THE McINTOSH COUNTY SHOUTERS: Spirituals And Shout Songs From The Georgia Coast
Smithsonian Folkways SFW CD 40214 (61:23)
Jubilee/ Believer, I Know/ I Come To Tell You/ Walk With Me/ Drive Ol’ Joe/ Went To The Burial (aka) Sinner Weep So/ Blessed Are The Poor In Spirit/ Move, Daniel/ I Won’t Turn Back/ Oh, My Loving Mother/ Army Cross Over/ Walk Through The Valley In The Field/ Daniel Saw That Little Stone/ In The Field We Must Die/ Oh, Lord, I Want You To Help Me/ I Wade The Water To My Knees/ This May Be Our Last Time
One of Folkways’ last LPs, issued two years before Moe Asch died in 1986, was ‘The McIntosh County Shouters’ (FE 4344), and I can still remember the impact that its contents, and their context, made on me. Shouting is a ‘fusion of call-and-response singing, percussive rhythm, and expressive and formalized dance-like movement,’ to quote Art Rosenbaum’s notes to the LP, and it had been preserved in Bolden, Georgia (known locally as ‘Briar Patch’) since slavery times, performed by lead singers, responding ‘basers’ and a percussionist.
The Bolden shouters were fully aware of their roles as preservers of their community’s history, heritage and art, of its African-derived elements, and of the hidden meanings encoded in some of the songs during slavery days; but until 1980, when they were contacted by folklorists, and Frankie and Doug Quimby, who ran the Sea Island Festival, their music and movement (not dancing, as they would be the first to stress) had been enacted only in and for their community.
The organisation of a group to present the shout to the wider world inevitably led to changes: Art Rosenbaum, who annotates this new disc 34 years down the road, alludes to disagreements in the community about going public, and to later schisms within the group, and notes that the performances have become more didactic, and more rehearsed: Professor Bettye Ector, who introduced the group for a while, made no bones about seeing a need for more ‘showmanship’ (her term). Inevitably, the passage of time has also meant that all the singers heard on the Folkways LP have passed on. As I’ve already observed, though, the shout was never an unselfconscious activity, and it both retains its integrity in the hands of the successor performers, and continues to have a purpose in the religious and communal life of Bolden.
These new recordings include new versions of three songs from the original LP (‘Jubilee’, ‘Move, Daniel’ and ‘I Wade In the Water To My Knees’), and other shouts hitherto not on disc. ‘Believer, I Know’ was the last song that its lead singer, Brenton Jordan, learned from Lawrence McKiver, who died in 2013, at the age of 97. Jordan was born in 1986; I believe that’s what they mean by ‘continuity.’ As well as singing lead on a number of titles, Jordan also generates the polyrhythmic foundation of the music, often with a stick (functionally equivalent to the broom handle used on the ’80s recordings), but sometimes with a tambourine, which is his own addition to the group’s rhythmic resources. Aurally, the tambourine appears to have had its jingles removed, which is to the good, since as a result it, too, generates a clean, staccato percussive sound.
The percussion is further forward in the mix than on the old LP, which is also advantageous – which is not to disparage the LP; if I haven’t made it obvious that its music and annotation (downloadable from the Smithsonian Folkways website) are both essential adjuncts to this CD, I should do so now. I should also say that the CD is itself essential: the leaders, Jordan (four songs), Freddie Palmer (seven), Venus McIver (five) and Carletha Sullivan (one) are all compelling and charismatic, and the shout being above all a collective expression, it’s also important to give a shout out (sorry) to the basers, who are just as vital to a song’s success. (‘The basers overlap the end of the leader’s lines, and their energy and rhythmic solidity leaves him/her free to improvise on the melody and text.’ [Rosenbaum, 1984].)
There is now more harmony and part singing in the shouters’ performances than there was in the ’80s, which Rosenbaum plausibly links to the fact that some of the basers also sing in the church choir, and one or two tracks, like ‘Walk With Me’ and ‘I Want You To Help Me’, are spirituals given a shouting treatment. The concluding ‘This May Be Our Last Time’ even abandons the usual 3+3+2 shout rhythm in favour of a tremendously swinging, syncopated 4/4. The CD as a whole is excellent documentation of a deeply-rooted, vital and continuing tradition – and just as important, it’s tremendously good listening.
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