n 2006, my first year as a music instructor at Norfolk State University, I had a graduate student named Marianne Rice from Beaufort, South Carolina, who wrote a paper on Gullah music. In what would later become her book, she describes an African-American cultural form I had never encountered. I knew of the spirituals “Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen,” “Roll, Jordan Roll,” and “Come by Here,” which are standard repertoire at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, but didn’t know of their connections to this new (to me) word “Gullah.” Over time, I learned that Gullah cultural origins trace back to Angola, where many Sea Island slaves came from, and that the more common term Geechee, describing the same coastal population, is believed by some scholars to derive from the Ogeechee River in coastal Georgia. At that moment, when my student’s paper exposed me to the subject, I realized a need to find those connective strands that bind Gullah Geechee music to Mother Africa and later to American song styles, and my research since then has built upon this awakening point in my career.
On Monday, October 8, 2018, I attended a funeral in Murrells Inlet for Mary Knox, whom I had interviewed along with her husband, Lawrence, two years earlier about the rich musical history of their church, Heaven’s Gate. In some ways, I was retracing the footsteps of famed folklorist John Lomax, who had come in 1936 and ’37 to the then quaint fishing village (now billing itself as the Seafood Capital of South Carolina) with his suitcase-size recorder in the trunk of his Ford sedan to preserve the spirituals sung there in the Gullah tradition.
I went to the funeral hoping to find some relative of Lillie or Zackie Knox, two of Lomax’s favorite performers; between August 1936 and July 1937, he made a remarkable thirty-four recordings of Lillie and sixteen of Zackie.
After the funeral was over, I waited around and asked if anyone had known Lillie Knox, and someone directed me to Richard Knox, Lillie’s grandson. I am sure I startled him with my gleefulness on such a somber day, but I couldn’t help it. When I told him about my interest in his grandmother, I was astonished to learn that he didn’t know she was a singer or had any songs on YouTube, where I first heard her recording of “Troubled About My Soul.” Later, we met at the funeral reception at Heaven’s Gate United Methodist Church, where, eighty-two years earlier, Lomax had set up his recorder in the windowsill to capture Richard’s grandmother’s voice. Richard quickly gathered his other siblings, and we stood around Lillie’s gravestone in the church cemetery. It is a moment I will never forget. A few days later, I visited again with Lawrence, who turned out to be Zackie’s son, and I spoke by phone to Lawrence’s sister, who claimed that I was lying about her father, because he couldn’t sing. I played the Lomax recording of Zackie’s “Listen to the Roll” over the phone to her, and she was speechless. Her father seemed alive again!
When I first heard Lillie’s “Troubled,” I was immediately struck by her unique tone that defies racial stereotypes. Lillie’s sound is not readily identifiable as black or white but seems a merger of the two as she effortlessly blends country and blues in a haunting song about family loss. Noticeably absent is the Gullah Geechee accent, and she finds little use for vibrato. Instead, a pure, unadorned, angelic quality characterizes her soprano. Such simplicity proves effective in conveying Lillie’s innermost thoughts—her pain. In the song’s opening line, “Wonder where my mother, wonder where she’s gone,” she is singing about her life, her world. Although only thirty-five at the time, she seems worn down by the everyday struggles of a poor black woman in the Jim Crow South. Her childhood, in effect, had ended all too early. By the age of sixteen, Lillie had experienced the sudden loss of her father, Henry Cogsdell, at the age of thirty-nine, and had witnessed the steady decline of her mother, Liza. According to Genevieve Chandler, Lillie’s employer and friend, Liza continued to call Henry’s name and “cook fried fish and things he loved to eat” until the day she died. Not long after Lillie’s father’s death, Lillie’s younger sister Geneva drowned in the salt marsh near Genevieve’s home, and Lillie was left to raise her remaining siblings, Henry Jr. and Elijah, and her own son Paul.
