Many years ago, the great folklorist Alan Lomax said, “The Georgia Sea Islands are the home of the American song.” Today, the McIntosh County Shouters are the last group still keeping the “ring shouts” of coastal Georgia alive 80 years after Lomax first discovered them. All who listen to the Shouters will hear how much truth was in Lomax’s words.

Story by James Calemine  |  Photographs by Ansley West Rivers

 
 
 
 
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The Mount Calvary Baptist Church sits in a field surrounded by live oak trees in Bolden (aka Briar Patch), Georgia, right off Highway 99. The church is a one-story, cinder-block building with stained glass windows as well as an annex. The buildings are painted white with indigo-colored roofs. 

This rural church serves as the home of the McIntosh County Shouters — the oldest living African-American “ring shouters” surviving in North America.

Two miles away, Blackbeard Creek flows toward the Atlantic Ocean. No sign exists on Highway 99 to indicate that this heavily wooded stretch between Crescent and Eulonia, Georgia, incorporates the community of Bolden. You can’t find Bolden on Google Maps. Nonetheless, for decades, the attendees of Mount Calvary Baptist — organized in 1890 — and those living around here have referred to this slice of coastal Georgia as Bolden. St. Simons Island sits about 25 miles to the south, and Savannah 50 miles to the north.

Last September, the McIntosh County Shouters performed at the Freedom for Sounds festival celebrating the grand opening of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington D.C. In January 2017, the Smithsonian Folkways label released the McIntosh County Shouters’ latest recordings, “Spirituals & Shout Songs From the Georgia Coast.” This collection is part of Folkways’ African-American Legacy series, co-produced with the newly opened museum. This inimitable album captures the tragic and triumphant spirit of African-American song that survived the gauntlet of history.

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. This year, the group received a grant from the Georgia Council for the Arts to perform in McIntosh County schools during Black History Month.

I joined the Shouters for two performances in early February — the first at the Todd Grant Elementary School in the coastal town of Darien, Georgia, the same school Carletha Sullivan, the Shouters’ leader, attended over 65 years ago. A week later, I met them again in Darien, for a performance at the local high school.

These high school students didn’t know it yet, but they were about to witness the veritable McIntosh County Shouters — people from their own community whose ancestors were literally the original American songwriters, rappers and folk artists.

 
 
 
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The 20th century’s greatest collector of American folk-music recordings, Alan Lomax, once said, “The Georgia Sea Islands are the home of the American song.”

Lomax first recorded the Georgia Sea Island Singers in 1935 with writer Zora Neale Hurston. Lomax returned to the Georgia sea islands to record the group again in 1959. But the Sea Island Singers dissolved around 2006, leaving the McIntosh County Shouters as the last of their kind. It was the legendary founder of Folkways Records, Moses Asch, who first recorded the Shouters in 1983. The resulting album — still in print — was called “Slave Shout Songs From the Georgia Coast.” The Shouters practice the “ring shout” — a hypnotic counterclockwise shuffle accompanied by call and response singing, the percussion coming only from clapping hands and sticks beating drum-like rhythm on a wooden floor. But notably, during their performances, the McIntosh County Shouters do not cross their feet. Why? That would be considered dancing.

Art Rosenbaum, an imminent folklorist and professor emeritus at the University of Georgia, met the Shouters through the Georgia Sea Island Singers back in 1980, and he served as producer of the just released “Spirituals & Shout Songs” album, which includes new versions of a few of the shouts Asch had first recorded. Rosenbaum spent 16 years gathering material for his 1988 book, “Shout Because You’re Free: The African Ring Shout Tradition in Coastal Georgia” and a related documentary for public television titled “Down Yonder With the McIntosh County Shouters.” In his book, Rosenbaum incorporates oral histories, first-person accounts, musical transcriptions and photographs of the group.

One of the oldest Bolden community members, Benjamin Skipper, born in 1924, told Rosenbaum he remembered ring shouts being performed after midnight every year on “Watch Night,” which commemorates gatherings of African-Americans on New Year’s Eve in 1862, who came together to await President Abraham Lincoln’s January 1, 1863, signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

“It was a community thing,” Skipper said. “People came from all over McIntosh County … to me it was a form of entertainment. I just enjoyed watching the older folks participate in the activity of shouting. … It was a joyful, joyful feeling.”

