The McIntosh County Shouters. Photo: Daniel Sheehy
Athens, GA, April 27, 2016
Ned Sublette: How did you get involved with the ring shout?
I’m involved with many, many genres of traditional music, which I’ve loved and followed since I was a kid. I recorded old-time blues in my hometown of Indianapolis, I’ve recorded banjo players in East Kentucky, I’ve recorded fiddlers in Iowa, I’ve recorded migrant farmworkers in Michigan when I was scarcely out of my teens. I was a college student, and I went over to migrant farmworker camps and heard what they were doing.
I was also a product of the folk music revival. My parents had the Almanac Singers' labor song records, sitting around the house. I admired Pete Seeger’s banjo playing, and took up the five-string banjo in my high school years. So I was interested in a lot of traditional music—not so much in pop offshoots of folk music. I learned out of interest in the people, and also trying to do a little on my own, and then I realized I was doing something of documentary value, so some of the work I did came out on records, and I did some writing as the years went along. That would be a long story to tell all those different aspects of this interest.
But to get back to the ring shout: We moved to Georgia in ‘76, when I got a teaching job here at University of Georgia and moved here from Iowa. I started looking for different types of traditional music, and met some really fine mountain musicians not too far from here, up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The first week we were in Georgia, we went down to Sapelo Island on the Georgia coast. We didn’t encounter the ring shout, but we met what’s now called the Gullah Geechee folks—you know some people came out of the tradition who are on Sapelo Island, and did some singing and storytelling. I recorded a lot of religious singing right here in Athens, Georgia, in the African-American community. Lined-out hymns and gospel songs and spirituals. I’ve met some really good musicians.
I got involved with the Georgia Folklore Society, which my friend George Mitchell was keeping going at that time. He’s a blues researcher and organized some traditional music festivals in Atlanta in those years, the ‘70s. The Georgia Folklore Society was not a very highly structured organization, didn’t have a journal or anything like some other state folklore societies, but mainly existed to have some events like these festivals in Atlanta, and to help with other people who are trying to have some kind of public interest in the sustaining of folk music and traditional music—and not only music, some material culture too, some traditions. And among the things we did, we got connected with Frankie and Doug Quimby in Brunswick, Georgia, who were in the Georgia Sea Island Singers, the old group that had been going on for decades, doing coastal traditional singing, including the shanties and spirituals and ring plays and shout songs. The ring shout as such had died out in their community—I think, probably in the '30s or '40s, although they continued to do a lot of the ring shout songs, like “Eve and Adam” and “Blow Gabriel.” They had really strong singers, Bessie Jones and John Davis, and Mabel Hillary, and then later Frankie and Doug Quimby.
Frankie and Doug heard that there were some people in McIntosh County who did the old-fashioned ring shout on Watchnight, to welcome in the New Year, and that it was still going on, that they would beat a broomstick on the floor. They wanted to see if they could get them to perform at their festival.
Their festival was a little controversial in the black community at that time, because they presented very proudly some of the old slave traditions—the fanning of the rice, and these old songs, and some of the people said, “Well, we don’t want to evoke those memories. We’ve moved on from there,” but Frankie and Doug thought that these old traditions had value and showed what people had gone through, so they kept it going, and they were interested that there was a ring shout community. And I didn’t go on this particular trip. Fred Fussell and George Mitchell and the Quimbys went to McIntosh County and met an old deacon, Deacon Jim Cook, and he took them to see Laurence McKiver, who lived in the Bolden community in McIntosh County—it’s a mainland community just a couple of miles from the interstate, and they had a continuous ring shout tradition there. They didn’t let it go by, as one of the songsters said. It’d been pretty widespread in different churches in different parts of the community, but there was this one community, Bolden community, which is also called Briar Patch community, they had an unbroken tradition.
In the old days they would have the ring shout from Christmas to New Year’s, to the Watchnight. They’d have a shout on Christmas and then they would go from house to house during the week. It was kind of like a festival, because the crops were all laid by, and it was a time of celebration, eating, and they would have these shouts. And you were talking before about these houses that were on sills, you know, like on rocks. One thing Laurence McKiver said was that when they’d have a shout, they’d go to someone’s house, and the movement would cause the rocks that were supporting the house to shift and the house would sort of fall off the rocks because the movement of the whole little house, and the next day the folks would go back and pick up the house and put it back on the sill.
