The Society for the Preservation of Spirituals

Charleston singers keep spiritual, oral traditions alive (continued)


In call-and response style, with natural harmonies and improvised shouts, the choir performed such songs listed in the program as "Hab yuh got 'lidgun" (Have you got religion), "W'en dah tray'n cuum 'long" (When the train comes along) and "O Zyunn, Wah de mattuh now?" (O, Zion, what's the matter now?).

They sang in Gullah, the language developed by West African slaves brought to Charleston starting in the late 1600s and preserved on South Carolina and Georgia sea islands.

Gullah, a word believed to come from Sierra Leone's Gola tribe, also describes the speakers, often descendants of those slaves who brought their rice-growing skills to this coast.

The language is still spoken by some, including Brown. He grew up going to Tuesday- and Thursday-night "prays" meetings, as he said it was spelled in the old days.

"Tuesday night, prayer meeting," he said. "Thursday night, experience night, where you sing a song and testify."

Singer Sylvia Murray, a retired nurse, said: "When you sing these songs, you get a feeling. What was going on when this song came up?"

Sometimes, "the songs get to you," Brown said.

"We had a situation with a fellow named Kevin one time. Kevin sang his song and he got the spirit. I get up and shake him and I said, 'Hold it together, Kevin. These people ain't paying no $15 to hear you get the Holy Ghost.'"

The group performs around the Southeast, at conventions and festivals. Some members also sing in the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Gospel Choir, which will tour Ghana in March.

They are area natives, with the exception of Hezekiah Kithcart, 81, a retired Army linguist, who moved to Charleston years ago from Gastonia, North Carolina.

"I'm from up north," he said.

(Editing by Jerry Norton and Ellen Wulf)