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Bessie Jones

Although closely associated with the unique music of the Georgia Sea Islands, singer Bessie Jones was not actually born on the islands, but in a small mainland Georgia town. As a young woman she moved to the islands and became an intrinsic part of the cultural life there. Located directly off the Georgia coast, these islands represent a small but fascinating chapter in American history, a bit of which bears repetition to fully understand Jones' background.

Once the site of large plantations, the islands were seized by the Union in 1861, early in the Civil War. It was a strategic location from which the Union could easily blockade shipments that were headed to the rebellious Southern states. The original landowners had fled, leaving something in the neighborhood of 10,000 former slaves behind. These people became part of what was known as the Port Royal Experiment, a chance to see what fate would bring to the newly freed slaves. Since the Northern army had consistently rejected the enlistment of black soldiers, the governing and security of the Georgia Sea Islands was handed over to locally enlisted citizens, meaning that for the first time in American history, African-Americans were allowed to protect themselves.

From the end of the Civil War until the '30s, these islands enjoyed a period of isolation from mainland life. During these years, a further cultural blend took place between the descendents of two sets of former slaves: the Afro-Americans and a huge group of former slaves from the Bahamas who traveled there following the abolishment of slavery in the British empire.

The Sea Islanders, having suffered captivity, enjoyed the release of their bonds and created a music of endurance and freedom utilizing the unique dialect of the islands. There was a strong influence of the Bahamas in this music. And although all American folk music has been influenced by various types of African music, the African content of the Georgia Sea Islands is of a much purer variety; the result is a style of music unlike any other in America or the world.

Jones became a shining representative of this musical heritage, singing in a Bahamian accent accompanied by wild, outrageous African handclap rhythms. In the '60s, she helped form the Georgia Sea Island Singers, recording both with them and as a soloist. The material in both cases includes both songs and a selection of musical games for children that she recalled from her past. These performances brought audiences face to face with a distinct culture from another century. Jones published a book entitled Step It Down, which is a collection of such children's games as well as various stories from her life. Her performances, recordings, and educational programs earned many awards, including a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Like all great folk artists, her voice has continued ringing on since her death. She perhaps may not have had much in common with the rap and techno music of the '90s, but the techno recording artist Moby chose to sample her voice on his recordings. ~ Eugene Chadbourne
full bio

Selected Discography

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Track List: Get In Union

1. Sheep Sheep Don't You Know The Road

2. You Better Mind

3. Plumb The Line

4. O Day (Yonder Come Day)

5. Moses Don't Get Lost

6. Blow Gabriel

7. Got To Lie Down (How Shall I Rise)

8. Sometimes

9. Shoo Turkey

10. Adam In The Garden

11. Daniel In The Lion's Den

12. Little David, Play On Your Harp

13. You Got To Reap Just What You Sow / Just A Little Talk With Jesus

14. O Mary Don't You Weep

15. Throw Me Overboard

16. Going To Chattanooga

17. See Aunt Dinah

18. John Henry

19. Sink 'Em Low

20. Diamond Joe

21. Live Humble

22. Get In Union

23. Elephant Fair

24. Uncle Ned

25. That Suits Me

26. No Hiding Place Down Here

27. O Death

28. Dead And Gone

29. Prayer

30. Sign Of The Judgment

31. This Train Is A Clean Train

32. Turkle Dove

33. Beulah Land

34. Let Me Fly

35. Walk Daniel

36. I'm Gonna Lay Down My Life For The Lord

37. Way Down Yonder In The Brickyard

38. Bob Young's Song And Whoop

39. Read 'Em, John

40. Before This Time Another Year

41. Once There Was No Sun

42. There Was An Old Lady From Brewster

43. Little Johnny Brown

44. Prodigal Son

45. Take Me To The Water

46. Drinking That Wine

47. Once There Was No Sun (II)

48. One Morning Soon

49. Buzzard Lope

50. One Of These Days

51. One Of These Days (II)

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