Baton Rouge, LA / New York, NY, April 20, 2016
Photos by Ned Sublette
Joyce Jackson: I’m Joyce Marie Jackson, I’m a professor in the Department of Geography and Anthropology at Louisiana State University, and I’m also director of the African and African-American studies program there. I have two degrees in music from L.S.U. in vocal performance, and got my Ph.D. at Indiana University in ethnomusicology and folklore, and I also have a background in cultural anthropology. It’s interdisciplinary, but I think they all work very well together.
I was interested in the cultural aspects of music, so I didn’t want another degree in vocal performance. When I went to Indiana I started taking these cultural classes and decided to specialize in African-American music. So I really looked at gospel music, sacred music. I did my dissertation on a cappella sacred quartets in the African-American community and since then I’ve done a lot of work in contemporary gospel music.
I’ve also looked at other aspects of music like the blues and jazz in the rural areas surrounding New Orleans. Because a lot of people think New Orleans is the mecca of jazz. But I tend to differ, because I see that—you know, I looked at about 130 musicians that performed and were based in New Orleans, but they all were born outside of New Orleans, and some of them actually honed their craft in their local communities and started bands before they went into New Orleans. And, of course, many of those jazz musicians also played sacred music—they had to be very versatile and they had a very wide repertoire.
Then I began to look at music in the diaspora, and looking at those connections with African-American music. I went to Senegal, because I was interested in looking a little more in depth at the work Gwendolyn Midlo Hall had done, where she talks about the fact that the first Africans brought into Louisiana came in from the Senegambia area. So that really piqued my interest back in the early '90s, and I started looking at traditions in West Africa. I was looking at the traditional healing rituals of women in the Lebou community in the fishing villages of West Africa. I started doing that actually by mistake, because I went in with my late husband J. Nash Porter, who was a documentary photographer, and he was basically sent there to do some photography with women healers who were coming to the U.S. by a Ford grant from Morehouse University. We went in to just do the photo shoots of all these rituals, and I had to do the interviews with the women, and that’s when I got interested in it. That led to the next project, to look at women’s rituals—sacred rituals per se, and healing rituals.
I had heard about the one in North Louisiana, the Easter Rock. So I decided to go look at that one. This was in about ‘94, ‘95, a few years after I left Senegal. So I began to look at these similarities in the circular movements and other aspects of the ritual. After that I looked at one in the Bahamas—again, following my husband going to do a shoot in the Bahamas, on the junkanoo celebration in Nassau. That’s when I heard about the secular rushing in the streets, and then somebody said, “but you know, it all started in the church, and you don’t see it too much here in Nassau but we certainly still have it on Andros Island,” which is the largest island in the Bahamas. It’s a family island, so there are not many tourists that go there. So I said, well, I’ve got to get to Andros Island.
So the next year he had to go back to shoot junkanoo [again], and after that we went on to Andros Island. We flew over there to shoot the rushing in the church, and so I was able to stay a while and interview people—and again, another circular ritual. They did this whole circle in the church, very similar to what the Easter Rockers are doing. Then I got a chance to go to Ghana. I took nine students from L.S.U. to Ghana on a service project for two weeks, and of course while I was there I decided to interview healers. It turned out that they invited me to some funerals. While I was there I went to three funerals, and all of them had these circular rituals—again. And they were depicting the ancestors, but again, doing these circular rituals around the deceased’s body. So—these were not really planned-out field trips, but it just so happened that I was able to see all these circles within Africa and the diaspora, so that is what brought me to doing more work on the Easter Rock, and trying to find out, how did all this start in North Louisiana?
Ned Sublette: So what is the Easter Rock?
The Easter Rock is a circular ritual that is done on the eve of Easter, that Saturday night before Easter, in North Louisiana. It’s sort of, I might say, a contemporary version of the ring shout, which is an African religious dance that was done first in Africa and then in the antebellum South. I have many accounts of that ritual, the ring shout, from various writers during the antebellum period, people who actually witnessed it. And even some in Congo Square, New Orleans, where, you know, George Washington Cable talks about it, and [Benjamin Henry] Latrobe, and so we have various accounts of the circular ritual in different areas of the South. But the way it is done in North Louisiana is very different from any of the other rituals that I have read about or have seen in any other areas of the South.
