Bunched together in a tight circle, a half-dozen south Georgia churchgoers begin to sway and clap to the beat of a broom handle striking the floor. Then they break out in song, extend their arms and flap them up and down like birds.
And finally they shout—a wrenching, aching shout that echoes through the pews.
Having moved chairs and benches to make room for this long enduring African-American art form, the rest of the congregation retorts with amens and fervent cries of their own, much as their kinfolk did centuries ago.
“I thought the shout was something that everyone in the world did,” says Carletha Sullivan, one of the original members of the McIntosh County Shouters, still touring at age 68. “I’ve been doing it since I was six.”
As Sullivan notes, the ring shout, or holy dance, is still alive and vigorous in the tiny enclaves from which it sprang, despite concerns that it had faded away.
In their 30th year, the Shouters have turned this near-extinct African-American ritual into the centerpiece of a live act that has garnered critical acclaim around the country. Moreover, its revival is considered crucial by musicologists as they trace the beginnings of a wide swath of musical idioms, including blues, jazz and gospel.
A hybrid of music, dance, shuffling and percussive stick maneuvers, the elaborate ring shout originated in west Africa and, unbeknown to many, survived for generations in the barrier islands off Georgia’s seacoast and in other black strongholds. In its earliest American incarnation, the shout served as the sole communication between slaves, who were forbidden to converse.
“The ring shout, always accompanied by spirituals, was certainly the most dramatic of all the surviving Africanisms of homesick slaves,” says Robert Darden, author of People Get Ready: A New History of Black Gospel Music.
“It endured in part because in most states the slaves worked ferociously to keep its presence hidden from their masters, devising elaborate plans and early warning systems,” Darden explains.
“Regardless of its specific origin, the ring shout became an integral part of the African-American services in the South long before the Civil War, when it became a mainstay of Sunday afternoons. The form was so resilient that it continued deep into the 20th century, and may still be practiced in isolated communities today.”
Rescued from extinction
The group has an impressive résumé. From their early days of performing in churches, talent shows and on university campuses, the Shouters have branched out to more prestigious venues, including stages in New York and Boston. A Smithsonian exhibit has featured them, as has a CNN special. One reviewer praised a Shouters concert for its “unaffected vitality,” adding, “It was a joyous and affirmative experience.”
Before the troupe brought the ring shout before national audiences, it had been in a steep decline; while the tradition had been passed down through the generations, many African-American communities in McIntosh and other southeast counties were losing population, along with historical memory. Called Gullah or Geechee, the native black culture of coastal Georgia and South Carolina was being diluted by gentrification, posh new developments and an influx of well-to-do outsiders.
The shout, as it’s known, has attracted folklorists since antebellum days. As far back as the 1840s, visitors to plantations in Darien, Briar Patch and Sapelo Island told of an archaic mystical rite—part chanting, part shuffling—performed by a circle of slaves. During the Depression, however, interviewers from the Federal Writers Project warned that the tradition was on the brink of extinction.
In the 1940s, folklorist Lydia Parrish visited McIntosh County, just above Brunswick, and collected shout songs. Since the ceremony (at least during slavery) had to be a secret to avert the plantation overseers, it took a lot of cajoling to get the locals to perform for a white outsider. Parrish encouraged the formation of the Georgia Sea Island Singers, whose concerts featured the spirituals sung during the ring shout. More recently, retired University of Georgia folklorist Art Rosenbaum wrote a book Shout Because You’re Free: The African-American Ring Shout Tradition in Coastal Georgia, which he based on 16 years of research.
Most of it took place in the Bolden community along state Highway 99, a tight-knit, extended family of Gullahs settled by seven sisters. Most, if not all of the Shouters, are related by blood or marriage. Identifiable by the lilt in their voices and their insularity, as many as nine or 10 shouters go on the road to appear in concerts.
Born to shout
As Sullivan tells it, you’re either born into the ring shout or you aren’t, and those who try to master it as adults face a nearly insurmountable learning curve. The Shouters, who move counter-clockwise, keep their feet on the ground and don’t cross their legs as they act out hymns, many of which draw directly from scripture.
“My mother was one of the originals, and I remember my granddaddy doing it,“ she says.
As a child, Sullivan recalls her people filing into church on the eves of Christmas and New Years for an all-night shout, which she refers to as “hallelujah time.”
“The stickman would grab the broom from the corner and start the rhythm, and everyone else would join in,” Sullivan recalls. “There was coffee and biscuits, and we would sleep for a while on the wooden benches—they were hard back then—and wake up and shout again.”
On reflection, Sullivan says, the ceremony was not the only treat awaiting a little girl.
“It was the only time I was allowed to stay up all night,” she says.
McIntosh County Shouters
Patriarch: Lawrence McKiver (Note: Mr. McKiver died March 25, 2013, at the age of 97. Read the New York Times obituary).
Stickman: Harold Evans
Basser and Clappers: Freddie Palmer, Alberta Sallins, L.C. Scott
Shouters: Venus McKiver, Rebecca Wallin. Carolyn Palmer, Carletha Sullivan
Narrator: Bettye Ector