A Black Cultural Tradition and Its Unlikely Keepers
By SAMUEL G. FREEDMAN, New York Times, June 18, 2011
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.
“Een muh time ob dyin’,” Mr. Dougherty began, “Uh don wan nobody fuh moan.” These were the words, in Gullah dialect, to a spiritual about the wish to die easily and to be taken into heaven by Jesus. Mr. Dougherty’s mother had first heard the song as a teenager in the 1930s, and she requested it for her own funeral six decades later. (Een muh time ob dyin now playing.)
Now, on this evening in June 2011, the financial adviser and social worker and music professor and Navy officer, and the other half-dozen people joining in harmony from their chairs, were engaging in a profound act of cultural conservation. In a city built on the slave trade, in the state where the Civil War started, these white men and women were the curators of an African-American religious and musical treasure.
They all belonged to a group called the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals, as had many of their parents and grandparents. Since its founding in 1922, the society’s members have collected, recorded, transcribed and performed black praise songs that almost certainly would have otherwise been lost — lost to the resort development of the barrier islands where Gullah culture thrived, lost to the amplified up-tempo sounds of urban gospel music that overwhelmed rural, a capella forms.
“It’s poetry and it’s faith,” Mr. Dougherty, 54, said of the Gullah spirituals. “And it’s poetry about faith.”
Back at the genesis of the society, though, no premise could have been more radical than for a white person to consider Gullah spirituals worthy of protection and emulation. These were the songs, after all, of the descendants of rice-plantation slaves, so isolated that their language maintained elements of Krio from West Africa.
Long before it was recognized as a unique hybrid, suitable for scholarly inquiry, Gullah folk life was routinely ridiculed, even by some big-city blacks, as merely primitive. Gullah songs reached the affluent white children of Charleston through the cries of street vendors, the lullabies of black nannies.
That kind of casual sharing of culture, amid the overarching climate of segregation, attested to a black aphorism: “In the North the white man will let you get high but not close, and in the South the white man will let you get close but not high.”
So several dozen well-born whites — members of Episcopal, Lutheran and Reform Jewish congregations, more than a few the descendants of slaveholders — set about visiting Gullah churches in Charleston and the nearby Sea Islands. In 1931, the society published a book with music and lyrics to 49 spirituals, and later in the decade began recording black congregations on aluminum discs. That trove of material came to the attention of the legendary folklorist John A. Lomax, who tried to have the discs donated to the Library of Congress.
“There was a thread of respect that runs through the origins of the society,” said John Horlbeck, 56, a former Navy officer whose father was also a society member. “There was no attempt to claim the high ground as whites. They were witnesses to something and were concerned it would be lost.”
Inevitably, though, even the best-intentioned efforts raised issues of what would later be termed cultural appropriation and white-skin privilege. While the Gullah Christians remained in poverty and obscurity, the society’s members performed those spirituals during the 1930s at the White House and Harvard. One society member, the author DuBose Heyward, introduced George Gershwin to Gullah music while the composer was adapting Heyward’s novel “Porgy” into the opera “Porgy and Bess.”
As decades passed, and civil rights legislation, Interstate highways and Hilton Head resorts altered the seclusion and segregation of Charleston, the younger members of the society clung to their unlikely birthright for two reasons. First, those songs had become part of their own heritage — so much so that Mr. Dougherty proposed to his future wife not with a ring but with a paper loop bearing the title of the spiritual “Come En Go Wid Me.” And second, these whites viewed themselves as custodians of something sacred and irreducibly black.
“The greatest success we can have is in some way to have saved the music and given it back to black people,” said Edward Hart, 45, a music professor at the College of Charleston and a second-generation member of the society. “It’s their music.”
That process accelerated in the early 1980s when an elderly member of the society revealed to Mr. Dougherty a box containing the aluminum discs recorded in the 1930s. Evidently, they had never been sent to the Library of Congress then. So Mr. Dougherty did so right away — only to find out that the metal had become so oxidized over the years that the recordings were almost inaudible.
But as word of the discs passed among the society’s 50 members, one of them gave Mr. Dougherty a set of reel-to-reel tapes, apparently made from the discs in the 1960s. Those recordings, in turn, were released in 2004 on separate CD’s of the original field recordings and the society’s performances. (They are available through Edisto Bookstore in South Carolina and the Preservation Society of Charleston.) Three years later, the society published an updated and expanded version of its 1931 volume of Gullah spirituals.
As the society’s current members sang in and around Charleston, they also caught the ear of black listeners like Alphonso Brown, the organist and choir master of the Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church. Now 66, he grew up with the Gullah spirituals as part of Sunday worship and prayer meetings.
“I was angry with myself for not doing it before they did,” Mr. Brown said this week. “And they did such a great job of it. They inspired me to start doing those songs again in my church.”