It’s very unique in that it’s in the northern part of the state, and it was found in four parishes in that area: that’s Franklin, Cattahoula, Tensas and Concordia Parish. And Franklin Parish is the only parish where it’s still taking place. It was in various rural plantation churches in these parishes.
And it was a pre-Civil War ritual. The earliest person that I’ve interviewed was 92 years old—this was some years back—and she told me that her mother and her grandmother Rocked. So we know that it is a pre-Civil War ritual that is still going on today.
Could you describe what happened that Saturday night in the True Light Church?
Well, of course what we saw was the result of days of preparation, because there’s a lot of preparation that is done before the actual ritual. And I’ll just give you some examples of that.
The women wear white. So days before, and sometimes months before, they will make dresses if they have new people that are doing the ritual, but they will definitely get their white dresses out and see if they needed hemming, or any type of repairing, and they will get their white dresses straight for that ritual. They all dress in white.
Historically, they have baked cakes. But now, they just buy ‘em from Walmart [Laughs]. But they have to have 12 cakes, so you have to prepare those cakes for the ritual. They also get red punch, which at one time was, I was told, homemade wine, you’d have to bring that also to the ritual. They get oil for the lamps, because they have to have so many lamps to put on the table. So there’s preparation. You have to clean the church—the Easter cleaning, or the spring cleaning, of the church—and you have to go in and you have to reconfigure the benches, the pews, so they push those back to the sides so that they would have the center of the church to move around in. So there’s a lot of preparation that is done before the actual ritual.
So when the ritual starts that Saturday night, all this has been done already. The audience comes, the congregation settles in, in the church or on the pews around the sides of the church, and then you have a program, and this program consists of the basic program format or devotion in the church—usually, devotion goes on before the actual church service—but this devotional also happens in this church before the Easter Rock begins. It doesn’t start when they first walk in. You have to do the regular devotional period of the program. So you have someone to welcome the congregation, and then you have another person to accept the welcome. You have other people to sing. Sometimes there were even quartets that would perform at these events. And then you have soloists, sometimes they would have congregational singing, and I’ve even been there when they would let people do their poetry.
The night we were there, they even had praise dancing.
Several things are done. It’s kind of a little program where the community can participate.
And then you know the Rock is beginning to start when someone does a long-meter or Dr. Watts hymn. This usually designates that the next thing you will encounter will be the Rockers. They say, “The Rockers are in charge!” And that’s when usually Mr. Burkhalter will sing a long-meter song, and then the Rock begins.
The women file in from the back of the church one by one and it’s always 12 initially, some say that they are the 12 saints, and some refer to them as the 12 disciples. They come out and they make a circle around the table that is in the middle of the floor.
They put the lamps on the table. At one time, you know, the churches didn’t have electricity, so you’d always put the lamps first because that would light up the church so everybody can see. But it was a particular number of lamps that you would put on the table, and again, to symbolize either the 12 disciples or the 12 tribes of Israel, and then you put the 12 cakes—actually, very symbolic too—on the table. The 12 cakes, I’ve been told, also can represent the 12 disciples or the 12 tribes of Israel—depends on who’s giving you the information. After that they have the Easter eggs, which represent the stone that was rolled away from the tomb and new life or new birth. There’s also the red punch, which at one time was homemade wine, and of course represents the blood of Jesus. So you have all of these icons on the table, which is basically their altar, and so all of these things are placed on the table as they are moving around singing, “Oh When the Saints Go Marching In.” And that’s why they refer to the 12 women as the 12 saints.
Recently they have included the children. Not to say that men don’t participate, they are invited to participate, but it’s usually the women that are coordinating all of this. It’s a community effort because all the people in the community are helping. And it’s not just the members of this one church, but it’s people from different churches in the area, black, white, whoever—they just invite anybody and everybody to come, and usually the church is pretty full. And so they do this and after they go around and put everything on the table which is the altar, they begin a different type of music.