Last summer we talked to an old man named Mr. Skipper, who was in his 90s, who had moved away from the community, but he said that whole week was a big festival week. Everyone was very festive and people who had moved away from the community came back, and there were these shouts all over the community for a whole week, and he thought that things had dwindled down quite a bit when he moved back to the community in his older years. Nonetheless, they did have a continuing tradition, and they had some very strong singers and people who were very dedicated to the tradition, and could articulate why it was important to them.
Anyway, we didn’t meet them on that initial trip, but we first heard them when they performed in 1980 at the Sea Island Festival. They did a stage performance, where they dressed in old-time clothes, women wore long skirts with long sleeves and head rags, and the men wore overalls. Deacon Cook introduced some of the songs, and Laurence McKiver did, and they would do the shout songs and explain to people what they meant and what the references were that had been passed down from the generations from their slave ancestors. It was very moving. Alan Lomax was there, and Bess Lomax Hawes was there. He went to the community the next day. I think he tried to follow up on it, and I don’t know how that worked out, but we did go back to the community subsequent times. We went to three or four Watchnight shouts, and also did interviews and also did recordings, and a documentary film. It became a group. That was when they called themselves the McIntosh County Shouters, and when they made that decision to take a tradition that they had no idea would be something that would be a performance mode for the outsiders and perform for the public, that was a big change.
The Georgia Sea Island Singers had been performing for the public or for people in these fancy hotels since the '40s. They went to the Newport Folk Festival, they went everywhere, and they kept the authenticity of what they did, in my opinion. But this particular community hadn’t done that. Their tradition was pretty much integral to the life of the community. And some of the members of the community, like Rev. Nathan Palmer, who was one of the older singers, was not interested in performing for the public. I don’t think he approved. And he didn’t want to be interviewed. He was cordial when you talked to him, but he was not that interested in bringing that tradition to the public.
But Laurence McKiver was. He said, we want to tell our story, and, he said, “Our people came up the rough side of the mountain.” I got that quote in an interview, and it was quoted in his obituary in the New York Times, when he died about four years ago at the age of 97. He was a very wise and interesting and articulate person. But that’s how I got interested in it, and I did these follow-up projects, writing a book for the University of Georgia Press, Shout Because You’re Free, which also had background from people who observed the ring shout back in the 19th century, and different commentary, and also some interviews with people in the community, and there was a chapter by Johan Buis, an ethnomusicologist on the faculty here at the University of Georgia, who got into the Afro-Arabic connections. He could do it. He was a musicologist. I’ve been called a musicologist but I’m not. I don’t have that technical training.
But you’ve been around it, you’ve heard it, you know what it is.
Oh yeah, I know what ethnomusicology is, and I know that I don’t have the expertise to do that kind of analysis.
But you’ve been around the music.
Oh yeah, I know the music.
What is a ring shout?
The ring shout is a tradition of African origin. The participants will tell you that. They’ll say, “our ancestors brought it from Africa.” Lawrence McKiver said the first one they did when they got off the slave ship was, "knee bone in the wilderness, knee bone bend," because they were praying, they didn’t know where they were. So people within the community and the tradition, and outsiders, said, “Well, this has to be an African tradition.” Back in the Civil War days when the Sea Islands in South Carolina were taken over by the Northern forces, and teachers and journalists came down, they said, “Well, this surely is an African survival,” and they were right, because it had the elements of African rhythm and then the counterclockwise circle movement.
The ring is a circle that moves in a counterclockwise direction, and Lorenzo Dow Turner, the linguist, said that "shout" is really not an exclamation, "shout" is an English word that is derived from an Arabic word, saut, which is the dance around the Kaaba in Mecca, so he made that connection with the Islamic tradition, because there is a carryover of some Islamic culture in the coastal regions.
