The African-American folklorist: Bessie Jones


Born Mary Elizabeth Jones on February 8, 1902 in Smithville, Georgia, Bessie Jones is the conduit for traditional black expression. Her life of teaching, service and singing led her to be the lead vocalist for the Georgia Sea Island singer who dazzled audiences with the sound of Gullah traditions. From children’s games to dark spirituals and ringing shouts, Jones became something of a folklorist as she taught scholars and others based on her informal training in Gullah culture. One of his biggest accomplishments outside of touring and the Bessie Lomax documentary is being responsible for Black Spirituals as a representation of the civil rights movement. Eric Crawford, has a doctorate. in musicology and has done extensive research on the rich tradition of Gullah music, and featured in Henry Lewis Gate’s recent documentary “Reconstruction: America after the Civil War” helps share Bessie’s story with us.

LamontJack Pearley: Bessie Jones was a vehicle for black culture and traditions expressed through songs, plays and movement games. She gained notoriety through her recordings and documentary films, preserving ringing cries and field cries with the Lomaxes. She was also the lead singer of the Georgia Sea Island Singers. What most don’t know is that she played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement using black spirituals, Eric Crawford has a Ph.D. in musicology. And he studies the rich tradition of Golan music. He says many civil rights leaders did not want to use black spirituals. It was an intense moment, but Bessie Jones stood up!

Eric Crawford: This is a defining moment. Think about civil rights now, a lot of them were well educated. Doctors, masters degrees, but this woman with a fifth grade education, oh my God, stands up and says, this music, that got us to this point now, would be the same music that will get us from now on!

LamontJack Pearley: Although Jones stopped going to formal school at the age of 10, his extraordinary life experiences, from field work to childcare and immersion in the blues, work songs and screams prepared her for her destiny.

Eric Crawford: The idea of ​​teaching, you know, this difficult time, and when she knew her purpose was to teach, you know, and you know, she was like, look, that’s one way we have to go here.

LamontJack Pearley: Jones’ position indicates that it was not just the music that was the driving force behind the movement. It was a particular type of music.

Eric Crawford: One of the things about the spiritual, which I think is unique, you know, these simple, often simple words that can sometimes be very complex now, but these songs that, you know, I don’t care how serious things are, there there is something in their singing that brings a sense of peace, a joy. I don’t know if it’s just a sense of lore, the backstory of how it happened. But these songs that are community, now need someone to call and a group to answer.

Eric Crawford: She had so much impact in certain areas, culture, family first I’m sure, for the faith of the singers of St. Simons Island, civil rights. And I think this generation now, you know, we see it in Ranky Tanky, in the fact that Gullah Geechee is becoming more and more well-known, and with that, we should remember as a tribute to Bessie Jones.


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