Now, it’s another spiritual, but it’s a very up-tempo spiritual, and it’s called “Oh, David.” And it’s interesting to note that it is up-tempo, and this is the one where they really move, and the dance steps are very different. They actually don’t like for you to call it dancing, they like you to call it shouting or rocking. So it’s very different than the steps that they used to go around the table as they were singing, “Oh, When the Saints Go Marching In.” It’s a slide step. Basically people really are not supposed to pick their feet up, but some do, you know, particularly the younger ones, but this is kind of a slide step and a hop. And this is how they make it around the table and this is what they call Rocking. And again, there are various reasons why they do this, and some of them say, this is the Rock that people were doing to celebrate a risen Christ. This is the way that they do it in this community.
Could you tell me a little about the importance of the floor and the building that this takes place in?
Yes, the floors are always hardwood floors. Basically, all the churches that this ritual has taken place in were small, rural, plantation churches. This is the only one that is still existing. The rest of the Rock events have not taken place in years because these churches needed repairs, and most of these small congregations don’t have the money to repair them. But the floor is very important, because the floor substitutes for the drum in these rituals. Because in the earlier ring shouts, and in ring shouts, of course, in Africa, and the ones that came into the antebellum period with the slaves, many of them had drums. The floor takes the place of the drum, so it’s very important for them to have this wooden floor, and that’s why even though the church is in disrepair, it needs so much work, they’re still there. They’ll be there until it just falls down and it’s not safe anymore. They’ve tried it at community centers a couple of times, a couple of years, but it just wasn’t the same, because you could not hear the percussive effect. You can’t hear that on a concrete floor. And the other problem is that if they have it in other churches, you can’t move the pews back. Even though some of the churches may have wooden floors, they may have carpet, and usually the pews are bolted down to the floors now. So that’s why it’s so important for them to remain in this church, and they’ve done their little repairs that they can do on it, like on the steps of the porch of the church, but it needs major repairs. But they’re hanging in there, because the owner said that they can stay there as long as they use it. Once they stop using it, he’s probably going to tear it down, but that wooden floor is very important, because it is the drum.
So there is a campaign right now to save the church, correct?
Yes, there’s a campaign to save the church, and I have talked to Ms. Hattie Addison, who is the coordinator for this whole ritual, and she’s been doing it for many years. It was passed down from her mother, Ms. Ellen Addison, who did it before her, and then her mother’s mother did it before her. So Hattie is the third generation that is carried this ritual on in this church. And we’re trying to do what we can to raise money to do the repairs on the church.
I want to go back and talk about the history of this ritual. The fact it’s a ring shout, when it’s about 700 miles west of where a ring shout should be, seems to me pretty significant. My first thought on hearing it was that it was a little bit of Georgia plunked down in Louisiana, because so many planters moved west from South Carolina and Georgia as lands became available. What do you think?
That is one of the things I’m still looking for, to find what ethnic groups of slaves were in that area. We know that some of them came in from South Carolina into the Natchez port or New Orleans. We know that during the Spanish period in New Orleans, a lot of slaves were brought in from the Kongo area and some still from Senegambia; Senegambians were the earliest ones, but some were also brought in from the Kongo area, according to Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, David Geggus, and a few other scholars that I’ve read, so I’m thinking that this may be from the Kongo tradition.
I say that also because of the banner that they use. Instead of a perpendicular cross, the banner is round—with a staff, of course, so that they can hold it. They could very well have made a perpendicular cross, and no one knows why it’s round. It’s just historically done that way, that’s what everybody told me: “Well, it’s just the way we do it, you know, we took this tradition, we didn’t change it, we just kept it going the way our ancestors did it, and it was always round.” They have changed the color from just being totally white to being white with these colorful streamers coming from it, and so I look at that as one of those symbols that still have a question mark over them, but I have speculated that maybe it is from the ethnic groups from the Kongo that were in that area.
It was certainly the first thing it made me think of, was the Kongo dikenga, which is both a cross and circle around which energy flows in a counter-clockwise direction.
Right, and you know also that whole symbol of the circle being the four stages of life and the whole unity thing, you know, that Robert Farris Thompson talks about in his work and others. That was a big puzzle to me initially, and then I started looking at it and asking, “Why is this round?” [Laughs] But again, I’m trying to find out, and I’m looking at some of the plantations and trying to look at the inventories of plantations to see what slaves they had in their inventory. I’m still in the process of doing that. Hopefully this summer I can delve into it a little more, feel this all out.
