“I Heard the Angels Singing”: Listening to Gullah Geechee People Who Inspired Porgy and Bess
To kick off our new series, The Past and Present of Porgy and Bess, we’re pleased to welcome guest contributor and expert on Gullah Geechee culture, Heather L. Hodges. In this post, Heather tells the deeply researched story of a staged Gullah Geechee musical performance that George Gershwin heard during his 1934 trip to South Carolina. She explains that understanding Gullah Geechee musical traditions and learning about the people who have kept them alive is critical to how audiences, producers, and performers approach Porgy and Bess today.
Biographies of George Gershwin and historical accounts of the composition of Porgy and Bess rarely fail to recount that Gershwin spent the summer of 1934 on James Island outside Charleston, South Carolina. He used some of that time to learn about the musical expressions of the local Gullah Geechee people. They were the subjects of DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel Porgy that Gershwin’s 1935 opera would adapt. Gershwin undertook a form of shallow cultural immersion, with Heyward’s help, that focused primarily on Gullah Geechee music. What he may have heard that summer is not beyond the reach of performers and audiences thanks to a cache of contemporaneous sound and film recordings archived in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. These recordings can assist people interested in hearing an authentic presentation of the traditional music and speech of a 1930s Gullah community in South Carolina.
Porgy and Bess has proven to be a remarkably durable platform for experimentation on how to interpret and present Gullah culture. In particular, productions in Charleston dating back to 1970 have embraced the opportunity to collaborate with local artists to bring more authentic and recognizable Gullah cultural expressions into the opera. It is also the case that some of the Gullah communities that Mr. Gershwin visited in the summer of 1934 still exist, as do the descendants of the Gullah people who inspired the music of Porgy and Bess. I believe that they can and should be invited to engage in conversations about the representations of Gullah Geechee people and their traditional music in this classic American opera. So, in early 2020, I went in search of some of these descendants.
If you make a left turn at the New Jerusalem African Methodist Episcopal Church on Wadmalaw Island, South Carolina, a sign for its creek-side cemetery comes into view. I discovered (after exploring census records and cemeteries on the island) that the names on many of the headstones matched a list of 30 names on two handwritten sheets of lined notebook paper that live in the archives of the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress. These were the Black men and women who formed one of the casts of a Depression-era stage production, “Plantation Echoes,” a staged, three-act musical presentation of Gullah Geechee spiritual and secular culture that debuted in downtown Charleston in 1933 and ran for several years. On July 17, 1934, some of the cast members of “Plantation Echoes” were asked to perform at a concert on Wadmalaw Island (just south of James Island) that was organized for Gershwin. A full performance of “Plantation Echoes” was later recorded on July 16, 1937, in Charleston by famed folklorist John Lomax for the Library of Congress.
Source: Various Small Collections, 1786–2011. Plantation Echoes (A Three Act All Negro Dramatic Musical Production) program. Series 0041. Courtesy of Avery Research Center at College of Charleston.
Many of the performers in “Plantation Echoes“ were members of a close-knit Gullah Geechee farming community at the far end of Wadmalaw Island near where New Jerusalem church sits today. “Gullah” is a word that dates back to South Carolina’s colonial era. It was once used to describe enslaved people on the Carolina coast who had been trafficked from a specific part of Africa, likely modern-day Angola, at a time when the many Africans in the American colonies were often identified by their ethnicity and/or place of origin.
Over time, “Gullah” came to be generally applied to a broader group of people enslaved in the South Carolina Lowcountry. This included a great many Senegambians and other African peoples from the rice-growing regions of coastal West Africa. Because of their familiarity with tidal rice agriculture, these particular Africans were in high demand by the North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida slave owners who owned large rice, indigo, and sea island cotton plantations that covered the lower Atlantic coastline and neighboring islands. The term “Geechee” was also adopted in coastal Georgia to describe the enslaved people on its coastal rice plantations and their descendants. The etymology of “Geechee” is less clear, but it is likely a geographic reference to the Ogeechee River near Savannah, a region dense with antebellum rice plantations.
This entire coastal region that was once the epicenter of American rice agriculture in the antebellum era — from Pender County, NC to St. Johns County, FL and for 30 miles inland — is now recognized as the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. In addition to the agricultural regions, it also includes cities like Wilmington, Jacksonville, Savannah, Beaufort, Georgetown, and Charleston that were integral parts of the slave society and, after Emancipation, key destinations for Gullah Geechee people in search of economic opportunities.
