Georgia State University’s “I Lot” is a small, cramped parking deck on Peachtree Center Avenue, next to the historic Hurt Building. By day it’s reserved for GSU faculty and staff, but by night it becomes parking for events at Kopleff Recital Hall, a block away.
I had arrived early this past Friday to be sure of getting a space on the bottom level. As I got out of my car, a long white van was trying to come in, but it was too large for the entrance. The attendant tried to direct the driver to potential parking some blocks away. A small red sign on the van read “McIntosh County Shouters,” the group I’d come to hear. I hailed the driver after he backed out into the street.
“Do you need to unload at the recital hall?,” I asked. “Go to the light, turn right and stop. I’ll meet you at the corner.” They got the last spot on the street, barely enough space due to a large construction vehicle just behind it, but in front of the backstage door. “Will it be OK here?” asked the driver, noticing the ominous Park Atlanta signs. “You’re good. It’s after seven now,” I assured. He grinned with a visible sense of relief.
The McIntosh County Shouters, all from the Gullah-Geechee community in Boldon near Townsend in South Georgia, were scheduled for an 8 o’clock show at Kopleff. They had traveled a long way from the Lowcountry to the big city to demonstrate their unique art of dance and song, known as the “ring shout.”
The word “shout” refers not to the music but to the dance, a counterclockwise ring dance that involves a shuffling movement of the feet, understated hip movements and pantomiming with hands and arms to illustrate a song’s story or meaning. The shuffling motion is due to an avoidince of lifting the feet too high off the floor or crossing them while dancing, based upon spiritual notions among the culture.
The music has its formalities. A “songster” leads and “sets” the song before the “shouters” join in. One or more “basers” are responsible for vocally responding to the songster and also acting as “clappers,” clapping hands to the same simple syncopated rhythm as the “stickman” who beats it out on the floor or a wooden board with a broomstick or other long wooden staff. At the same time, there is a regular percussive rhythm set against it by solidly tapping the feet. This combined rhythmic cell underlies all ring shout music. If notated, it might look like this:
The audience at Friday’s performance remained rapt throughout. When the energized, charismatic songster, Freddie Palmer, was introduced, he began singing a song not characteristic of ring shout but of gospel: “Lord, I know I been changed, the angels in heaven done signed my name,” bringing the house to its feet, with most of the audience joining in. Also of special note was the singing of Alberta Sallins, who has the dual role of baser and sometimes shouter and a powerful, assurance-inspiring contralto voice that one could listen to all day.
The songs were of daily concerns, family and happiness, the struggles of slavery, the Civil War and emancipation, all deeply rooted in a religion of promise that says God would and will continue to set his people free. The men performed in denim overalls and work shirts throughout, the women in simple pea green cotton dresses in the first half and bolder deep red patterned ones in the second.
When Georgia was chartered as a British “trustee” colony in 1832, slavery was prohibited in it. Early Scottish settlers in what became McIntosh County successfully opposed attempts to legalize it in 1739, and the prohibition lasted until 1749. But with the introduction of skilled slaves from the “rice coast” of West Africa into the Carolinas as far north as Cape Fear and subsequently into Georgia, the Gullah-Geechee culture began to develop. For mostly geographical reasons, it remained isolated, and thus protected, for several hundred years.
Unlike African-American vernacular English, Gullah not a “dialect” but a language in its own right, an English-based Creole with a consistent underlying West African grammar and syntax, and African loan words. Despite its relative isolation, Gullah has itself managed to lend a few words to standard American vocabulary: “jukebox,” for example, has its origins in Gullah.
The ring shout developed out of the collision of West African spiritual practice with the Protestantism of the British colonies, essentially as a cultural response of slaves to the dry, movement-less worship practices of the slave owners. But the songs of the ring shout are in a style distinct from the more familiar American “spirituals.” Historians and musicologists presumed that the ring shout had died out completely until it was “rediscovered” in 1980 as being alive and well in McIntosh County.
From that, the McIntosh County Shouters were formed to preserve the ring shout and expose it through public performances, though it was never intended to be “performed” as such. It is a spiritual and social activity within the community — a “holy dance.” As part of American culture overall, its status warrants preservation, yet every child within the Gullah community knows how to ring shout. It’s the oldest African-American art form still practiced in North America, and the McIntosh County Shouters make claim on being its only authentic practitioners.
The group’s members are all related by blood or marriage, spanning three generations. The youngest, 26-year-old stickman Brenton Jordan, is the son and grandson respectively of shouters Carla Jordan and Caletha Sullivan. The oldest member is the group’s patriarch, Lawrence McIver, 96, who is now emeritus and was not present. His role as songster has been taken over by Palmer.
For the McIntosh County Shouters, their songs are as relevant today as they were to ancestors of generations ago. As was said during the show, “You have to know where you come from to know where you’re going.” And there is much, still, for us all to learn.