The Society for the Preservation of Spirituals

Gullah Gospel ! White Singers ?

Group works to preserve spirituals of another race, time

Charlotte Observer, November 12, 2005

 CHARLESTON — Eighty-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: "Oh Norah, hice duh winduh, Norah, Hice duh winduh let the duh dub come een" (now playing.)

The spiritual, sung in Gullah, is about Noah waiting by the ark's window for a turtledove to return after the flood.

Smythe is part of an all-white group that for nearly a century has sung these songs in black dialect and is dedicated to preserving this slice of musical Americana.

Beneath a moss-draped live oak in her formal garden, Smythe's high, airish voice is joined a cappella by her son David's barroom baritone. Their Gullah lullaby is linked to the Lowcountry as surely as sweet grass and the pluff mud of Charleston harbor.

Smythe's father-in-law, husband and now her son have been presidents of the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals. The society, which made a series of historic Gullah recordings in the 1930s, has started to shift focus by discontinuing public concerts and getting more of the music into the public by producing two CDs and a book.

The changes were prompted, according to society vice president Tommy Thornhill, by a renewed interest within the black community in singing the old-style spirituals.

 "We decided as a group that we weren't going to 'compete' with blacks singing their own music. The music has always belonged to them; it's not ours. We were simply the caretakers," said Thornhill, who joined the group in 1957. "One of our goals all along has been to keep it alive long enough to return the music from whence it came."

Tigger Smythe was born in Britain, raised in Bermuda and married in Charleston.  It was here she first heard Gullah, a Creole language spoken by some slave descendants along the Atlantic Seaboard.  "It was like nothing I'd ever heard," she said. "The song is about the flood, but it's also one of hope."

The society was founded in 1922 by 22 Charlestonians. The group, part of the Charleston Renaissance movement of the 1920s, came together through its members' love of the spirituals they learned as children from their black maids and their parents.

The private group functions more like an aristocratic book club than a community chorus — members socialize over cocktails in a 19th-century home near The Battery before practice; most can trace their lineage to a founding member of the society.

The spirituals were not printed in hymnals but existed mostly in the former slaves' collective memory. The spirituals were often sung without musical accompaniment, such as pianos or organs, because the congregations could not afford such luxuries. Singers kept the beat with hand clapping and foot stomping. The same song often changed tempo and sometimes, even lyrics, depending on the lead singer.

In the 1920s, the society began performing. The performances, which benefited Lowcountry African-American charities, were so well received that the singers took their act on the road, performing at the White House for President Franklin Roosevelt and at Harvard College.

One of the members, Dubose Heyward, penned the Charleston-based novel "Porgy." Composer George Gershwin later came to Charleston, where Heyward brought him to a society rehearsal and then to black congregations. Gershwin later wrote the folk opera "Porgy and Bess," which gave birth to classic songs such as "Summertime (and the livin' is easy)."

But perhaps the most important accomplishment of the group came in the mid-1930s when members realized the purity of these original spirituals was being influenced by jazz, blues and gospel. They decided to capture the authentic spirituals by using cutting-edge technology, at the time, that enabled them to record in rural churches without electricity.

They bought the iPod of their day — a recorder that used a metal lathe device to cut songs onto aluminum discs. They powered the contraption with a Model T by removing a tire to run a belt to a generator that powered an amplifier and recorder.

Harry Hughes helped in the recordings as a boy. In 1982, he described the sessions to society members: "The equipment we're talking about was ... portable like a casket ... Six good men could move it."

The recordings caught the attention of folklorist John Lomax, who had made similar field recordings with blues legends like Leadbelly. As curator of the Library of Congress' Archive of American Folk Songs, Lomax asked the society to donate its discs and eventually got more than 50.

Linda Kershaw heads the S.C. Spirituals Project and directs the Concert Choir at Benedict College. She has studied extensively the origins of spirituals among slaves who worked Lowcountry rice plantations.

As an African American, Kershaw understands how some people could be resentful of an all-white group performing black songs — citing numerous instances in which music originated by blacks later was commercialized by whites.

But she says it's different with the society.  "What spirituals represent is a tragic part of our nation's past," she said. "But you can't really hold this group to that same standard. They never profited from this music. They simply fell in love with it and have spent a lifetime celebrating it. ... They recorded this music in the 1920s and '30s when no one else was. And for that, they should be applauded, not criticized."

On a quiet weeknight in early September, about 30 society members — mostly descendants of original members — gathered in the large parlor of the Smythe home. It was a rehearsal, and a song sheet was distributed, but no one bothered to read the words.

Some members close their eyes when singing; others leap to their feet in exaltation.  "The songs can not be ignored; they wash over you and take you to another place," said Edward Hart, society member and associate professor of music theory/composition at the College of Charleston. "You can feel the African rhythms — the purity and simplicity of the music is almost overpowering."

From the sidewalk on LeGare (pronounced LeGree) Street, it sounded like an old-time African-American church singing.  The repertoire ranged a waterfront of emotions — from slow, plaintive contemplations on death, "En I'll meet chu een duh Primus Land;" to work dirges, "Draw lebel, de ainjel am comin' down;" to righteous celebration, "Who yuh got een Heben? Lawd, I cyan stan' still."Society members are the first to admit they are amateurs.

"We argue all the time about pronunciations. It would be impossible to re-create that original sound," said David Smythe.  When the society sings publicly, it's usually at small gatherings with limited seating. But interest is growing. The group recently was approached about singing at Spoleto, the Charleston arts celebration.

But this week's performance may be able to fulfill one of the society's goals of returning the music "to the source from whence it came."  On Thursday, at The Church of Our Savior on Johns Island, the society will perform and encourage participation from the black and white audience.

 Admission is free, but donations will be accepted for the church and the Rural Mission, a relief agency for low-income sea island residents.  "I would think the Johns Island concert could be the largest black audience our group has ever performed for," said Park Dougherty, chair of the society's recording committee.

 His grandfather, Rene Ravenel, was one of the society's founding members. "We recognize the historical legacy that these songs represent. These spirituals are part of the collective history of both blacks and whites."

A portion of the proceeds from the sales of the society's CDs and book are given to support African-American relief organizations.  At an October performance, more than a dozen African Americans attended. Joyce Coakley of Mount Pleasant was surprised by the authenticity of the music.

"This is the music I grew up with," she said. "I congratulate them for doing what they have. You could feel it tonight in this room: These spirituals are anything but dead."