In 1920, Lillie married Richard Knox, Paul’s father, and they had two more children, Richard Jr. and Mary. The couple experienced the tragic loss of two other children. Their son David was asphyxiated by the umbilical cord during his birth, and their daughter Julie died after only a few months from birth defects. Further heartache followed in 1941, when Lillie’s husband accidently shot a woman and was sentenced to serve on a chain gang. She now had to support the family all by herself. Genevieve admitted that Lillie was unusually “troubled with misfortune for much of her life,” but Lillie had her faith, and that was absolute.
In 1918, Lillie took her late mother’s position as domestic worker for Clark and Minnie Willcox, a white family living in the historic 1849 Hermitage house in Murrells Inlet. When the Willcoxes’ daughter Genevieve married Tom Mobley Chandler, Lillie left to take care of their home and children. This was only natural, since Lillie’s family had known Genevieve all her life and the two were very close. In fact, Genevieve was Lillie’s maid of honor when she married Richard. Tom’s unexpected death in 1936 forced a pregnant Genevieve (with four other kids) to support her growing family, and in turn Lillie’s, by selling short stories about the lives of the Gullah Geechee people in Murrells Inlet to magazines like Scribner’s. It was the Depression, and there were few other options for these two women. (Genevieve’s brother-in-law even suggested that she put her children up for adoption. She responded, “With God’s help I’m gonna keep my children.”)
Lillie was known to be a talker, and since Genevieve was paid by the word, Lillie provided her with plenty of stories about the Gullah Geechee community. Genevieve’s second-oldest daughter, also named Genevieve, recalls that her mother had to make at least sixty dollars a month, “thirty dollars of which would go for the car payment on the Chevrolet and twelve dollars to Lillie, which her family lived on, and the balance of eighteen dollars to feed and clothe our own family.” While she continued to help raise the five Chandler children, clean the house, milk the cow, and of course cook the meals, Lillie now had to share her culture with an outsider, albeit one who was also a friend—Genevieve.
Gullah Geechee culture was usually hidden to most white people, but both women understood that their survival depended on Genevieve’s dramatic writing about its unique West African–derived language, customs, and music. The Uncle Remus stories of Joel Chandler Harris, Ambrose Gonzales’s Black Border, and DuBose Heyward’s Porgy had created great interest among white readers for literature about black folklife. Lillie and Genevieve drew from the large population of former slaves and slave descendants from the many plantations near Murrells Inlet for their source material. Lillie served as storyteller and liaison between Genevieve and this community.
Lillie introduced Genevieve to eighty-nine-year-old Ben Horry, a former slave who provided one of the most graphic accounts ever recorded regarding the behavior of the black overseer. Writing in Gullah dialect, Genevieve captured an incident in which Horry’s mother refused to obey the often cruel overseer. Horry recalls, “She been give 25 to 50 lashes till the blood flow. . . . My father and me stand right there and look and ain’t able to lift a hand.”
Genevieve also interviewed Lillie’s close friend and matriarch of the Murrells Inlet black community, seventy-seven-year-old Hagar Brown, who was a legendary midwife and a grandmother and great-grandmother to many. On July 4, 1937, Genevieve wrote about Brown’s bout with tonsillitis. After Lillie asks her how she is doing, Brown responds, “Painful. Doctor tell me I got the tonsil . . . I say, ‘No Doctor! Get in hospital, can’t get out!’”
Although Lillie was too young to provide Genevieve with first-person accounts of slavery, she knew fascinating stories learned from her grandmother Kit Farewell, who was part Native American. Many of Kit’s stories centered around Gullah Geechee supernatural spirits called hags or plat-eyes that were usually seen at night. Genevieve and Lillie’s stories caught the attention of Mabel Montgomery, South Carolina director of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project, which hired Genevieve and requested that John Lomax, Federal Writers’ Project folklore editor, come to Murrells Inlet and help Genevieve with editing and audio recordings of interviews. Lillie’s singing soon overshadowed her storytelling, once Lomax arrived in the summer of 1936.