The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor is a federal National Heritage Area created by an act of Congress in 2006 to recognize the historic and cultural contributions of the Gullah Geechee people to American culture. Collectively, they developed a creole culture — known today as “Gullah Geechee” — marked by their facility at preserving a broad range of African cultural expressions (such as sweetgrass basket making), technologies, and knowledge systems. They also created a distinctive language, also called “Gullah” (part of the larger family of Atlantic English-Based Creole languages which include Bajan and Jamaican patois) to help them bridge the linguistic differences between the multiple African ethnicities represented in the Lowcountry, Europeans, and the remaining Native Americans.
I reached out to Rev. Toney J. Slater, Jr. at the church after making the connection between “Plantation Echoes,” Gershwin, and New Jerusalem. I immediately received a reply from Mrs. Portia Stoney, the Christian Education Director for the church — and a church historian. My timing was good. About two years ago, Rev. Slater tasked her and another congregation member, Mr. Frank Murray, with doing a cemetery history. She has been working on a history for Frank’s grandmother, Mrs. Julia Murray. Mrs. Murray performed in “Plantation Echoes,” but this was news to Mrs. Stoney. She did recognize many of the names on the 1937 cast list. Mrs. Stoney was surprised and drew her breath sharply in surprise when I mentioned the connection to Mr. Gershwin. Now, she said, there would be a brand new story to tell at church for Black History Month.
The Charleston News & Courier headline on March 19, 1933, “5 ISLAND NEGROES WILL BE IN SHOW,” was intriguing given the sponsors for the program. These included the White plantation owners of Wadmalaw Island led by Mrs. Rosa Warren Wilson, Charleston Mayor Burnet Maybank, and Porgy author DuBose Heyward. Later, Mrs. Wilson would claim credit for conceptualizing, directing, and producing the productions of “Plantation Echoes” as a means of helping to raise money for the economically-struggling Gullah people who lived near her.
The headline continued, “50 Wadmalaw Negros Will Perform in ‘Plantation Echoes’ April 7 — At Academy Of Music — Prayer Meeting and Funeral to Be Reenacted Without Change on Stage.” That this was meant to be an unusual and authentic cultural performance was underscored by the promise in the article that the “last five slaves” from the island, “each more than 85 years old,” would appear. “Each Tuesday night these slaves and their descendants have held ‘class meetings’ in the shanty home of their ‘sperchal faddah,’ old Cesar Roper,” the article explained. “Every Thursday and Sunday night they go to their church, ‘The Foundation.’”
DuBose Heyward had become an active booster for “Plantation Echoes” after seeing a tryout a few weeks earlier. “I predict for ‘Plantation Echoes’ great success,” Heyward said in an April 2, 1933 interview with the Charleston News & Courier. “The simplicity, sincerity, and a complete lack of self-consciousness on the part of the participants, the beauty of the spirituals, and the religious fervor of the prayers carry an appeal that cannot be resisted.” The debut performance took place at the Academy of Music in downtown Charleston and tickets were sold to benefit the performers, who the public were told were impoverished, untutored field hands and “Gullah Natives.” A reviewer for Etude magazine later described them as “a group of ignorant laborers, fresh from the cotton fields … whose rhythmic pat of feet and clapping of hands suggests the tom-tom of some native village in the jungle” (Tupper 1937).
By 1933, the cast of “Plantation Echoes” could also have just been described as men and women. Although journalists were quick to note “the last five slaves” on Wadmalaw Island who appeared in the performance, they could also have used the names they adopted after Emancipation: Mrs. Sax Wineglass, Mrs. Celie McLeod, Mr. Sam Simmons, Mr. John Bias, and Mr. Cesar Roper.
Mr. John Bias, Mrs. Sax Wineglass, and Mr. Sam Simmons were members of the cast of “Plantation Echoes.” Source: Virginia Tupper, Etude Magazine, March 1937. Reproduced with permission of Theodore Presser Co. (New York).
Mr. Roper was the leader of the group. Federal census records establish that Cesar’s parents, Mollie and Amos, had both survived slavery—a condition Cesar knew for the first five years of his long life. He learned to read and write after Emancipation and settled into middle age as a farmer, his home surrounded by those of family members and other Gullah freedmen and their children, clustered in communities along Bears Bluff Road that took root among the remains of the old plantations.
A list of performers for the July 16, 1937 performance of “Plantation Echoes.” John A. Lomax Southern States Collection 1937 (AFC 1937/007), folder 3, Field Work. American Folklife Center, Library of Congress).
