Monday, June 20, 2011

The Ring Shout

How do you connect musically and culturally with traditions of past generations? Many of us in the American South are fascinated to learn how our contemporary music and other artistic aspects of culture have been shaped by our ancestors. When I experienced the “ring shout” performed in Savannah, Georgia, I connected immediately to several musical genres of the South — spirituals, gospel, blues, jazz, and others.

With features that are clearly West African in origin, the ring shout is a religious dance that combines a counter-clockwise movement, call-and-response singing, and percussion. Still performed in coastal Georgia, the ring shout is probably the oldest surviving African American performance tradition in North America. It has survived well beyond several generations of Africans enslaved in coastal Georgia and South Carolina on the cotton and rice fields who could preserve their own Geechee and Gullah cultures on the sea islands because they were so isolated from the American mainland.

The term shout, although used to describe all elements of the tradition, specifically refers to its dancelike movement. (The word shout may derive from the Afro-Arabic saut that refers to movement around the Kabaa in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, according to a linguist.) A “songster” (or song master) sets a song by beginning slowly at first and then accelerating to a faster tempo. His lines are answered by singers (known as basers) in a call-and-response pattern. The stick-man beats a simple drum-like rhythm with a wood stick, and the basers add rhythm with hand clapping and foot patting.

As the tradition developed in America during slavery, Christian themes were grafted onto the practice (much like candomblé in Brazil). (In fact, when I observed the ring shout performed at the Second African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, I was immediately attracted to the counterclockwise shuffle, call-and-response singing, and handclapping that I had observed in Brazil at a candomblé service conducted by African descendants.)

During the American Civil War, outside observers described in detail the ring shout’s practice in coastal Georgia and South Carolina. According to the Georgia Humanities Council, the ring shout continued to be practiced even as it was influencing forms of spiritual and gospel music and elements of jazz. However, because many communities had stopped shouting as early as the 1900s, experts thought that the ring shout was no longer being practiced until they learned in 1980 about the Bolden community in McIntosh County on the Georgia coast that annually performs the ring shout on New Year’s Eve at Mt. Calvary Baptist Church. (The ring shout continues to be separate from formal worship, although it takes place in the church’s annex.)

In fact, if not for this group, performing the ring shout may have become an extinct form of expression. (When the tradition became better known to outsiders, a performing group from the community that calls itself the McIntosh County Shouters was organized. The ages of their ten members range from 24 to 94.) Because all members of the group are related by blood or marriage, they have known each other since birth, and they have been interviewed and observed by historians, linguists, anthropologists, folklorists, and Gullah Gechee experts.

The ring shout has been shared by grandparents — and sometimes great grandparents — with their descendants. (In fact, at the performance that I attended, long-term member Harold Evans had been replaced by 24-year-old Brendon Jordan, grandson of baser Caretha Sullivan, as the stick-man.) To maintain the integrity of the ring shout, elders teach and practice it as they learned from their ancestors, although no two shouters “shout” alike.

As they move in a counter-clockwise pattern, each one has distinctive hand motions or other movements. The ring shout affirms oneness with the Spirit and ancestors in an expression of community cohesiveness. However, because the shout was criticized by white missionaries and some black clergy, it often occurred in the church after formal worship, in "praise houses" in the woods, and sometimes even in homes or barns. Yet the movement is “in the service of the Lord”; thus it is a forward shuffle -- the feet never are crossed or are raised high off the floor because, as the narrator at a performance explains, such movements could be viewed as “unholy” dancing.

The shout songs, once known as “running spirituals,” often carry coded references to slavery. When I observed the McIntosh County Shouters at the Second African Baptist Church (a historic church that has met at the same location since 1802 -- its history includes an overflow crowd to welcome Emancipation authorities in 1864 when the church was host to U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Union General William T. Sherman), their songs included “Teach Me, Lord, How to Wait” with references to Job and his suffering. The first verse ends:
Job said, “I will surely wait.”
Teach me, Lord,
Teach me, Lord,
How to wait.
Many congregants of Second African Baptist joined in response to the call of Freddie Palmer, a strong lead singer who became the songster when Lawrence McKiver, who had been the group’s patriarch, recently passed. In addition, C. MeGill Brown (a Savannah native), pastor of Second African Baptist Church, showed his connection by being a joyful participant in the call-and-response.

According to the Georgia Humanities Council, the ring shout has survived in coastal Georgia because the Bolden community has been relatively stable, and several elder practitioners have been deeply committed in continuing the tradition and encouraging its practice by a new generation, and the value of the tradition has received significant external recognition. For example, the McIntosh County Shouters were featured on the HBO documentary Unchained Memories in 2002. In 2010 they received the Georgia Governor’s Award in the Humanities. The book Shout Because You’re Free by Art Rosenbaum further documents this tradition.

Knowledge about the ring shout is also being expanded by websites. For example, a recent presentation in Washington, DC, is on YouTube (57-minute video). This performance with a narrator is basically the same program that I observed in Savannah (without the introduction by the Director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and the Arts Services Manager for the Georgia Council for the Arts). Several short videos are also on YouTube, including a 39-second video showcasing the forward shuffle and a slightly longer one focusing on a baser.

According to the McIntosh County Shouters, they are like other cultural heritage organizations that help people “to remember and celebrate their shared experiences, traditions, identities, struggles, and aspirations.”

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