Album Review: Various, ‘The Complete Friends of Old-Time Music Concert’

On April 9, 1965, Bessie Jones, John Davis, the Georgia Sea Island Singers, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Ed Young took the stage at the New School in New York City for the Friends of Old Time Music Concert. Field recordist Peter Siegel captured the riveting performances of these singers and  instrumentalists, and his recording showcases the nuances of phrasing, vocal delivery, and rhythmic styles of the songs, as well as the canny storytelling that unveils the multi-faceted meanings inherent in each song. The entire concert is now available for the first time on Smithsonian Folkways as The Complete Friends of Old Time Music Concert.

Folklorist Alan Lomax serves as emcee for the evening, and the concert opens with his introduction to the Georgia Sea Island Singers and the special guests of the evening. At the end of Lomax’s introduction, he declares optimistically that society is on the road to world peace and integration, a feeling that the Singers’ less optimistic and more realistic music betrays. As Lomax concludes, the ensemble “travels” in from the wings to the electrifying accompaniment of Jones’ tambourine playing which sets the cadence for the repetitive harmonic chorus “I got on my travelin’ shoes,” which she punctuates with shouts such as “Lord have mercy now” and “I’m gonna tell the Lord.” Like many of the songs in the concert, this one operates on at least two levels: the movement toward the promise of political freedom and the movement toward spiritual redemption and liberation.

As members of the Georgia Island Sea Singers introduce each song, they take care to introduce the audience to the history and background of the songs, as well as to the their musical styles. The ring shout spiritual “Buzzard Lope (Dance)/In That Old Field (In Dat Ole Fiel),” for example, reenacts the story of the bodies of dead slaves being left in the field or tossed at a crossroads where buzzards would soon come to devour the bones. Davis’ pattering, intricate dance steps (the buzzard lope dance) can be heard on the song as Jones and Mable Hillery lead the group with their calls to the group’s response.

With his resounding vocals, John Davis leads the sea shanty “Goodbye My Riley O,” a tribute to the work of stevedores on St. Simons Island, while on “Sink ‘Em Low,” Jones captures the sing-song rhythms of prison work gang songs that would not only provide a musical pattern to the grueling labors but also a sense of unity and liberation from the harsh conditions imposed by callous and often malicious guards.

Spare and haunting, McDowell’s snaking guitar rhythms and leads and his gravelly vocals evoke a poignant lonesomeness on the country blues “Going Down to the River.” Several of the songs retell various biblical stories—“Once There Was No Sun (Once Dey Was No Sun),” “Adam in the Garden (Adam in De Gyaaden),” “Who Built the Ark (Who Build De Ark)”—using Gullah and West African perspectives and linguistic roots. John Davis leads another ring shout spiritual, “Read ‘Em John,” which opens slowly, building to an urgent rhythmic shuffling—signaled by the drumming—that conveys the necessity of having one enslaved person—in this case, John—read a letter to the gathered slaves concerning their freedom. McDowell’s low moans and stinging slide notes introduce the traditional spiritual “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning”; he’s joined by the Georgia Sea Island Singers in their ethereal harmonies and shouting and handclapping as they blend their voices in the anticipation of spiritual and political liberation. Mable Hillery’s stirring use of the call and response structure of the spirituals lends force and urgency to the striving for political changes called for and enacted in Civil Rights marches. On “Marching on the Mississippi Line,” she reveals the deep religious dimensions of the ongoing struggles for social justice and freedom from racial oppression.

The Complete Friends of Old Time Music Concert captures the energy of the Georgia Sea Island Singers and their guests; the performances are electrifying, and one can’t help but hear and feel the depths of soul out of which every one of these songs issue. Apart from Lomax’s introductions, this set is a stunning introduction to the Gullah-Geechee music and the West African music traditions the Georgia Sea Island Singers kept alive in their communities.


The Complete Friends of Old Time Music Concert is available HERE


Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

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