Although closely associated with the unique music of the Georgia Sea Islands, singer Bessie Jones was not actually born on the islands, but in a small mainland Georgia town. As a young woman she moved to the islands and became an intrinsic part of the cultural life there. Located directly off the Georgia coast, these islands represent a small but fascinating chapter in American history, a bit of which bears repetition to fully understand Jones' background. Once the site of large plantations, the islands were seized by the Union in 1861, early in the Civil War. It was a strategic location from which the Union could easily blockade shipments that were headed to the rebellious Southern states. The original landowners had fled, leaving something in the neighborhood of 10,000 former slaves behind. These people became part of what was known as the Port Royal Experiment, a chance to see what fate would bring to the newly freed slaves. Since the Northern army had consistently rejected the enlistment of black soldiers, the governing and security of the Georgia Sea Islands was handed over to locally enlisted citizens, meaning that for the first time in American history, African-Americans were allowed to protect themselves. From the end of the Civil War until the '30s, these islands enjoyed a period of isolation from mainland life. During these years, a further cultural blend took place between the descendents of two sets of former slaves: the Afro-Americans and a huge group of former slaves from the Bahamas who traveled there following the abolishment of slavery in the British empire. The Sea Islanders, having suffered captivity, enjoyed the release of their bonds and created a music of endurance and freedom utilizing the unique dialect of the islands. There was a strong influence of the Bahamas in this music. And although all American folk music has been influenced by various types of African music, the African content of the Georgia Sea Islands is of a much purer variety; the result is a style of music unlike any other in America or the world. Jones became a shining representative of this musical heritage, singing in a Bahamian accent accompanied by wild, outrageous African handclap rhythms. In the '60s, she helped form the Georgia Sea Island Singers, recording both with them and as a soloist. The material in both cases includes both songs and a selection of musical games for children that she recalled from her past. These performances brought audiences face to face with a distinct culture from another century. Jones published a book entitled Step It Down, which is a collection of such children's games as well as various stories from her life. Her performances, recordings, and educational programs earned many awards, including a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Like all great folk artists, her voice has continued ringing on since her death. She perhaps may not have had much in common with the rap and techno music of the '90s, but the techno recording artist Moby chose to sample her voice on his recordings.
© Eugene Chadbourne /TiVo
© Eugene Chadbourne /TiVo
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Folk - Released February 13, 2001 | Rounder
Bessie Jones (1902-1984) was one of America's foremost singers of folk, gospel, and children's songs. A stunning musical talent who possessed an exceptional memory and driving desire to share her musical wealth with younger generations, Jones grew up on the Georgia Sea Islands. As a girl on the islands, Jones learned many songs from her grandfather, Jet Samson. Samson's vast repertoire of tunes drew upon his own early childhood in Africa, his years as a slave in America, and his subsequent life of freedom on the islands. On this Rounder release, Jones carries her grandfather's legacy forward by singing 31 songs, and even telling a couple of stories. Jones was one of the first artists to record with Rounder in the early '70s, and Put Your Hand on Your Hip and Let Your Backbone Slip includes the two albums she recorded with the company at the time: So Glad I'm Here and Step It Down. The songs from So Glad I'm Here are mostly religious and folk-oriented. The Step It Down tracks are, by contrast, full of games and children's songs, such as "Old Line Brewster," a game that dates back to slavery. Though the CD compilation features Jones' sweet and powerful singing, the Georgian diva also plays a mean tambourine. Her performance is complemented by handclapping, a chorus of children, and Douglas Quimby's baritone voice. The result is an incessant group of tracks that will draw you in, perhaps even persuading you to Put Your Hand on Your Hip and Let Your Backbone Slip. © John Vallier /TiVo