Bessie Jones, born in Georgia in 1902, dedicated her life to preserving African American history through music. But the gospel and folk legend, perhaps only a household name to those genres’ most well-read fans, wasn’t discovered until relatively late in her life, in 1959 by musicologist Alan Lomax upon his visit to historic St. Simon’s Island, Ga., where she was performing with vocal group Georgia Sea Island Singers. Then as the folk revival movement picked up in the early ’60s, Jones and the Singers (a renowned collective in their own right) were not only embraced by roots communities, but also revered by cultural enthusiasts across the country. The Singers have toured the world and performed for a number of American presidents.
The Singers and Jones were known for fusing the blues, gospel and Gullah traditions of their slave ancestors. These recordings captured at the historic Ash Grove folk venue in Los Angeles on this day (June 20) in 1963 are a great snapshot of this group’s unrestrained joy, textured a cappella arrangements and takes on spiritual standards. Jones and Big John Davis lead one of the best iterations of the collective in a stirring performance before an eager crowd, primed thanks to the folk wave crashing into American pop music at the time.
These rich Ash Grove sets might prove interesting to any casual folk fan, but the story of these Singers goes back farther and deeper than you’d imagine. The group’s geographical origin, the Georgia Sea Islands, aka the Golden Isles, were under Union control during the Civil War and captured as a means to block trade to the South. Plantation owners fled the region, leaving upwards of 10,000 slaves behind. Through the 1930s, the islands remained a hotbed for music and culture. From there sprung the founding members of the Singers, all of whom were descendants of slaves. Nearly 20 years after her death, Rounder Records released a collection of Jones’ most popular recordings in 2002, but live tapes of her shows with the Singers are few and far between.
However, you can listen to both of these rare sets, taped at The Ash Grove in 1963, via the Paste vault below.