What about “When the Saints Go Marching In”? How did that get in there?
Now, you know, “When the Saints Go Marching In” is a spiritual, and that’s one you hear quite a bit in New Orleans, so I’m thinking that that may have come from New Orleans. I don’t think that the slaves that came from Africa were singing that initially [Laughs]. It’s something that was used, you know, in New Orleans more than anywhere else, not just because it’s the Saints football team [Laughs]—it was used way before the Saints football team were ever thought of!—It’s a spiritual, though. It could be that it’s just one of those spirituals that they felt was necessary because, you know, the whole thing about this—it’s very different from a Baptist ceremony or a Christian ceremony, and you know, as in most Afro-based religions, whether it’s santería in Cuba or candomblé in Brazil, or if it’s vodun in Haiti, they all have veiled—it’s the combination of Catholicism as well as that Afro-based ritual. So I think the same thing is going on here.
These were basically all African initially. But if you’re going into a Baptist church, Pentecostal, Methodist, you’re going to have it somewhat camouflaged. So instead of talking about maybe 12 African deities, you talk about the 12 saints or the 12 disciples. And of course “The Saints,” that spiritual, coincides with the saints in the Bible if it’s Catholic or the 12 disciples if it’s Baptist. So things are just synthesized, as far as I can see in what has been done with this ritual.
Looking at all these aspects of the passion, the three last days of Christ, you put it in a format that is acceptable within your church service. Because I don’t know of any other Baptist churches that do this, you know? So there was that combination of the African sensibilities along with the Christian, just like in all the other Afro-based religions. They transformed it to where it was acceptable in their congregation.
They only have those two songs, right? “Saints” and “Oh, David.” That’s their repertoire?
Yeah, basically. But I have heard them do “Elijah Rock,” also, which is another spiritual, just to change it up a bit. They didn’t do it the night you were there, but that’s another one they throw in sometimes, and they’ve done “Oh, David” for so long, and then they’ll just go right into “Elijah Rock,” I’ve heard them do that.
I gotta come back then! Can you tell me a little about the use of the word rock? It has such a cluster of meanings, whether it’s—boogie-woogie players called their rhythms rocks, there’s that 1819 traveler’s mention of Congo Square that the “Africans . . . rock the city with their Congo dances.” and of course rock 'n' roll . . .
I can just tell you what they’ve told me, I haven’t looked too much further than that. They were talking about the sun was shouting and rocking on Easter Sunday morning, and they talked about how the rock was rolled away from the tomb, and I’ve heard people talk about how the people were shouting and rocking, because they look at rocking as shouting, it’s sort of interchangeable with them. So how the people were shouting and rocking because of the death and birth of Christ. So these are just things I’ve heard them talk about. I haven’t looked further into it to see how it might be integrated in other areas.
I’m wondering if you have any observations about the role of the lead singer.
What I get from the people that I’ve talked to is that, basically, that person needs to be very strong, have a very strong voice—because, you see, they don’t use mics, so it has to be a very strong voice, high quality—meaning basically, to be able to keep the melody going. I’ve heard various people lead those songs, and most of them had a very strong voice and could carry it for a long time, and had, you know, a sense of melody and interpretation of the song. Not just somebody who could get up there and sing very dry, but you have to be very interpretive, very loud, strong quality. It’s kinda hard to do it when you’re rocking too, although many of the people that hold the banner have also led the songs. But Hattie doesn’t consider herself as a song leader, so she’ll carry the banner but she wants somebody else to lead the song. She says, “My voice is not strong enough, I don’t sing well enough.” So it has to be a songster within the community. Now that lady [Emma Hagan] that performed the song, that led the song, she doesn’t normally Rock. But she is known as a songster in the community. And so they wanted to have a very strong songster. And then there are a couple other people that can sing and Rock, but it’s hard to do that when you’re moving around the table and trying to really do the physical part of the Rock. The various people that I’ve heard, they really are good strong song leaders, that’s the main thing.
