Bessie Jones with the Georgia Sea Island Singers and Others
Get In Union: Recordings by Alan Lomax 1959-1966
Tompkins Square (released, October 28, 2014)
By Bob Marovich
Students of ethnomusicology and folk music enthusiasts fortunate enough to hear the two or three LPs of Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers can tell you the thrill of hearing the group’s music for the first time.
The singers’ dedication to preserving a music with roots that run all the way back to West Africa has enabled generations to hear something of the foundation of spirituals, the blues, jazz, gospel, and many other genres.
Thanks to Tompkins Square, a leader in black sacred music reissue projects, many thousands more can experience the Georgia Sea Island Singers with the release of Get In Union. And for those who have heard the group before, take heed: more than half of the 51 selections, recorded by Alan Lomax between 1959 and 1966, have not been issued publicly until now.
According to the informative album notes, written by Anna Lomax Wood and Grammy-nominated producer Nathan Salsburg, Jones’s encyclopedic knowledge of spirituals, work songs, play songs, humorous ditties, and other tune varietals came from her mother Julia and step-grandfather Jet Sampson. Sampson was born in Africa and sold into slavery as a child. Jones soaked in the “old time ways” living among her ancestors in South Georgia.
Some selections feature Jones singing unaccompanied (these comprise the majority of the previously unissued selections), while others spotlight the Georgia Sea Island Singers and friends singing in unison, harmony, and at times accompanied by guitar, bowl-shaped “slave” banjo, drum, and cane fife. Celebrated guitar evangelist Rev. Gary Davis appears on the energetic “Before This Time Another Year.” McKinley Peebles, who recorded for Paramount in 1926 as Sweet Papa Stovepipe, sings and plays guitar on several selections.
Vestiges of West African music are encased in the aural amber of Jones’ repertory. Polyrhythms abound, whether clapped out by the singers or thumped on the drum by Bahamian drummer Nat Rahmings. “Blow Gabriel,” “Walk Daniel,” “Read ‘Em, John,” and “Buzzard Lope” are among several selections that feature hand-clapping that establishes the ring shout rhythm. Antiphonal responses are frequent, as are rhythmic chants that sound as if they could have gone on for hours.
Echoes of the antebellum South prevail in the work song “John Henry,” where metal on metal mimics the rhythm of fatigued workers pounding iron rails into place. The harmonies on “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” and “Once There Was No Sun” may have their genesis in the shape note tradition. “One Morning Soon” elides the spiritual with the mournfulness of the long-meter hymn. Jones’s rendition of “Bob Young’s Raisin’ Up Song and Whoop” is NSFW but offers interesting details of rural life nonetheless.
“Live Humble,” performed in the jubilee jump/Biblical storytelling style of the Golden Gate Quartet, shows that even a group as committed to preservation as the Georgia Sea Island Singers was not entirely immune to modern influences.
Besides the music, Bessie Jones’s story, chronicled in the album notes, is a fascinating depiction of a woman whose life was anything but ordinary.
The sound quality of Get In Union, remastered by Salsburg from Lomax’s original tapes, is so clear you will swear the singers and musicians are performing in the next room, not a half-century ago and a world away. In sum, the set is an aural history lesson that in two hours teaches more about the unconquerable spirit of humanity than an entire semester of book learning.
Five of Five Stars
Pick: “Walk Daniel,” “Before This Time Another Year,” “That Suits Me.”