The Society for the Preservation of Spirituals

Spirituals preserved in their pure Gullah form

By David Farrow

Post & Courier - Dec 30, 2004

Yes Mam, I got flowuhs.
You ax me how I sell um?
Yes Mam, ten cent a bunch
Tree fuh uh quatuh.

What you lookin' aftuh me so fuh?
I'm not come fuh stay.
I jus' come tuh let yall know
Dis is duh flowuhs' day
Flowuhs duh goin' by.

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."

According to the press release, "The ... society organized in the fall of 1922. Twenty young ladies and gentlemen in Charleston, South Carolina, met to sing songs they had heard since childhood: African-American spirituals in the Gullah dialect. They had deep feelings for the beautiful melodies, Gullah poetry, and profound expressions of Christian faith in this powerful music. In addition to the joy of singing this music that they loved, its members were animated by an important purpose.

"They feared that the congregational style of singing this music, like other oral traditions, would be lost and knew that it was being transformed. Printed hymnals were displacing spirituals in churches; contemporary musical trends (blues and jazz) were influencing instrumentation; and composers were making arrangements for trained voices. Determined to preserve the traditional style of performing this music, they resolved to collect the spirituals of the Carolina Low Country, to sing this music as authentically as possible in Gullah, and to pass this tradition down to the next generation.

"At the outset there had been no thought of public recitals; but on May 4, 1923, the ... society sang in a private home for the benefit of St. Philip's Church. So great was the interest aroused that in December of that year, a concert was given in South Carolina Society Hall. This marked the beginning of the group's public career.

"The Society performed in Roosevelt's White House, New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Delaware and nationwide over the NBC radio network. As the organization gained funds from these events, the members initiated a system of regular contributions to needy individuals and institutions in the African-American community.

"It also invested in publications and recordings to make a permanent record of this music for future generations."

There's not enough room for everything Mr. Dougherty sent me, and so I am going to post the whole thing on the Web site — pretty interesting stuff. There also are two phenomenal CDs and a book of spirituals available at Millennium Music's Calhoun Street store, at the Historic Charleston Foundation's Museum shop on Meeting Street and at the Preservation Society on King.

Many argue that this sort of thing is not politically correct. Next week, we'll discuss why it doesn't matter. I believe we desperately need touchstones to our past.

Both this column and "Line By Line" are available at www.farrowotherside. com the Saturday after they appear. David Farrow may be reached by e-mail at