The participants say [that] the shouters are the ones who do the movement. They say it’s not exclamation, it’s not shouting out, but the movement is the shout, and they differentiate it from dance. In dance, you cross your feet and your feet can come up off the floor. They say that that would be inappropriate, that the shout, what you have to do is just shuffle with one foot moving a little bit ahead of the other, and that’s to remember the ancestors and honor them and also—well, Christianity came into it, and the religion, as gradually the enslaved Africans were Christianized and so there are biblical references in many—not all—of the shout songs.
So the characteristics are call-and-response singing. In this community, they have a body of songs that they call shout songs. They’re different from the spirituals or hymns that would be sung in church. There are songs that are only sung as part of the ring shout. In other places there’s a little overlap or there might be some mutual influence, but they’ll say, this is a shout song. There’s a leader or a songster and a group of responding singers who are called "basers," who will respond, and some of the people in the ring will also sing. So it’s call and response. In this community the stick is very important. It used to be a broomstick—they’d get a broomstick out of the closet, any stick, and beat on the floor and that it make a [demonstrates]. That was the characteristic 123-123-12, but there are variations on it, and there’s handclapping and foot-patting, but that was the percussion. So the elements were the call-and-response singing and the circular movement, and also, the people in the ring would sometimes do gestures or pantomimes that related to the content of the song.
The words of the songs were not just incidental to a shout; they were very specific. Like if they were doing “Shout Daniel,” I was told, and they’ll tell you to this day, that Daniel was not the Daniel of the Bible, it was a slave Daniel who stole meat from the master’s smokehouse. The master thought the slaves were just having a party, but they were singing a song to tell Daniel how to get out, to flee from the master who would give him the whiplash, so they would say, “shout Daniel, shout,” so they’d do the normal shout movement, and then they’d say, “go the other way,” and they would actually reverse and start moving in a clockwise direction, or “do the eagle wing,” where the participants would sort of wave their arms as if they were flying. Or then they’d say, “rock, Daniel, rock,” for which they would do a kind of hip movement, almost a suggestive kind of movement of the hip which they called the rock movement, kind of like what you were talking about with in Louisiana.
In the Easter Rock recordings, the lead singer sings, “rock, children, rock.”
Yeah, they talk about rock as a kind of movement and they say, well, we don’t do it all out of line, we do it with dignity. Some of the early descriptions of the ring shout from back in the middle of the 19th century talk about the shouters going into a kind of ecstatic state.
In my observation, the energy builds up through performance of the shout. Particularly when it’s not on the stage. On the stage, they want to preserve the authenticity of what they do, both in the feeling and in the performance, but they do shorter performances. In the longer ones, they’ll build up more energy, but they don’t get the spirit and get carried away. They say that you have to have a kind of control and dignity. They admired the old sisters. The old sisters were the daughters of London and Amy Jenkins, the slave couple that gave them most of their tradition. Lawrence McKiver’s mother was one of them. But they say those old sisters, you know, they would just do it perfect, and if you were a youngster and you tried to participate with them and you didn’t do it right they’d pop you out of the ring until you learned how to do it right. They wouldn’t instruct you, but you’d just have to observe and watch, so there was a strong element of control to it. It wasn’t just doing something ecstatic. That was my observation, and they will say the same thing.
It’s interesting how the term “shouting” is used very broadly, like for people getting the spirit and falling out in church. If you go to a black church here in Athens, Georgia, somebody will start shouting, which means they’re moving. It has to do with moving rather than exclamation. I heard once on a gospel radio station here, someone said, “Oh, come to such and such a church on Wednesday night for a service and bring your shouting shoes.” If you’re singing or exclaiming, that doesn’t have to do with shoes, so the association with movement is still associated with shouting, even in a place like this, where they don’t do the classical ring shout that we’re talking about.
Now, you saw the Louisiana video just now. As far as you can see, this is a ring shout, right?
Yeah, I would say so. It’s a movement in a counterclockwise circle. Not that I’m the decider! But I know there a lot of offshoots of the ring shout and there are different kinds of processionals done in black churches. I’ve even seen that in Primitive Baptist black churches in middle Georgia where after the end of the service, people sort of walk around in a circle and sing and shake hands. So there are all kinds of offshoots. What the community in Macintosh County, Georgia has carried on is, I think remarkable, and it has not only the repertoire, but the performance style is so close to the earlier descriptions. But what you showed me seems to be definitely a variant of the ring shout. I was very excited to see that, that was amazing.