Rosenbaum describes the group’s musical origin in a historical context:

“The elements of the slave ring shout come from West Africa. The ring shout is also related to African-derived traditions in Brazil, Cuba, and many other locations in the African diaspora. In places like Bolden/Briar Patch and St. Simons Island along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts, distinctly African and Afro-Caribbean cultural forms survived longer than they did inland.

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“There are many reasons why: the areas were closer to the points of slaves’ declaration; tribal and 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 left supervision to black overseers due to the difficult climate, with the result that there were fewer whites in proportion to blacks than farther inland; and 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.”

In “Shout Because You’re Free,” McIntosh County Shouter Catherine Campbell talked to Rosenbaum about the spiritual community around Bolden, Georgia, and how it molded the group’s identity: “The only people can shout is right here. Calvary (Church) was the stopping place of the shout because we kept the tradition going. We never let it go by.”

Along with Campbell, the original McIntosh County Shouters included Lawrence McKiver, Lucille Holloway, Oneitha Palmer Ellison, Jerry Reed, Harold Evans, Vertie McIver, Catherine Campbell, Elizabeth Temple, Doretha Skippers, Bo Palmer, Thelma Ellison and Odessa Young.

McKiver, in 1994, attributed the survival of the Shouters’ tradition to Mount Calvary Baptist: “All them churches dropped the shout, but Calvary never dropped it.”

Lydia Parrish’s brilliant 1942 book, “Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands” features some of the earliest shout songs from the Georgia coast. The sea islands contain many stories, lore and songs brought from Africa. In his book, “Early Days on the Georgia Tidewater,” Buddy Sullivan wrote about the merciless terrain surrounding Bolden:

“The McIntosh County climate was very demanding. Hot, humid summers and the rice fields and tidal marshes made for a perfect combination of breeding mosquitoes. Many slaves died from disease and the attrition created by constant nuisances of mosquitoes, sand gnats, alligators, and poisonous snakes…”

 
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From those centuries of tradition, the McIntosh County Shouters keep their unique music alive. The group now consists of Carletha Sullivan, Freddie Palmer, L.C. Scott, Alberta Sallins, Carla Jordan, Carolyn Palmer, Brenton Jordan and narrator Vanessa Carter — all of whom from descend the family of London and Amy Jenkins, a couple who were born as slaves.

This present generation of McIntosh County Shouters have cultivated a formidable repertoire — and become an American treasure. In 2006, Smithsonian Folkways reissued “Slave Shouts From the Coast of Georgia.” The same year, they received the Governor’s Award in the Humanities in Georgia. Later, they performed at the John F. Kennedy Center as well as the Library of Congress. In 2008, the group was named Master Artists by the National Endowment for the Arts for keeping a Gullah-Geechee heritage alive.

In 2009, the McIntosh County Shouters were included in the Grammy-winning Dust To Digital box set titled “Art of Field Recording Volume 1” for Best Historical Album. The following year, they were honored by the NAACP.

The Shouters earned their singular place in American music history because they persevered through the harsh realities of life and business. For generations, the elder McIntosh County Shouters encouraged young family members to preservethis rare tradition. But time takes its toll:  Original shouter Lawrence McKiver died on March 25, 2013, at the age of 97.

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

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

In early 2016, the McIntosh County Shouters began recording “Spirituals & Shout Songs From the Georgia Coast,” and last September, they delivered a moving performance at the opening of the Smithsonian African-American museum.

The youngest member of the group, Brenton Jordan explained to me what the Smithsonian performance last fall meant to him: “With the ring shout being the root and the core of American music [and] with the museum being the first dedicated solely to African-American art, history, and culture, it basically brought everything full circle. What better way to commemorate a monumental occasion such as the opening of the museum than with once again another monumental cultural experience given by the ring shout? To me, that was a big thing.”

But soon after that performance, tragedy struck. On December 10, 2016, Christopher Walcott passed away from heart failure at age 29. Walcott was one of the youngest members of the family, the son of narrator Vanessa Carter, grandson of Carletha Sullivan, and nephew of Carla Jordan.