There’s a big difference between gospel and spirituals, although many people put them both in the same hat. Spirituals are definitely an antebellum form of music, a sacred music that was created by African-Americans during slavery, and it’s an a cappella music as well as one that has usually call and response, has some improvisation, it’s communally created. When you look at gospel, it’s kind of like somewhat of the opposite, although some of the spirituals have been arranged as gospel. So it depends on the arrangement of the music. Gospel is a postbellum music; it’s definitely accompanied music, it’s a composed music. We call it folk music simply because of the way it’s transmitted and how it’s interpreted, because you can have a composed music, but the singers, the gospel singers, just sort of use it as a foundation, but nobody ever sings it the same way. And gospel musicians do a lot of improvisations—more than the spirituals, I would say. The spirituals have some, but gospel has quite a bit of improvisation, with the voice as well as the instruments. This particular lady that was singing is a gospel singer, but she can also sing spirituals. Most gospel singers are very versatile, and can sing a cappella as well. But she was a gospel singer, known in the community. But she made some different aspects, different improvisatory things that she did with her voice. I’ve never heard her in other churches, but I’ve heard her sing before with the Rock. She is a gospel singer.
It seemed like a gospel style to me.
And that’s another thing. You’re ad-libbing in gospel music, that’s what you do, you just throw in improvisation, ad libs, and basically just stick in whatever you want, and so she was filling in those areas where normally there’s just nothing there, so you have to fill in those spaces, and she was doing it quite well.
Now, “Oh, David” is a spiritual . . .
Yes, “Oh, David” is a spiritual, but now, you have to realize that there are various types of spirituals, and “Oh, David” is one of those spirituals that you would not hear in a regular congregation. A lot of churches these days don’t perform spirituals anymore, but in these little small rural churches you will still hear a lot of them, because a lot of times they don’t have anyone to play the piano. Even though they had a piano there which was totally out of tune, but a lot of the songs that they sing are a cappella, and so they go back and they still perform a lot of these spirituals. There are some spirituals that they call “shout” spirituals, and those are only performed in the Rock or if you go to the McIntosh County Shouters in Georgia, they have these spirituals that they only sing with the shout, they don’t sing them in the congregation. They do their shout on New Year’s Eve, so they have the Watchnight service, where they will perform the Dr. Watts hymns, long-meter hymns, they will perform traditional gospel, and they will perform some spirituals. But when they move over after 12 o’clock and they move over to the Fellowship Hall to do the shout, you will not hear those same songs being performed, you will only hear shout songs. So “Oh, David” is one of those shout songs.
Is “Oh, David” only known in Louisiana?
I’ve been to Georgia at New Year’s for the whole Watchnight program and then the shout, and I didn’t ask them at the time, so that’s something I’ll have to ask them, if they know “Oh, David.”
I saw it in a songbook of spirituals that were collected on a plantation in New Iberia, Louisiana. The son of the plantation owner used to go and listen to the slaves singing, and even after slavery he would go and listen to them sing. And he wrote these songs down, and “Oh, David” was one of the songs in that collection. Now that’s near Lafayette, not that far from Baton Rouge. The only other place I’ve heard “Oh, David” recorded was in Thibodeaux, Louisiana. Harry Oster recorded it from some blacks in Thibodeaux, Louisiana, he was doing his recording around the '50s. I heard that at the Library of Congress. I’m trying to get them to let me use it in my film. That’s the only other place I’ve seen it. And it was interesting because I found it just by listening to some of Harry Oster’s recordings. They did not have it listed in the catalog, but it was on the tape, on his reel-to-reel tape, and I made it a point to tell the people in the archives, “Hey, this one is not listed but it’s on this tape.” And I wrote it down as by a black woman, he recorded it from this black woman in Thibodeaux, Louisiana. And that’s the only other place I’ve seen it. I’m still looking for in various collections, but so far I’ve only found it in Louisiana.
Tell us about your film . . .
I had been looking at the Easter Rock for several years, and I had started interviewing and writing about them. And we were able to get them to the Smithsonian Institution’s Festival of American Folklife, when they featured Louisiana and the Mississippi Delta. And that was back in, I think, ‘96. I saw that there was an interest with a lot of people that it never seen anything like this before, when we brought it to D.C. They wrote about it in the Washington Post. People were coming to see it, saying they had never seen anything like that before. Some people were like, “Well, I’ve read about the ring shout, but I didn’t know this was still going on.”
