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Keeping a Geechee-Gullah Heritage Alive

Just below Savannah, Georgia, there’s a group of folks Keeping a Geechee-Gullah Heritage Alive. They have performed at the John F. Kennedy Center and the Library of Congress and were named Master Artists by the National Endowment for the Arts. Their performances are both entertaining and uplifting.

Driving down the Hwy. toward St. Simons, I’ve often wanted to go off on the back roads of Georgia to see what life is like beyond the interstate. It’s only when you get off onto the little two-lane roads that wind through towns I’ve never heard of those discoveries such as this are made.  I’ve been friends with photographer Brian Brown for many years and never miss his stories on Vanishing South Georgia. Brian is a documentary photographer and historian from Fitzgerald, Georgia. You may want to check out his work that takes us on a photographic journey through the region’s at-risk places.

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The McIntosh County Shouters are an American treasure. Tucked away in a field in rural Georgia, surrounded by live oak trees just off Highway 99, sits the Mount Calvary Baptist Church, organized in 1890 and home to the McIntosh County Shouters, the oldest living African American ring shouters surviving in North America. The church is a humble, one-story, cinder block building painted white with stained glass windows and an indigo-colored roof set in the community of Bolden, Georgia, 25 miles north of St. Simons.

 

African in origin, and one of the oldest surviving African-American performance traditions in North America, the ring shout – a fusion of dance, can-and-response-singing, and percussion was first discovered by outside observers during the Civil War.  Today the dance lives on in the small community of Bolden, Georgia.

A Joyful, Joyful Feeling

Alan Lomax, the 20th century’s greatest collector of American folk music recording, once said, ‘the Georgia Sea Islands are the home of the American song.” Music has been central to the lives of African-Americans along the coast since they were first brought here as slaves.

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This is a hypnotic, counterclockwise shuffle accompanied by call and response singing, the percussion coming only from clapping hands and sticks beating drum-like rhythms on a wooden floor.

Two miles down the road, Blackbeard Creek flows toward the Atlantic Ocean. No sign exists on Hwy. 99 to indicate that this heavily wooded stretch between Crescent and Eulonia incorporates the community of Bolden.

Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands, by Lydia Parrish, features some of the earliest shout songs from the Georgia coast.  These early songs, along with stories and folklore from Africa, exist among the sea islands to this day.

The Shouters often perform at schools, churches, and festivals as they continue the tradition of “passing down” the culture of the first people from Africa brought to Georgia’s Rice Coast.

Art Rosenbaum, an eminent folklorist and professor emeritus at the University of Georiga, spent years gathering material for his 1988 book, Shout Because You’re Free: The African Ring Shout Traditions in Coastal Georgia, and a related documentary for public television titled Down Yonder With the McIntosh County Shouters.

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In his book, Rosenbaum describes why this culture and tradition has remained intact all these years.

There are many reasons why: the area was closer to the point of slaves’ declaration; tribal language groups who retained African skills such as rice cultivation were not broken up as much on the coast during slavery times; before the Emancipation, slave owners often eft supervision to black overseers due to the difficult climate, with the result that there were fewer whites in proportion to blacks farther inland.  In post-Emancipation, many blacks gained possession of parcels of land and although life remained a struggle, they could work their own farms and live in relatively cohesive communities.  From those centuries of tradition, the McIntosh County Shouters have kept their unique music alive.

Now the group forges into the 21st century’s uncertain future – and their own.

 

One of my favorite photographs by Brian is of the Henry Walcott House near the Georgia coast.  It’s this otherworldly feeling, that he captures so well as though one were looking back in time. “A photograph may be the only way to save the place for future generations to see how people lived,” says Brown.

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