The Society for the Preservation of Spirituals


Reuters   -   October 2, 2011

Charleston singers keep spiritual, oral traditions alive

by Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - At an historic African American Episcopal Church in Charleston, the Mt. Zion Spiritual Singers keep alive a century-old tradition -- singing unpublished Negro spirituals passed down orally and accompanied only by hand clapping and foot stomping.

"We call it the Charleston clap," Alphonso Brown, leader of the 18-member group, told an audience during a recent performance for a festival of African American culture. "It's an art form."

Brown said he formed the group more than a decade ago after hearing a performance by the local, mostly white, Society for the Preservation of Spirituals. "They were so good, it made me mad," he said with a grin. A music educator and organist, he also owns and operates Gullah Tours, a tour company focusing on the history of black Charleston residents.

Dressed in suits, hats and shawls, members of the group recreated the African American "praise house" meetings of the early 20th-century rural South in the sanctuary of the Mt. Zion church, whose congregation first formed in 1882.

"This style of music would never have been done in the 1930s or 1940s in a church like Mt. Zion, or any elite black church," Brown said during a rehearsal.

"It was considered raggy music, slave songs," he said. "It was done in rural parts. They were singing the same old songs that slaves and free blacks sang before and after the Civil War. Slaves made them up. They had creativity. They didn't have the manuscript paper to write them down."

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Charleston Mercury  - August 23, 2011

Rebawn Again: Gullah Spirituals Live on

By Tom Robinson

Rebawn Again . . . a Gullah Spiritual from the Santee River area

. . . Paul en’ Silas, dey een duh jail,

Eh, gawt ‘uh rebawn again,

One ob dem watch while de udduh one pray,

Eh, yuh gawt ‘uh rebawn again,

Rebawn sinnuh, gawt ‘uh rebawn again . . .

When the relentless Atlantic tides tear away the sands of Lowcountry sea islands, an opposing storm soon returns them to reform a beach nearly identical to one that disappeared. The peoples and cultures of those same islands are not always as fortunate.

Time. Cultural assimilation. Anglo-tropic laws. Real estate development. Commerce. Taxes. Ignorance and arrogance. These are enemies of the fragile Gullah culture that defines the Lowcountry as much as shrimp and grits and heroes from the Waaar and sleeping porches with haint blue ceilings. Fortunately, there are forces at work that do not forget and will not let go. The Charleston Preservation Society and Historic Charleston Foundation work tirelessly to preserve the architecture, neighborhoods and lifestyle of old Charleston. Similarly, the Rural Mission on Wadmalaw Island and the Penn Center on St. Helena Island work to maintain the culture, language, land ownership and general well-being of the descendants of West African slaves who cling to life on the less developed sea islands.

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Post & Courier  -  July 23, 2011

Spiritual society back in national spotlight

By Robert Behre

The Society for the Preservation of Spirituals has been a Charleston institution since 1922, but it probably hasn't received this much national attention in decades.  

On Sunday, the society's singers will appear on "Amazing Grace," a weekly Web and radio program by WKCR Radio in New York. The 20-minute segment will air sometime between 8 and 10 a.m. and will be webcast on

The radio feature comes on top of the group's June 18 profile in The New York Times that ran under the headline, "A Black Cultural Tradition and Its Unlikely Keepers," referring to the group's white singers who perform African-American spirituals.

The national attention is likely more than the group has experienced since the 1930s, when the society sang for President Franklin Roosevelt in the White House and appeared on a national NBC broadcast. At one point, composer George Gershwin was a member.

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Moultrie News  -  July 21, 2011

W'en Duh Saints Go Maa'chin' Home'

photo by Helen Hammond

The Society for the Preservation of Spirituals sang at the morning prayer service at Grace Chapel in Rockville, SC on July 17. The group sang 'Welcome Table,' 'Muh Lawd Call Me' ('Shout Jubilee'), 'Look Down Duh Road', 'Een Muh Haa't,' 'W'en Duh Saints Go Maa'chin' Home' and 'Lebe Yuh Een Duh Han' Ob Duh Kin' Sabeyuh.' Spiritual singers shook hands with the congregation members during the recessional and concluding prayer.

New York Times  - June 18, 2011

A Black Cultural Tradition and Its Unlikely Keepers


CHARLESTON, S.C. — After the shish kebab and blueberry pie, as dusk calmed the Lowcountry heat, the dinner guests gathered around Park Dougherty’s table prepared to sing. They clapped hands in one rhythm, beat their feet against the floorboards in another, and lifted their voices into a song that had been passed down to them through generations and in defiance of a rigid racial divide.

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Charlotte Observer - Nov 12, 2005


by Dan Huntley

Charleston - Eight-five-year-old Tigger Smythe doesn't need a hymnal to sing praise to her Lord.  Nearly blind, she closes her eyes and the words gently come:

     "O Norah, hice duh winduh, Norah
       Hice duh winduh let the dub come een."

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Post & Courier  -  Dec 30, 2004

Spirituals preserved in their pure Gullah form

By David Farrow

Happy New Year! Next week, as I start my sixth year writing this column, I thought we would kick the year off "old school," as some are wont to say.

Park Dougherty sent me a notification about a book that he, David Smythe and Thomas Thornhill have written about the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals done with the help of Mr. and Mrs. Rutledge R. Webb, Dr. George W. Williams, Lawton K. Grimball and Dr. Edward B. Hart.

Called "Spirituals of the Carolina Low Country," it's a 113-page book with "the music and Gullah lyrics to 49 spirituals collected from 1922-39, with an eight-page essay on the music, the recordings on the CDs and the history of the ... society's 82-year history effort to preserve, document and perform this wonderful, religious music."

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(Rebawn Again, 1960, now playing.)