- Gullah: The Voice of an Island by Liz Kelly, Mark Kendree, and Tevin Turner
Gullah community members on St. Helena Island often cite the following Biblical verse: “[S]tand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it” (Jeremiah 6:16, New International Version). On this South Carolina Sea Island, music plays a vital role in communal and religious life. There, the “walking” is done with jubilant voices and the clapping of hands, while the “ancient paths” are made clear via spirituals and hymns passed down through many generations. The praise (or “pray’s”) house—wooden structures where enslaved Africans developed autonomous religious practices, resolved community conflicts, and created spaces of resistance—is where this music can still be heard, and thus “the good way” found.
Gullah: The Voice of an Island documents the musical traditions of St. Helena Island’s praise houses. While the title assumes a singular voice for this South Carolina Sea Island, the collection of spirituals, hymns, gospel songs, shouting songs, and oral histories features four voices: Minnie Gracie Gadson, James Garfield Smalls, and Rosa and Joseph Murray—all recognized as praise house song leaders.
The disc’s content is organized in three parts. The first two feature Gadson and Smalls respectively, while the third documents Rosa and Joseph Murray. The unaccompanied voice of these tradition bearers comprises the majority of the recordings’ content. Occasional piano playing serves as background music to the singers’ oral histories, but is not consistent musical accompaniment.
Gullah: The Voice of an Island is a product of the PhD research of musicologist Eric Crawford, formerly at Norfolk State University and now on faculty at Coastal Carolina University. By analyzing the socio-cultural factors that affected music on the island from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, and comparing songs documented during the periods of 1860–1920, 1921–1939, and 1972 to the present, Crawford’s dissertation considers the alteration and retention of spirituals on St. Helena Island. During his fieldwork, Crawford enlisted Dr. Matt White, already at Coastal Carolina University, in the recording and audio production that would eventually become this CD. This collection was published by Athenaeum Press at Coastal Carolina University with production assistance from a team of undergraduate students. The liner notes—written and designed by these students—feature a brief history of Gullah culture, archival and contemporary photos of Sea Island residents, production notes, and short biographies of the song leaders in this collection.
Minnie Gracie Gadson is the first featured voice of the album. She sings five spirituals, one hymn, two gospel songs, and four shouting songs. In her oral history of the praise house, she describes the order of services, river baptisms, and how the ringing of a bell would inform the community that it was time for worship. Gadson’s grandmother introduced young Gracie to the praise house and taught her to sing spirituals. These facts demonstrate the intergenerational nature of this music and [End Page 119] provide an example of musical transmission on St. Helena Island. The inclusions of “We’ll Understand It Better By and By” and “Beyond the Sky” in Gadson’s repertoire are notable, as these are the only two gospel songs on Gullah: The Voice of an Island. While gospel music is prevalent within Sea Island musical practice, Gadson’s performance of “Satan Camp A-Fire” is accompanied by a 3+3+2 clapping pattern, emphasizing the rhythmic uniqueness of this region’s music as compared to more “mainstream” African American musical practices. Interestingly, Gadson’s performance of “I Saw the Light” has a country music feel...