On Thursday, Feb. 25th, 2016, the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress and the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE) donated digital copies of 65 hours of recordings and 120 photographs featuring the Georgia Sea Island Singers between 1935 and 1966 to the Coastal Georgia Historical Society in St. Simons.
This historic repatriation of materials collected by premier musicologist and founder of the ACE, Alan Lomax, culminated in an event at the A.W Jones Heritage Center celebrating the rich musical traditions of coastal Georgia and the performers who keep them alive. Guest speakers included Todd Harvey, curator of the Alan Lomax Collection at the Library of Congress, Anna Lomax Wood, Alan’s daughter and ACE president, and Frankie Quimby, leader of the Georgia Sea Singers since 1984.
The origins of the Georgia Sea Island Singers trace back to the early 1900s when an amateur folklorist and song collector named Lydia Parrish encountered an African American community in the relatively isolated coastal region of Georgia who sang and practiced many antebellum songs, shouts, and other traditions whose roots appeared to originate in West Africa. Parrish helped the community preserve these traditions by organizing the “Spiritual Singers Society of Coastal Georgia” and eventually published a collection of songs entitled Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands (1942). The first recordings of the group came in June of 1935 when Alan Lomax first visited St. Simons Island along with fellow folklorists Zora Neale Hurston and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle. That summer, Lomax, Hurston, and Barnicle recorded several dozen sides of the Singers’ sacred material for the Library of Congress.
When Lomax returned to St. Simons in 1959, in the throws of the Civil Rights Movement, he found much had changed in the 20 years he’d been gone–yet, the core of the “Spiritual Singers” remained intact. This time, however, the group had been strengthened by an important new voice: the singer Bessie Jones. Born in Dawson, Georgia in 1902, Jones moved to St. Simons with her husband in the 1940s and was welcomed into the tight-knit singing community and by the mid-1950s became the group’s iconic leader.
The Singers, along with Lomax, saw the role of the group as both a means to preserve these traditional songs and shouts as well as a large-scale educational project to teach them to children and adults alike. The Georgia Sea Island singers, as they were known starting in 1963, performed at music festivals, civil rights events, and college campuses across the country, including President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration.
Alan Lomax’s Association for Cultural Equity (ACE) has been continually dedicated to the repatriation of cultural documentation to their host communities. ACE collaborates with its local partners and libraries to arrange for the families and communities of the artists “to take part in a formal repatriation ceremony and be given copies of ‘their’ media.” With this repatriation, the Coastal Georgia Historical Society now houses an important collection of materials related to the significant music culture of the Georgia Sea Islands.