Walcott’s early passing hit the family hard, and found the McIntosh County Shouters in a grief-stricken state by the time “Spirituals & Shout Songs from the Georgia Coast” was released in January 2017.

 
 
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Despite the devastating and unexpected loss, the Shouters are determined to carry on the tradition. Shouter Freddie Palmer represents the third generation of his family in the group.

“Having grown up in a culture where shouting was the highlight of Christmas holidays,” Palmer said. “I knew from early childhood that it was important for me and my brothers, sisters and cousins to keep this tradition alive. I remember the holidays and shouting for Watch Night was the only time I could stay out at night. Shouting was the way we welcomed in every new year. I vividly recall how the shouters would sing, go from house to house, and share the spirit of the holidays.

“Since the early 1980s, I’ve been part of a group of people who share this tradition with the public and with churches all over the South. It is a learned skill. Learned over many years and practiced thousands of times. It is a way of expressing ourselves and of celebrating life. Who’s going to take our place? I don’t know, but I do know that one of our songs we sing, ‘Blow Gabriel Blow’ is the kind of song that won’t let you forget it. There are younger people, our children and grandchildren who are training to fill our shoes…”

In the liner notes to “Spirituals & Shout Songs,” Shouter Brenton Jordan about his hopes for the group’s future.

“Hopes for the McIntosh County Shouters? Honestly … for there to be others in the community, in the bloodline of Amy and London Jenkins, to realize the gold mine that we have,” Jordan said. “Not gold as money, or finances, but gold in the sense of history and tradition: for them to grab hold of that, actually want to maintain it. To keep it going, want it to survive. To take time to learn. Learn how to clap, learn how to shout, learn the songs, the meanings of the songs.

“For me, I would want — this has survived for over 300 years to the present day, and my hope, my wish, my dream, is for it to survive another 300 years after I’m gone. That would be my biggest hope.”

 
 

“Spirituals & Shout Songs From the Georgia Coast,” produced by Art Rosenbaum and Daniel Sheehy, ranks as Grammy winning material. This collection, recorded in Savannah at Elevated Basement Studio, captures the ring shout as the oldest form of musical expression.

The package includes liner notes, songs origins and photographs. 17 tracks exist on this indelible project clocking in at 61-minutes that preserves the group’s raw vocal power. The only instruments on this collection are tambourine, vocals and an oak stick to keep rhythm on the floor. The contents of this package contain salvation, redemption, gospel and hard truths for anyone listening.

A story exists behind every song on “Spirituals & Shout Songs,” but essential gems span from the group’s inception to recent renditions. The triumphant track, “Jubilee”, was shouted since Emancipation. The sheer emotive force of “Believer, I Know” calls the listener to examine their own spiritual convictions. The graceful “Oh, My Loving Mother” epitomizes the unmitigated glory of the group. The Apocalyptic “In the Field We Must Die” verifies no one escapes tribulation in this life. “I Wade the Water to My Knees” can be traced back to the Ebo tribe that drown themselves in a river near St. Simons Island.

I grew up 100 yards from that river…

 
 
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McIntosh Academy — the local high school — is located about five miles from where the shrimp boats dock on the Darien River. It’s the same river where ships brought the first slaves from Africa. Darien is a quiet coastal town where fresh shrimp, fish, oysters and crab earn the town a living. I understood this February 13 high school performance would count as the last time I’d see the McIntosh County Shouters before my deadline, and I felt melancholy about it.  Who knew when I’d see them again?
 
The previous week, the group had encouraged the elementary school kids to join them to sing and shout along on the gymnasium floor. The Shouters performed in their signature attire: the men wearing blue overalls and straw hats while the women donned traditional African dresses. The McIntosh County Shouters’ ring shouts inspired high-powered fun for the kids.

Standing in the McIntosh Academy parking lot under a clear blue sky, as the seabreeze conjured a scent of azaleas, Freddie Palmer told me how his great, great grandmother — Amy Jenkins — met up with her husband and eventually earned their nearby Bolden land after the Emancipation.

