Some ladies and gentlemen from rural McIntosh County took the stage last month for an urbane audience at the Macky Auditorium Concert Hall in Boulder, Colo.
They donned their Sunday best overalls and straw hats, their colorful heirloom dresses and head scarves. Their only musical accompaniment was a long stick striking a board on the floor.
The result was mesmerizing.
Rhythmic hand-clapping accompanied and countered the staccato smacks of that stick upon the board, creating a bewilderingly complex percussion beat. An earthy masculine voice trumpeted a resonating call, answered melodically by a spirited response from the chorus of ladies. Those ladies’ dresses flowed as they sashayed in a counterclockwise movement onstage, hands pantomiming a centuries-old musical storyline of hope, salvation and deliverance.
“People are still talking about it,” Boulder’s Annett James said of the Shouters’ June 23 performance at the Macky Auditorium. “They were exceptional.”
James, President of Boulder’s NAACP, had been trying to get the McIntosh County Shouters to perform there since she first heard them nearly three years ago in Washington, D.C. That was at the opening of the National Museum of African American Heritage and Culture, in September of 2018.
“When I first saw them, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this needs to be heard in Boulder.’ The history and culture appeals to the intellect, but the performance is something that resonates with the emotional part of being a human being. I think that is what made them so popular here.”
Even if there were no grand openings in Washington, D.C., or concert halls in Boulder, Colo., in which to perform, these talented folks would likely still congregate and shout. The present incarnation of this group of Gullah Geechee ring shouters goes back to the early 1980s, to the backwoods McIntosh County community of Briar Patch near Townsend.
There a close-knit collection of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, aunts and uncles, cousins and in-laws gathered at the Bolden Home Lodge or at The Mount Calvary Baptist Church to perform for the sheer joy of it.
“It was a way of remembering their forebears, as well as something they really enjoyed,” said Brenton Jordan, the McIntosh County Shouters’ stickman. “They enjoyed singing the shout songs, it was a communal thing.”
But the ring shout itself traces its beginnings back to the trials and tribulations of slavery. Its roots stretch further still to Africa.
It emerged out of necessity, an effort to hold on to traditional ways while clinging to hope for better things to come. It was a merger of present and past, from new Christian teachings to old spiritual ways; the new and old languages blended into a distinct Gullah Geechee dialect that is still evident in the lyrics.
The songs speak of deliverance from bondage or the promise of going to a heavenly reward. The rhythms, cadence and movements are purely African.
The counterclockwise movements of the performers is likely a nod to African spiritual traditions in which the patterns of birth, life, death and rebirth mirror the movements of the sun. The stick that keeps time in the ring shout may well have been an adaptation to new realities. Traditional musical instruments, drums especially, were discouraged and even forbidden on some plantations going back to a slave revolt in the mid 1700s.
“Due to the role of drums in signaling the Stono Rebellion in 1739, slave owners and state governments tried to prevent slaves from making or playing musical instruments,” according to the educational website, Boundless US History.
Also, the ring-shout performers do not dance, no matter how much it may appear otherwise. Keeping to the religious strictures against dancing in the earliest days of enslavement, the fluid movements are more accurately a kind of shuffle.
With emancipation after the Civil War, newly freedmen and freedwomen along the Georgia coast settled in isolated coastal communities. Self-reliant, resourceful and fiercely independent, they held on to their traditions with little outside influence. In the community of Briar Patch, this included the musical tradition of the ring shout.
After being “discovered” by a folklorist in the 1980s, the shouters made their first Smithsonian Folkways recording, The McIntosh County Shouters: Slave Shout Songs from the Coast of Georgia, in 1983. A new generation of shouters has taken the mantle from that group, but the recordings and appearances on national stages continue.
Brenton, by far the youngest member of the Shouters at 33, said there once was a stigma attached to being Gullah Geechee. Too rural, too isolated from the real world, some scoffed. Likewise, many did not understand why Brenton would want to perform a musical style that harkens back to slavery.
They do not understand, he said. The music is about surviving enslavement. It is about persevering as a people and triumphing over bondage with one’s culture in tact.
“There were several people who said the continuation of the ring shout was a disgrace, to hold on to that, quote-unquote, slave stuff,” Brenton said. “For my family, being Gullah Geechee is actually a badge of honor now. It is something we always held our head up high and said, ‘That’s what we are.’”
Brenton, by the way, lives in hip Savannah, where he works at a chiropractor’s office. He went to school at Savannah Technical College. He also does African dance performances.
For Brenton, last month’s performance in Colorado helped preserve the Gullah Geechee ring shout tradition by sharing it with a new audience.
“To have had the opportunity to go out and share a tradition that has been in my family for more than 300 years, that gave me a great sense of pride that I am continuing the legacy of my ancestors,” Brenton said. “It was a beautiful moment.”