Georgia Sea Islands Festival
For nearly thirty years the Georgia Sea Islands Festival on St. Simons Island has celebrated the African American musical traditions, crafts and food of the coastal barrier islands. Nationally known and world renowned, the Georgia Sea Island Singers have been a highlight of the weekend since the festival on St. Simons Island was first organized in 1977 the 1980s by original members of the group Mabel Hillary and Bessie Jones.
Born on St. Simons Island, Frankie Sullivan Quimby traces her ancestry back to the Foulah tribe on the Niger River in Africa. She was the oldest of thirteen children descended from slaves who belonged to the Coupers of Cannon’s Point. After emancipation her family took the name Sullivan and settled in the Harrington community of St. Simons Island. Mrs. Quimby joined the Georgia Sea Island Singers in the 1940s. She is dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage of her ancestors who came to St. Simons from Africa. Many of the songs performed by the Georgia Sea Island Singers were handed down through generations. They were work songs sung in the fields, on the docks in Brunswick, or in rowboats on the sound. They were spirituals sung in African American churches and hummed by domestics working on the island. These songs formed the background tunes recalled by both blacks and whites who grew on the islands.
In 1935 folklorist Zora Neale Hurston introduced fellow folklorist Alan Lomax and his father John to Bessie Jones and early members of the group. The Lomaxes worked for the Archives of American Song at the Library of Congress and they traveled across the nation collecting “folk” music, songs handed down by elders. Alan returned to the Harrington community on St. Simons Island in 1959 and 1960 and made extensive recordings of the singers – Bessie Jones, Peter and John Davis, Emma Lee Ramsey, Henry Morrison, Mabel Hillary, and others. Recordings and photographs from these trips have recently been digitalized and are now available on-line at www.culturalequity.org thanks to The Global Jukebox, a program of an organization Lomax founded after he left the Library of Congress.
At a time when folk music and the Civil Rights movement were finding a political voice, Lomax put Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers on the national stage. They performed at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival on the same bill with Peter, Paul and Mary; Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and John Lee Hooker. In 1960 Lomax hired them for a movie for Colonial Williamsburg entitled “Music at Williamsburg.” Dressed in 18th century slave costumes, they sang work songs and rowing songs that contrasted with the Anglican hymns and harpsichord concert at the Governor’s House. Harry Belafonte, an avid student of folk music, invited Jones and the group to add their songs to The Long Road to Freedom (1961-1971) an anthology of African American songs with musical roots from West Africa. In 1968 they conducted workshops at the Poor Peoples March on Washington. For the next fifty years, under the direction of Bessie Jones (who passed away in 1984) and then Frankie Quimby and her husband Douglas (who passed away in 2006) the Georgia Sea Island Singers have shared their music with Presidents at the White House and Sierra Leone, world leaders at the G-8 Summit, crowds at the Olympics and the Smithsonian’s Folk Festivals, and countless schoolchildren at festivals and schools across the nation.
Each year I look forward watching Mrs. Quimby teach the children to shoo the turkeys and Tony Merrell explaining the “jimbay drum.” The recordings are great (see below) but nothing beats sitting under the live oaks with the marsh breezes while Frankie’s grandson performs “Hambone, Hambone” carrying on a tradition that has been passed down for over one hundred years. - Patty Deveax
For more information about the Annual Georgia Sea Islands Festival go to www.ssiheritagecoalition.org or call the St. Simons African American Heritage Coalition.