Graded on a Curve: Bessie Jones with the Georgia Sea Island Singers, Get in Union

Anybody familiar with Moby’s “Honey” knows the sampled voice of Bessie Jones. Primarily celebrated for her leadership of the Georgia Sea Island Singers, she played a considerable role in the ‘60s folk revival and remains an exemplar of cultural diversity in 20th century USA. With Get in Union’s two CDs and splendidly informative package, the Tompkins Square label and producer Nathan Salsburg turned a brilliant spotlight upon a trove of her work from numerous sessions recorded by the great Alan Lomax.

To begin to absorb the significance of Bessie Jones one needs at least a little bit of insight into the unusual history of the Georgia Sea Islands. Situated near the coast of Georgia and taken early in the Civil War by the Union Army, the islands were a part of what’s known as the Port Royal Experiment, more specifically an opportunity for approximately 10,000 freed slaves to practice self-sustainment (i.e. what Reconstruction could’ve been).

The Port Royal Experiment lasted until 1865 when President Andrew Johnson returned the land to its former white owners. And yet from the end of the Civil War to the mid 1930s the Georgia Sea Islands sustained a separation from mainland life as two different sets of ex slaves intermingled, those from the USA and a large influx of Bahamians freed after the British Empire put the kibosh on their ownership of humans.

In 1935 Alan Lomax made his first trip to the Georgia Sea Island of St. Simons in the company of folklorists Mary Elizabeth Barnicle and Zora Neale Hurston (most famous as the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, amongst other novels and writings). On that visit they recorded for the Library of Congress the Spiritual Singers Society of Coastal Georgia, a group organized by Lydia Parrish, the wife of painter Maxfield Parrish.

Lomax first encountered Bessie Jones on returning to St. Simons in 1959. A native of the mainland (listed as being born in both Smithville, GA and Lacrosse, FL) she settled in St. Simons with her second husband George Jones and brought with her what Get in Union’s notes by Nathan Salsburg and Anna Lomax Wood describe as a “massive repertoire” of songs.

She fell into league with Big John Davis, Henry Morrison, and Willis Proctor, all three members of the Spiritual Singers as recorded by Lomax, and quickly adopting her vast store of material, sourced from church, school, various social activities, and most importantly from her mother (who sang, danced and played autoharp) and step-grandfather Jet Sampson (born in Africa and sold into slavery as a child) they became a powerhouse of traditions that even at the point of this set’s initial recordings were in danger of being lost (In the 20 years between Lomax’s visits he discovered major changes in the Islands).

Get in Union makes abundantly clear that in Bessie Jones, Lomax found a kindred spirit in preservation. Collected here are songs taped in St. Simons in ’59 and ’60 (issued on LPs by Atlantic and Prestige International), a ’60 session cut with other participants in Williamsburg, VA for the film Music of Williamsburg, and selections from the 50 hours of informal taping Lomax and his wife Antoinette March made with Jones in New York City during ’61 and ’62, 16 of which are included here.

Also from ’61 NYC are two songs of Jones singing backup for Reverend McKinley Peebles (a figure known through a ’26 Paramount 78 as Sweet Papa Stovepipe), five tunes from a ’65 event held in Central Park, and billed as a Newport Folk Festival preview concert, and four cuts from a small performance captured on the Newport Fest grounds in ’66.

The collection totals 51 tracks, 26 of them previously unreleased, with the majority of a gospel nature and vocally focused, though the accompanying handclaps and stomps are so skillful (please see “Moses Don’t Get Lost,” “Walk Daniel,” or “Buzzard Lope” for evidence) that it’s frankly inaccurate to describe them as a cappella. However, of those relying completely on harmony of voice, the impossibly beautiful “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” from ’59 is a highlight.

Also from ’59 is “O Death,” which finds Jones stepping out alone and delivering a vibrant reading of a song that in recent years has become somewhat overdone (kinda like Old-Time music’s own “Louie Louie”); her version lacks in the trite or predictable, both qualities missing from this set as a whole. And while it’s surely true the sounds of the Georgia Sea Islands are unique from those produced by any other region, there is also an immediate familiarity.

Much of what’s recognizable comes from the gospel fervor that was crucial in the formation of Soul music. But if passionate, as guided by the sure-voiced Jones, there is constant professionalism in the presentation (naïve is an inadequate term for anything here). A fine example is ‘60’s “Let Me Fly,” the harmony edgy yet complexly layered; it’ll definitely give even the most adept doo-wop group pause.

Providing extra instrumentation and further proof of the Island Singers’ flexibility are the Williamsburg tracks, with Jones, Davis, Morrison, and Alberta and Emma Lee Ramsey joined by banjoist/vocalist Hobart Smith, cane fife master Ed Young, and drummer Nat Rahmings. Smith was from Saltville, VA, Young hailed from Mississippi Hill Country, and Rahmings was a Bahamian traveling from Miami, so the addition of the Island Singers makes this a bona fide Old-Time/Folk summit.

Young’s trilling fife is superb on “Beulah Land,” but the seven minute tour de force “That Suits Me” showcases Smith’s banjo as his and Jones’ voice blend terrifically. It contrasts well with the relaxed atmosphere of the ’61-’62 solo tapes, the singer interchanging religious numbers like “Throw Me Overboard” and “This Train is a Clean Train” with secular pieces such as “Shoo Turkey,” “Going To Chattanooga,” the proto-playground smack talk of “Elephant Fair,” and even folk behemoth “John Henry,” complete with the appropriate sound-effect of a lonesome, indefatigable hammer.

The Peebles songs flow together as one track and offer a fascinating glimpse of a meeting that without Lomax’s coordination likely never would’ve happened. While less ragged and raw than the duo of Blind Willie and Angeline Johnson, this is still potent guitar evangelism that kicks into high gear via Peebles’ extended notes and Jones’ plain counterpoint in “Just a Little Talk with Jesus.”

Peebles was an occasional associate of fellow gospel bluesman Rev. Gary Davis, the blind guitarist appearing here on “Before This Time Another Year,” an ardent entry from ’65 Central Park, but to really absorb the Georgia Sea Island Singers’ deftness at crowd pleasing lend an ear to “Read ‘Em, John,” the Newport preview’s joyous and succinct opener exuding the influence of both the Bahamas and Africa.

A trailing off of value is a recurring issue with retrospectives spanning beyond a single disc, but not here, for Get in Union’s latter portion resonates as strongly as its beginning; the four short but intense songs from Newport in ’66 document a distinct all-female lineup of singers, a quartet of Jones, Mable Hillary, Janie Hunter, and Emma Lee Ramsey.

Indeed, Salsburg has hit the perfect spot between plentiful and overabundant. This isn’t the last word on Bessie Jones, for her ‘70s albums for Rounder are very much of interest, but for anyone assembling a shelf of American folk forms it’s an indispensable acquisition. Tompkins Square picks up Grammy nominations the way some incur speeding tickets; with Get in Union they just might get another.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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