Lomax traveled over a thousand miles to record the stories and songs from the Gullah Geechee people in Murrells Inlet, whom he called “primitive coast Negroes.” Shortly after his arrival, Lillie brought him to her Heaven’s Gate Methodist Church. Described as a “long, low whitewashed church” by Julia Peterkin (Genevieve’s daughter-in-law) in her popular novel Black April, Heaven’s Gate was the cultural center and a meeting place for the community. On August 30, 1936, Lomax recorded a Sunday-morning service that featured the Negro spirituals “Doubtin’ Thomas” and “Don’t Take Everybody for Your Friend” led by Simon Small and the Reverend Aaron Pinnacle, pastor of Heaven’s Gate. These lead singers raise (begin) each song’s verse before giving way to the congregational refrains passed down through generations of church members. The polyrhythmic clapping and pulsating foot stamping are the only accompaniment, but they effectively drive and push each song’s intensity and tempo until the culminating point—the shout.
The shout or ring shout was a counterclockwise circular dance slaves performed inside a small wooden structure called a prays (praise) house. As the dance increased in tempo, slaves inserted grunts, groans, and shouts until spirit possession often occurred. Later, a more stationary form of the shout emerged in Southern black churches as unmovable pews compressed the available space. In Heaven’s Gate Church, one of the main shouters was Lillie, who would often “fall out” when the spirit hit her. On one such occasion, Genevieve had to comfort one of her children who thought that Lillie had died. Most churches designated certain members who gathered around shouters to prevent injury and to help them recover consciousness. Within the emotionally-charged environment of the Heaven’s Gate church service, Lomax probably realized the immense talent of Lillie, especially when she sang the ethereal spiritual “Heaven is a Beautiful Place.”
Lomax specifically mentions “Heaven is a Beautiful Place” in his autobiography, Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, published in 1947, a year before his death. He states, “On our many visits, Lilly [Lillie] sang many beautiful spirituals, ‘Heaven is a Beautiful Place’ being one of our favorites.” Lomax even includes the song’s lyrics:
Heaven is a beautiful place, I know, I know
Heaven is a peaceful place, I know
Won’t be no mournin’ there, I know;
Won’t be no sinnin’ there, I know:
Won’t be no sorrowin’ there.
When Lomax returned to Murrells Inlet with his wife, Ruby, in July 1937, he focused only on a few select singers and no longer needed to record at Heaven’s Gate Church. Instead, he gathered the church’s best singers together in Genevieve’s front yard. Although far from ideal, this location provided ample space for his recording device and easy access to Lillie. He captures her solo singing in “Got de Keys to de Kingdom,” “I Know My Time Ain’t Long,” and “Troubled About My Soul.” By no coincidence, these songs all possess sorrowful melodies and lyrics that are ideally suited for Lillie’s understated yet effective singing. These songs are representative of early accounts of Negro spirituals, when first-time listeners and later scholars such as W. E. B. DuBois referred to them as “sorrow songs.” Incidentally, Lillie’s performance of “Troubled” includes the sound of a car that happened to pass by in the middle of the song—the unfortunate downside of recording outside.
Lomax found Lillie’s voice equally suited for duets, trios, and quartets, and he worked out special arrangements for her. The four-part song “Run Mary, Run” features Lillie with fellow church members Albertina Keith, Martha Wright, and an unnamed male singer (probably Zackie Knox) in a song about Christ’s resurrection. In her role as lead angel, Wright utilizes her heavy Gullah accent and raspy alto voice to preach to Mary Magdalene to “run” and tell the disciples that Jesus has risen. Meanwhile, Lillie and the other singers harmonize the repetitive, almost hypnotic line “Galilee, My Lord’s Gone to Galilee.”
In the duet “Keep Workin’ on a Building,” Lillie is paired again with Martha, but this time, Lomax encourages them to add claps and stomps as if in church. These two women feature the church’s characteristic pulsating stomp and a double clapping pattern based on the tresillo rhythm (a variant of the clave), brought from West and Central Africa by slaves and surviving today in African-American churches in Gullah Geechee communities. As the listener hears these rhythms, it is easy to understand why many African-American churches during this time found little need for musical instruments.