And I said, “You know, you really need to get it out there to a wider audience.” I started talking to Miss Hattie and her mom, her mom was still living at the time, and asking them about filming it, and they said “Oh, yeah, sure,” so I finally got a grant to take a film crew up. And we went up for four days and just filmed them preparing for the ritual and they filmed me interviewing some of the participants and elderly people that participated in the earlier days but couldn’t do it anymore. I was able to interview them and, like I mentioned before, the oldest person I interviewed was 92 years old. She gave her criticism of the Rock the last time she saw it, which was about 15 years before, but she criticized how the young people were doing it. We interviewed a number of people, even filmed one of the cake makers—one of the ladies who used to bake all the cakes for the Rock who is not really doing it anymore, but she baked a cake for us that day, so we could see how she would bake her cake. She would bake cakes all in one day, she would bake those 12 cakes, so she would bake from sunup to sundown, she said. So we filmed her making her cake, and we filmed a lot of the older people weren’t Rocking anymore but had a good memory of what they experienced in the Rock and what their mothers and grandmothers experienced.
So we did the film, and finally got some more funding to do some editing and put it together, and so I was able to take the short version of it, which is only 15 minutes. It’s called Easter Rock.
I brought it to Hattie Addison and some of her Rockers, so they could see it before I took it to France, where I showed it at the 2016 Ethnografilm festival. We had a good review, it was well received there, lots of discussion, lot of questions and answers, because again, this is very unique and most people had no clue that anything like this ever happened and some didn’t think anything like this was still happening. We still are trying to do the long version. It basically is done, and we have to tweak it a bit.
I wanted to make it so that it could have a broader audience, but also so people can use it in classes. There’s so many things you can look at. First, the study of ritual. Then the story of women and how they find agency in a small rural plantation church in North Louisiana. Then there’s the whole Afro-Baptist ritual. I’ve looked at the spiritual Baptists in areas of Texas, Shango Baptists and spiritual Baptists in Trinidad, so I’d like to add this one too: this is an Afro-Baptist ritual that most people don’t see in Baptist churches in rural Louisiana. You usually see these, like, in Trinidad and places like that. So I think it adds to the literature, it adds to our cultural makeup of sacred rituals within Africa and the diaspora, so I thought it would be good for professors to use in their classes, to teach students about these various concepts of religion.
You’ve been working with the Easter Rock for over 20 years now, so you know the Rockers and they know you. You’ve watched each other change over the years. As a folklorist you may feel you have to maintain your distance in some sense, but on a personal basis, how has your interaction with this group and with this ritual affected you?
Wow. You know, at some point, you forget that you’re the researcher. You feel that you become a part of the family. And that’s the way I feel. Through the years, I have gone to funerals. I remember when P.K., that’s Hattie’s daughter, graduated from high school, they sent me invitations. I wasn’t able to make it to everything, but they would always send me invitations to the graduations, the weddings, the christenings, the births, the funerals, and so I just began to feel like I’m a part of the family. When I go there—I don’t know if you actually met her, but Ms. Jimmie Lee Jones, she was in the film that you saw, she knows I like seafood, so she’ll invite me over, “Come on! I’m fryin’ some fish! Come on over and have some fried catfish and potato salad!” [Laughs]. She didn’t have a chance to do it that weekend, because I was in and out so quick, but that’s the way things are happening now. They kind of look at me as part of the family, and they usually will pull me up to Rock. Sometimes I’ll get up and Rock. As you saw when you were there, they put me on the program. I never know till I get there what they’ll ask me to do. I always help clean up the church. Most of the time I buy the cakes for them, but she had bought the cakes by the time I got up there. So I always contribute, if it’s just working with them, taking the car to go pick up something or picking up some kids for her, they always put me to work, and that’s fine with me, because I enjoy doing it. And again I forget, although I’m supposed to be recording this: “I’m supposed to be taking pictures, I forgot!” [Laughs]
And I’m Baptist! So it was very odd to me, because I have visited a number of Baptist churches in my life in different places that I’ve stayed. I’ve been on the watch care, you know, didn’t really join the church but I was on the watch care, and so they keep telling me, you just need to come up here, you don’t need to join, you can be on the watch care [Laughs]. So at some point in time, you forget the fact that you’re supposed to be researching this.