Are there other groups in Georgia besides the McIntosh County Shouters that are still doing ring shouts with historical continuity, or is this something that has pretty much died out except for this, as far as you can tell? Are there little country churches where there are still . . . ?
I haven’t heard of any, but there might be. Someone told me that they saw a sign in front of a church in South Carolina saying, “ring shout Wednesday night.” I didn’t follow up on that. I think it must be kind of a revival, because now there’s a strong influence in Gullah Geechee culture.
It’s like—well, Dewey Balfa, the Cajun fiddler, when we met him back in the early ‘70s, he came up to play in Iowa City, and he said, “If someone had told us we’d be playing Cajun music in Iowa, they’d have laughed at us. The good news is that Cajun is in, the bad news is that Cajun is in.” The bad news was Gullah Geechee was —like, the people in this community, and McIntosh County, said that the older people in particular spoke a very strong dialect. And they were criticized for it by other people in the community, even by other black people in the community, and then when they started performing for the public they were also criticized because, like, “Why are you doing that?” Now things have changed and now there’s a lot of interest in Gullah Geechee. There have been revivals. I think there might be some revivals in South Carolina.
I would not be surprised if there were little enclaves in different places. I mean, there were ring shouts in the late 1800s reported in Alabama, and then there were offshoots, the modified forms, that cropped up—everywhere, like, as I was saying earlier, James Baldwin said that there were ring shouts in Harlem churches.
And when the Holiness people started organizing churches back—oh, that would’ve been about the beginning of the 20th century—the call-and-response type of singing that was in the shout songs became a large part of that style of singing, which is different from the earlier spirituals or hymns, so that might have given a little impetus. But in McIntosh County, there is another group that does public performances, and I think they call themselves the Darien Gullah Shouters [Darien Geechee-Gullah Shouters], or something like that. I’ll just say plain that the original McIntosh County shouters, their motto is, “often imitated, never duplicated,” or something like that. They believed that they have a firmer grip on the tradition then this other group, and it could be, and this has to be sorted out. But this other group—they do say that they are honoring the tradition and presenting it.
I think it may be something like bluegrass, like Bill Monroe first thought everyone was ripping off his sound, when they imitate the way he did bluegrass, but really it was a kind of a re-energizing of a music form in a broad community, so maybe the ring shout is kind of being revived, and proliferated in the coastal areas now by performing groups who do it not necessarily as a continuous community tradition but as something to honor their heritage. But that’s the other group that I know of. As I say, there could be some other small rural places we don’t know anything about that we could find out that they’re doing something like the ring shout.
But until you played the recordings you’d made just now, I hadn’t really encountered anything that has continuous roots that was as close to the old ring shout as what they were doing in Louisiana. That was really exciting.
Of all the recordings I’ve made all these years, I’ve never had an experience like that, at least not in the United States.
I was mentioning that there’s a recording the Lomaxes made—I forget if it was John or Alan or both of them—that they called a ring shout, I think it was “Run Jericho,” I think it was in the '40s, and I think it was in Louisiana, as I remember it, but it was definitely a call-and-response shout song, and I think the story was that the elders of the community were trying to teach it to the young people, to keep it going. It was very spirited.
Tell me about the new McIntosh County Shouters record that’s coming.
The group is celebrated. They have a National Heritage award, and I think their tradition is going to be part of the new Smithsonian African-American Museum when it opens in the fall, and I think partly to honor that they’re doing a second issue. Back in the '80s, I produced a recording of the McIntosh County shouters called Slave Shout Songs from the Coast of Georgia. Those were recordings I made. Some were made when the group assembled just for the purpose of recording in the annex of the church, and a couple of tracks were made actually at the ring shout.
Which ones were made at the ring shout? Do you remember?
One of them was “Time Drawing Nigh” with the Reverend Palmer. They said, “One for the new year, Rev.” His nephew, Freddie Palmer, is now probably the main songster of the present day group, and he’s an excellent singer. He knows a lot of old spirituals—I gotta go back and record some of his spirituals, which are different from the shout songs. Actually, the new recording that Smithsonian Folkways is putting out will have a couple of spirituals and a couple of hymns as well as the shout songs. Freddie sounds a lot like his uncle, who was never part of the organized group but he did sing at this Watchnight shout.
