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Whether it's art, literature, bluegrass or blues, Black Kentuckians have had a hand in shaping it. The African American Folklorist explores that history by providing a more personal look at culture. Building upon the existing newspaper and podcast series, The African American Folklorist presents a chance to share lesser known stories of influential figures.

The African American Folklorist: Bessie Jones

Bessie Jones
Alan Lomax
Bessie Jones

Born Mary Elizabeth Jones on Feb 8, 1902, in Smithville, Georgia, Bessie Jones is the conduit of traditional black expression. Her life of teaching, service and singing lead her to be the lead singer of the Georgia Sea Island singer who dazzled audiences with the sound of the Gullah traditions. From children's games to black spirituals and ring shouts, Jones became somewhat of a folklorist as she taught academics and others based on her informal training of Gullah Culture. One of her biggest accomplishments outside of touring and being featured in Bessie Lomax’ documentary is being responsible for Black Spirituals as the representation of the Civil Rights movement. Eric Crawford, has a, Ph.D. in musicology and has done extensive research on the rich tradition of Gullah music, and featured in Henry Lewis Gate’s recent documentary “Reconstruction: America after the Civil War” helps share Bessie’s story with us.

Lamont Jack Pearley: Bessie Jones, was a conduit of black culture and traditions expressed through songs, plays, and movement games. She gained notoriety through her recordings and documentary films, preserving ring shouts and field hollers with the Lomax's. She also was the lead singer of the Georgia Sea Island Singers. What most don't know is, she played a pivotal part in the civil rights movement using black spirituals, Eric Crawford has a Ph.D. in musicology. And he researches the rich tradition of Golan music. He says many of the civil rights leaders didn't want to use black spirituals. It was an intense moment, but Bessie Jones stood up!

Eric Crawford: That's a defining moment. Think about civil rights now, many of them were well educated. Doctors, master's degrees, but this woman with a fifth-grade education, oh my gosh, stands, and says, this music, which has gotten us to this point now, would be the same music that will get us from this point forward!

Lamont Jack Pearley: Though Jones stopped attending formal school by age 10, her extra ordinary life experiences, from fieldwork to tending to children and being immersed in the blues, work songs, and ring shouts, prepared her for her destiny.

Eric Crawford: The idea of teaching, you know, that trough moment, and when she knew that her purpose was to teach, you know, and you know, she would tell him, Listen, this is a way that we need to go here.

Lamont Jack Pearley: Jones’ stance indicates that it is not just music, that was the driving force of the movement. It was a particular type of music.

Eric Crawford: One of the things about the spiritual, which I think is unique, you know, these simple, oftentimes simple words that can be very complex now at times, but these songs that, you know, I don't care how bad things are, there's something about singing them that brings a feeling of peace, a joy. I'm not sure if it's just a sense of the tradition, the backstory of how it came to be. But these songs that are communal, it takes someone to call and a group to now respond.

Eric Crawford: She was so impactful in some areas to the point, culture, family first I’m sure, for faith for singers on St. Simons Island, civil rights. And I think just this generation now, you know, we see it in Ranky Tanky, in the fact that Gullah Geechee is becoming more and more well known, and with that, we should remember in homage to Bessie Jones.

Lamont Jack Pearley is an applied folklorist, ethnographer and African American traditional music historian and practitioner enrolled at WKU in the African American and Folk Studies programs. He is an African American Studies Ambassador with the African American Studies Department, hosts a weekly segment on WKU Public Radio called the African American Folklorist, and is the editor of the African American Folklorist Newspaper. He was inducted into the New York Blues Hall of Fame as Great Blues Historian and TV/Radio Producer (2017) and Great Blues Artist (2018).