But you know, objectivity is just never there with me as far as they’re concerned. I don’t think you’re going to be totally objective. You have to bring your experiential life into what you’re doing, and I’ve always done that. But at some point in time, you’re a scholar but you become an activist too. It it’s not that I plan to do this, it’s just that if something needs to be done, you move ahead and you try to do it. Like trying to raise money to get the church back in order so they can continue that ritual there. I know how important it is for their community, and all those people that were there, that’s a part of their annual ritual. They look forward to coming to this.
And it’s sort of like a catharsis. This is a spiritual catharsis for them. You have them all there. They’re celebrating the risen Christ but the community comes together. It’s almost like a reunion too, because you have several churches coming together, it’s not just one church. So it means so much to them that I continue to be that scholar, that researcher, but then I also moved to be that activist and doing what I can for that community. I’ve done that in various other areas that I worked in too, that’s just a part of me, that’s just what I do.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about this?
It’s really interesting to me in reading and observing other circular rituals in Africa and parts of the diaspora, it’s just that that phenomenon of the circular rituals is so important within the cultures. I know that Sterling Stuckey, the historian, talks about it as being the ethos of African-Americans’ sacred culture. And it may be that it’s a strong part of the secular area too. Samuel Floyd talks about the circular ritual moving into a line, and, you know, coming out of the circular African ritual and moving into one line, which is also African too, [like] the second line clubs in New Orleans and their parading traditions, and then of course the second line in the jazz funeral tradition. And you have circular rituals, like the one I saw in Ghana, moving around the deceased’s body, and then Samuel Floyd is moving it out of that circle and into these lines, moving in the line of the jazz funeral in New Orleans. Making those connections is really important.
To have this very strong connection in Louisiana that most people don’t know about, I think, is rewarding for the Rockers themselves. Because they really don’t know sometimes how important it is to share this with other people, so I would love to share it as best as I can, along with just bringing them out there so people can experience this ritual, because it’s such an important ritual for their community, and for other communities that engage in these sacred rituals.
I want to ask briefly about the work you’re doing now with blues in the Baton Rouge area.
Well, Baton Rouge is a place that has been very prominent with blues culture. Many people don’t know this, but it was jazz in New Orleans, Cajun and zydeco in the Acadiana area, but right there in the middle of it all, was Baton Rouge and the blues. And most of these bluesman came from the rural areas surrounding Baton Rouge. Many of them moved into Baton Rouge because of job possibilities working at the plant, and just getting off the plantations and out of the agricultural field into some other area. But most of them came from these rural areas and the farms. Clinton. Zachary. Slaughter. Greensboro. And all these little towns surrounding Baton Rouge. So I’m working on a project now where I’m interviewing various bluesmen that are still performing in the area, and looking at sites that are relevant for the blues culture, like some of the clubs maybe have closed down now, but some of them are still open. Some of the juke joints are still open, you just have to know how to find them, and many of them still have live music.
Tabby Thomas was a major blues figure, an urban blues singer in the city, he had Tabby’s Blues Box and Heritage Hall, which was torn down due to construction of the interstate highway. But his son is still very active with the blues, Chris Thomas King, and he’s mentoring younger musicians and bringing them into the studio and working with them, which I was able to witness this a couple of weeks ago at Presonus studio, and Tipitina's is one of the ones that’s funding some of this, but it’s a mentoring program for high school students that are interested in playing the blues. So he’s taking them under his arms, bringing them into the studio and works with them, not only on the performance area, but also on the production, helping them use the board. So I think blues is alive and well in Baton Rouge. We just had our Blues Festival last weekend, and some of the old guys still come back to play.
So I’m working on this project dealing with blues culture in Baton Rouge and the surrounding areas, and it’s something that the [Louisiana] Culture, Recreation, and Tourism Department has decided to do, and eventually they would like to do a Music Heritage Trail in Louisiana, but we don’t have anything specifically for the blues, so one day we hope to get a blues trail out of all this research that I’m doing now. But right now I’m just having fun interviewing bluesmen and seeing what they’re doing and how they’re looking at blues culture in contemporary times, and just what’s going on in the area concerning blues.
Photo captions (in sequence):
Dr. Joyce Jackson
A church window
The church that afternoon
The legendary wooden floor