenokee Swamp and environs are a distinctive folk region, shaped by Celtic ethnicity, geographic isolation,
For periods in its history, the Okefenokee Swamp was a refuge for Indian people, escaped slaves, deserters during the Civil War (1861-65), and others seeking concealment. Various traditional narratives deal with these topics, including accounts by present-day descendants of Indian people who fled to Fort Moniac on the St. Marys River during the Indian removals. In contrast to the widespread view that "there are no Indians in Georgia," family folklore among these descendants suggests that some Indian people stayed in the Okefenokee area, hiding their heritage and intermarrying with early European American settlers.
During the 1800s this region had one of the smallest African American populations in the state.
Folkways and Storytelling Traditions
From 1912 to 1951 naturalist and folklore collector Francis Harper documented the traditions of European Americans living in and around the Okefenokee,
Although people no longer live in the swamp, many Okefenokee folk traditions continue in nearby communities. Fishermen and hunters, for example, serve up "duck rice" and fried fish at camps and reminisce about the days of alligator hunting and frog gigging in what is now a federal wildlife refuge.
Okefenokee families for years have taken advantage of the mild climate and large expanse of "honey plants" such as gallberry and tupelo gum to keep bees for honey. The counties surrounding the Okefenokee are now home to the state's largest commercial honey operations. Beekeepers usually apprentice with other beekeepers, developing a keen knowledge of the woods, the habits of bees, and the rhythm of the seasons.
The distinctive ecosystem of the great swamp is the subject of legends, tall tales, and personal experience narratives about bears, 'gators, and other encounters with the natural world.
The Chesser Homestead on Chessers Island (outside Folkston) and other historic sites, such as Traders Hill (Folkston) and Obediahs Okefenok (Waycross), are focal points for family reunions and special community events. At the annual Chesser Open House, for example, Chesser family descendants and neighbors gather to talk, eat a simple meal cooked on the homestead's wood-burning stove, and share with visitors customs associated with life on Chessers Island. Some demonstrations, such as making lye soap and washing clothes with a "battlin' stick," are nostalgic re-creations of past folkways. Others, such as quilting, palmetto broom making, turpentining, and Sacred Harp singing, are still practiced in the surrounding area.
Sacred Harp sings date back to at least the 1860s in the Okefenokee. The "shape-note" singing tradition in Georgia began during the antebellum period as a way to teach congregations to sing. Traveling teachers used "four-shape" tune books with religious lyrics in which different-shaped note heads were assigned to the European musical scale of fa, sol, la, and mi.
Collector Francis Harper documented swamper secular music such as locally composed songs and variants of "Barbara Allen," "The Little Mohee" (or "Lassie Mohee"), and other widely disseminated ballads, a few of which are still sung. Harper also documented hollering or yodeling, a distinctive alternation of head and chest tones sometimes interspersed with song fragments, which was used to call hogs and cattle, to signal that an individual was returning home, or simply to have fun. This tradition is no longer widespread, although a few families maintain the practice. Country western and bluegrass bands have largely replaced old-time frolics and square dances.
Kay L. Cothran, "Lem Griffis: Okefenokee Swamp Yarns," in Storytellers, Folktales, and Legends from the South, ed. John A. Burrison (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989).
Francis Harper and Delma E. Presley, Okefinokee Album (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1981).
Laurie Kay Sommers, "Continuity and Change in Southeast Georgia Sacred Harp," Society for American Music Bulletin (September 2000).
Zelton Conner, an Okefenokee Swamp Storyteller, prod. Jon Kay and Phyllis Free (1999), audio cassette with notes.
Laurie Kay Sommers, Valdosta State University
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