Bessie Jones got the Holy Ghost in the vicinity of Fitzgerald, Georgia, on September 28, 1932. It didn’t happen in a church but in a vision: a tall man approached her with three tickets representing three separate denominations. She chose the Pentecostal Holiness, thereafter taking up membership in the Church of God in Christ. The ecstatic mysticism of COGIC suited Bessie, who from early girlhood was acutely attuned to portents, signs, and superstitions, cultivating an abiding sense of the spiritually sublime in her work, her relationships, and, especially, her music. She nurtured a prodigious repertoire of songs—hundreds of them, for work, play, worship, instruction—as both a rite and as a vocation. For Bessie, music was a means of honoring her enslaved ancestors, as she called them, and uplifting her hard-driven contemporaries. “Those folks were going through some hardships,” she told the scholar John Stewart in 1978, “and all those good songs, and the meanings of those songs, the Lord gave it to them. It was handed down to them without any schooling. And that’s why I’ve been so delighted to keep it going the old way—the way they had it.”
Jones joined the Spiritual Singers of Coastal Georgia after moving to St. Simons Island in the early thirties. The group had been organized around 1915 by Lydia Parrish (wife of painter Maxfield Parrish) and their charter was a conservative one—preserving through performance the antebellum spirituals and shouts, the deep African roots of which had remained largely untouched due to the relative isolation of the sea island. Thus the addition of Bessie to their ranks was remarkable. She contributed material inherited from her step-grandfather, Jet Sampson, a prolific singer and multi-instrumentalist born into slavery; ring plays picked up as a girl in South Georgia, around Dawson; work songs learned from convict road gangs, Bahamian fishermen, and Gulf Coast roustabouts; and hymns and songs for worship gathered from a good half-dozen black churches.
By the time folklorist Alan Lomax visited St. Simons with a stereo tape-machine in 1959, Bessie Jones and many of her songs had become fundamental to the ensemble (soon to be rechristened, by Bessie, the Georgia Sea Island Singers). Lomax was entranced. He invited her to New York City for the recording of her “oral biography,” which, when it was completed, covered some thirty hours of tape, including reminiscences, ghost stories, tall tales, jokes, religious testimony, herbal remedies, and many, many songs. Over the course of these sessions, the principals discovered that they were compiling the raw material for a large-scale pedagogical project to which, over the next twenty years, Bessie Jones would devote herself with religious fervor, teaching the old-time songs, plays, and lore to children and adults alike, across the country, in kindergarten classrooms and folk festivals, nightclubs, the Poor People’s March on Washington, Jimmy Carter’s inauguration. Her vision was one of radical egalitarianism, inspired by the enduring collective, expressive folk traditions—occupational, recreational, spiritual—of the black rural South and her ardent faith in a kind of ecstatic liberation theology, which found activist application in the civil rights movement. It was the right time for Bessie to do her work.
The entirety of Bessie Jones’s oral biography is available in free streaming audio through the online archive of Lomax’s Association for Cultural Equity. What follows is one small excerpt, particularly illustrative of Bessie’s mystical worldview and the often-visionary oral poetry in which she expressed it.
God made the whole world’s flowers—every tree, every bush—and had to make different flowers to make a bouquet. That’s for us to pick in together; we’s for Him to pick in together. Had to make different color for a bouquet for Him. We’s His flowers. He pick us as He want to.
A lot of folks in the grave today on account of someone called them “nigger.” ’Cause they got mad about it. Didn’t understand. I remember a white lady, my white lady told me, says, “People get mad about that, Bessie, but they ought to be glad that they are one.” I still is as mad at her right then, and I said, “Now, what are you talking about?” I would go on to read it and I find it on there, where the Lord said that would be: that slang name on earth for what we’re the Ethiopians. And we’re one of the greatest people on the face of the earth. If you would just understand it, see. And we’s a nation. And everything. But I just didn’t know it. And I was talking to my daughter-in-law about it, and she’s pricked against it, you know, and I kept on talking and after she got saved, and go further ‘way with the Bible, and began to read, and I ease up on and ease up on—you got to ease up on, you know; you can’t feed a baby off of bones, you know; you got to give him milk, you know—and so I just ease up on, ease up on till I got her to see it. Now she’s as happy with it as she can be. She understand it. It’s just a slang word, Jesus said, that earthy name they call you. And then it goes on that way, over there. It’s in Acts—Apostles, I think it’s around the fifth chapter, but anyway, you see straight-out nigger, the first nigger convert. That’s Enoch. And Queen of Sheba was so black, it’s pitiful. She’s as black as my son. Real dark. Like pretty smooth black skin, had long black hair—that’s Queen of Sheba. The greatest queen. And the prettiest woman of the time. And Jesse was a black man, you see. That was Mary’s father. And Mary is Jesus’s mother. Where he say that I am of the Ethiopian tribe. Root and offspring of David. You know David black.
The colored peoples and the nationality of peoples—I’m talking about the nation of people—all over the country, to my eye and my belief, everywhere in the world, I believe we should realize that peoples are just people. And you’re human and you got to die. We all realize and know that God don’t think no more of you than he do of me. That’s what we oughta see. If God loved you—I was talking to a white lady then—if He loved you more than He did me, He wouldn’t let you have to even birth a baby: He’d let your childrens come on up to you before you. You got to get ’em like I get ’em. You got to go through what I go through it. You got to shed blood. You got to die for that child. That’s right. You got to stink like everybody else. That’s true. Everything is right. But if God thought any more any different in it, well, He would make it different.
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