Tell me about the Watchnight shout . . .
When I went to the first Watchnight Shout, I was a little surprised, because the first exposure, as I’d said earlier, was at a festival on the stage, where they were dressed in old-time costumes, announcing what they were doing, and doing it in a rather formal but beautiful way.
And when I went to the actual Watchnight shout, after the prayer meeting in the church—one thing I should emphasize is that the ring shout—I think it might be different from what you encountered in Louisiana—but the ring shout was not part of the church service. It was something that happened afterwards, and if the minister would not approve, the folks would go to a praise house, or a private house, or a barn or something, but it was not part of the actual prayer meeting or the church service. In this particular community the church is Mount Calvary Baptist Church, and in the same spirit, they don’t include the ring shout as part of their church service, but at midnight, to welcome in the New Year, they turn off the lights and they turn them on, and then the people went to the annex of the church which they had built with a wooden floor. The old church, they said they’d push the benches away and had a wooden floor, so they could do the movement and also have the resonance of the stick. The new church had pews, attached to the cement, carpeted floor. But the annex had a wooden floor.
I expected to see the ring shouts sort of like they were on the stage, and instead, they had a lot of food, and people were eating, and there was a lot of socializing. And then I started hearing the stick, and I saw some people moving around a little bit and singing songs.
And they were actually doing the ring shout, but it seemed a little disorganized. I asked Lawrence McKiver about that on a subsequent visit, and I said, “Well, what was that all about?” I was wondering whether what they did on the stage, was that more structured or choreographed for the public? And he said, “No, they were doing it right, the way the old sisters did it.” What we’d seen was, you know, people came from New York and one place or the other, people moved away from the community and came back, and a lot of people weren’t doing it properly, and some of them were trying to do it, but it wasn’t really the way it should have been done. But what they did on the stage, they were really trying to do it like their old aunties did it. That was interesting to me. Other subsequent ring shouts were a little more like what you’d see on the stage.
Henry Glassie said, “Context is not in the eye of the beholder, but in the mind of the creator.” So when you think about someone doing a traditional music or dance form on the stage, is that taken out of context, or to what extent is the context embedded in the participant? And you really sense that with the McIntosh County Shouters. Even though they have gone to the public and are aware that certain things will add a little of what they call stagecraft to what they do, they say that that core of the tradition is being honored.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about this before I let you go?
Well, I’m just really glad that this group is going on. If you talked to Brenton Jordan, you know, he says he hopes it will go on for another 300 years. And it’ll be different, because they’re aware of outside interest, and they’re also aware that it’s like a seminal core of a lot of subsequent forms of African-American and also American culture. I’ve played recordings that I’ve made of the ring shout and people listen to it and say, “What’s so special about this? It sounds like gospel singing.” In some ways it’s very distinctive, because it’s a continuation of really strong local tradition and in another sense it’s part of a larger culture.
One thing that’s kind of interesting is that you hear people say, “Well, is this on some island?” And this community is a mainland community. There’s a kind of a romanticizing notion that these old traditions would survive on an island, on the coastal islands rather than on the mainland. And nearby is Sapelo Island, which used to have about six or seven black communities and rice plantations. Now there’s only one black community and there’s no school, so kids have to go to the mainland and you can only get to Sapelo by boat. Other islands like St. Simons have been gentrified. Bessie Jones told me once when I was driving her to her home in a small black community that was still there on St. Simons, she says, “and if you want to hit a little ball with a stick, this is the island for you!” [Laughs]
So the islands are gentrified, the taxes are going up. This community is on the mainland, it’s two miles from the interstate highway. And of course, there’s been some emigration, people went up north and other places to find jobs, but a lot of people stayed in the community, and they could drive to work on the docks in Brunswick, or drive to work in the fishery plants, and also the fact that was on the mainland was one of the things that kept the community fairly viable. But also, there were some people who were very dedicated to the tradition, and it meant a lot to them, like Rev. Palmer and Oneitha Ellison, and especially Lawrence McKiver.