“I can’t remember the plantation. The only thing I heard them tell was the Emancipation was signed. Amy was working down in Crescent, Georgia, and great grandad was working in Jesup. The lady came and told her, ‘they signed the paper — you are free.’ And she walked all the way down highway 99 to the other side of Ludowici where she met great grandad.”

Carletha Sullivan told me how things have attitudes have changed toward her community’s Gullah dialect: “Now, the African-Americans, most of the young folk have their own dialect they have created to be distinct, and different. Back in my day I guess they wanted us to speak more like the Caucasians, but being from the Bolden community, we had this dialect, because my grandparents spoke in that dialect, and we just picked it up.”

Sullivan’s daughter, Carla Jordan, took the point a little further: “I think one of the reasons they didn’t want them to speak in Gullah was because they didn’t understand what we were saying. Even those in McIntosh County didn’t understand us. If you weren’t from that community you didn’t know what we were saying. So, to them it was ‘Why are they speaking something we don’t understand?’

“Another reason the Gullah dialect was frowned upon by American or the Queen’s English standards, Gullah was improper English. Or baby talk. And because of that, a lot of people within the Gullah-Geechee community felt they spoke so bad it would keep them from getting opportunities or possibilities of success. Because you couldn’t understand what they were saying, it made it even more difficult to progress forward. They wanted them to mirror their European counterparts to basically fit into the American social norm. Now, in some areas, it’s still frowned upon, but not as heavily as it was when my grandmother was growing up. Now, it seems everyone and their mother now want to lay claim to being Gullah-Geechee. Gullah has gone through so many transformations through the years. My-great grandmother spoke in a very heavy Gullah accent.”

 
 
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Carletha Sullivan’s relatives never complained — even amid skepticism, personal difficulty, or hardship in turbulent cultural times. They remained graceful on their spiritual quest, and asked for nothing. In this day and age, these rare qualities render the group even more special. Carla Jordan explained to me how the Bolden community remains close-knit, hard working, and very private, especially in times of grief.

“Nobody complained because nobody besides us cared,” Jordan said. “I get my values from my relatives’ values. No matter what’s going on in our lives, we stick together. If one of us has a problem, we all have a problem. The problem gets fixed by the family. We don’t take our problems to other people or get them involved. We pray about everything, because in the end, God has the last word.”

Considering the eerie political atmosphere now, I asked Freddie Palmer if racism held the McIntosh County Shouters back in any way: “I don’t think so. One time, but not lately. When we go out, we mostly have a white audience. The type of culture we represent differs from everything else. They want to see this. So, no, we haven’t experienced racism or anyone saying anything negative to us. We never have that. We went to Kentucky one year, and the people really enjoyed it. It was a joyous occasion.”

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The rural landscape around Bolden, Georgia, has changed very little in two centuries: An old spirit lingers in these environs. Similarly, the Shouters’ music is tied up in this place. I think Carletha Sullivan captured the essence of the group when she told me, “The most important thing anyone needs to know about the ring shout? There was one set of people in McIntosh County that did it. There was never another. There is no other. There’s only one — the original McIntosh County Shouters, and they all came from Bolden, Georgia.”

At an early age, growing up on St. Simons Island, I listened to all types of music from Blind Willie McTell to Bessie Smith to John Coltrane. I was in high school when I first heard the McIntosh County Shouters. Today, in my eyes, they exist on the same ethereal plane with those blues and jazz luminaries. They are folk artists of the highest order.

The McIntosh Academy students watched in amazement as the artists demonstrated their redemptive ring shouts on the school auditorium stage. They showed the students irons, washboards and burlap bags used on plantations in the 19th century, and narrator Vanessa Carter spun slave stories between spirituals.

The Shouters encouraged them to clap and shout, and invited some to participate onstage. A couple of the students who joined in gave me high-fives as they exited the stage, wide grins on their faces.

I drove back to St. Simons on scenic Highway 17 with the windows down, listening to the shout “I Wade the Water to My Knees.” I looked out toward the revelatory high tide in the same timeless marsh the Shouters’ ancestors saw, and I understood the essence of the Shouters’ art: Life is short, time is precious, and prejudice impedes any spiritual journey.