It is unclear how Lomax met Zackie Knox; he may have heard him at Heaven’s Gate or met him through Lillie. Whatever the case, Lomax realized that Zackie’s voice was the equal of Lillie’s. Ever the entrepreneur, he asked Zackie if he would sing some secular music, but he refused. He would not sing the blues or, in his words, “fiddle songs.” However, he agreed to allow Lomax to capture sixteen of his interpretations of spirituals.
In Zackie’s recordings, we can clearly hear the connective threads between the Negro spiritual and the blues. The spirituals he sings, like “A Long Grave and a Short Grave” and “Listen to the Roll,” are slow, introspective laments without need of a group response. According to author Bob Darden, this is “music performed by an artist to a congregation (or audience) rather than a spontaneous creation of an audience.” In truth, Zackie’s intimate singing contains vocal slides and bent notes that seem more appropriate for a blues song than sacred songs containing biblical texts. In his book The Story of the Blues, Paul Oliver argues that the Sea Island region is the home of the first blues song, “Poor Rosy,” recorded in the 1860s. He says that, according to “an old slave woman,” you can’t sing this song if you don’t have a “full heart and a troubled spirit.” Zackie seemed to have had both.
Zackie’s spiritual “A Long Grave and a Short Grave” contains the somber reoccurring line “There’s a long grave and a short grave everywhere I go, everywhere I go.” Zackie’s position as deacon in his church made him well aware of the inescapable reality that death visits both the old and the young. This line reminds me of the many deacons in my home church—Mount Gilead Baptist Church in Norfolk, Virginia—who would often say, “Death is no respecter of person or age. You better get right now.”
However, my favorite song by Zackie is “Listen to the Roll,” which contains these lyrics:
I listened to the roll, and the roll was calling
There was nobody there for to answer for me
Lord, I had to answer for myself.
Zackie’s masterful blues-infused performance makes clear why Lomax wanted him to sing secular music. He was in essence a blues singer performing Negro spirituals well before Southern African-American churches in the 1950s and ’60s embraced gospel music’s blending of sacred texts with blues harmonies and rhythms. Zackie was ahead of his time in the 1930s.
In 1939, Lomax returned to Murrells Inlet for a final recording session, but Lillie refused—she was ill, “not agreeable.” Zackie also refused to sing. I am not sure if illness was the true cause of Lillie’s refusal, but she would never be recorded again.
In fall 2018, I came across Lillie’s music on a record titled Deep River of Song: South Carolina, “Got the Keys to the Kingdom,” released in 2002. When I realized her connection to Murrells Inlet, I became interested in returning this community’s recordings (currently held at the Library of Congress) to the singers’ descendants. I contacted the Association for Cultural Equity in New York City, where Anna Lomax Wood, granddaughter of John Lomax, is president and Jorge Arévalo Mateus is executive director. I also contacted Todd Harvey, curator of the Alan Lomax Collection, at the Library of Congress. They were all in full support.
Last March, Coastal Carolina University, where I now teach, sponsored a repatriation of the Lomax WPA recordings and invited the Murrells Inlet community, including both Knox families, to attend. Anna Lomax, Jorge Mateus, and Todd Harvey spoke on the importance of the occasion and their ongoing efforts to connect communities with their cultural past. South Carolina Educational Television was also present, and they interviewed participants and family members for a documentary on the Knox singers. I asked our university’s music majors to perform Lillie’s “Troubled About My Soul” and Zackie’s “Listen to the Roll” so the audience (including family members) could understand the power of this music.
Finally, each of the Knox families chose a spokesperson for the event. Lawrence Knox shared memories about his father, Zackie, and recognized his other siblings and family members who were present. One of the highlights for me was the speech given by Lillie’s granddaughter, also named Lillie. She eloquently expressed her family’s appreciation for the event and discussed her memories of her grandmother, yet she regretted that it “took so many years to hear my grandmother’s songs.” I am sure that listeners to this music will share the same sentiment when they hear Lillie and Zackie Knox.
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