People who attended performances of “Plantation Echoes” may not have realized that in addition to the “class meetings” described in the newspaper articles (which are customary in the broader Methodist faith tradition), the community also attended formal church services on Sundays like many other Christian Americans. The building of the formal church in a rural Gullah Geechee community was a coda to what had preceded it; there was a much longer history of the enslaved and their descendants meeting in their homes, the woods, beneath brush arbors, or in wooden “praise houses” to worship and pray. Often these worship services featured familiar African spiritual and musical expressions like shouting and the “ring shout”—a worship ritual in which the congregation forms a counterclockwise, shuffling circle.
Moving Star Hall Praise House built circa 1917 on Johns Island, South Carolina. Credit: Heather L. Hodges.
Historian and preservation advocate Allen Mitchell was descended from the Gullah communities on Wadmalaw and, in the 1990s, he interviewed several Gullah elders whose lives stretched back to the 1930s and 40s on the island. From these elders he learned, “[t]he old time religion required a great deal of hard work and dedication. Religion and faith was something you could not purchase, you had to earn it the hard way” (Mitchell 1996). Earning it involved consistent attendance at “class meetings” held every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday night—after long days of hard work—where community members received the religious and musical instruction viewed as a predicate to demonstrating that you were a good Christian.
Mrs. Christina Johnson, born in 1922, attended the meetings as well as church services at New Bethlehem Baptist on Wadmalaw. When she was 93, she was interviewed by a local journalist and recalled that she and the other children had to learn to raise a hymn in short, long, and common meters. “If you were not good at shouting or clapping, they might laugh at you,” she recalled in the interview, “but in the end, they made sure you got it right” (Charleston Post & Courier, 20 January 2013). The instruction was rigorous and the meetings were a place where even children were taught how to sing, clap, shout, and pray in the distinctive Gullah Geechee tradition, which leveraged the old wooden floors of the praise houses (along with heavy-soled work shoes, wooden blocks, and broomstick handles) to great polyrhythmic and percussive effect.
It was understandable, given the attention Wadmalaw’s Gullah Geechee community had received from the performances of “Plantation Echoes” since 1933, why famed folklorist John Lomax would be interested in documenting this rich musical and spiritual heritage. He’d already spent much of 1937 on the road, criss-crossing the South and making sound recordings of Black folk music. With the support of what would become the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, he had filled a car with his usual haul of sound recording equipment and something new for this trip—a moving picture camera. His trip to Wadmalaw Island received only the barest of entries in his field notes: “Arrive Charleston Thursday 4 pm, driving around, left Charleston July 17 4 pm.” The lack of detail may just reflect the habit many of us have of only noting and recording the things we may forget. But the trip to Charleston was one that had been planned and the Library of Congress still holds the correspondence. John was to go to Wadmalaw Island and record a production of “Plantation Echoes” organized by Rosa Warren Wilson and staged in the local schoolhouse. Only after he arrived did he learn that the farming community’s wooden schoolhouse at the far end of Wadmalaw Island, South Carolina was not yet electrified by 1937. The venue was quickly shifted to the historic Hibernian Hall in downtown Charleston where the 1937 recording of “Plantation Echoes” was made.
The 1937 film and sound recordings that John Lomax made may provide the only extant audio documentation of a performance of “Plantation Echoes” available to give us some idea of what George Gershwin heard and witnessed in 1934. In addition, Etude Magazine correspondent Virginia Tupper attended a concert performance of “Plantation Echoes” earlier in 1937 and left a detailed account which visually animates the scenes for us. Her reporting highlights the improvisational nature of “Plantation Echoes” in addition to the crowd-pleasing verisimilitude and personalities of the Gullah cast members.
Tupper’s report noted that the ringing of a plantation bell at the start of the program signaled the end of a work day. It was time for the performers on stage to go to a class meeting led by Mr. Roper. Archival records of the stage directions written by Rosa Warren Wilson (the White woman from Wadmalaw who organized the performances) for a 1936 presentation of “Plantation Echoes” describe a problematic scene-setting tableau interrupted by the “time-honored plantation bell.” In the opening scene, the performers were placed around the stage and shown engaged in a range of domestic and agricultural tasks on a plantation. It was designed by Mrs. Wilson to be an idyllic, pastoral vision of “complete plantation life.” This was notwithstanding the fact that some of the performers on stage had been enslaved and likely didn’t share her romanticized version of plantations.
“Plantation Echoes” unfolded in three acts. The opening act was a “spiritual meeting.” Setting the scene, Tupper wrote, “An oil lamp and a clock are on the table. The lamp serves as a cigarette lighter during the meeting. After the usual greetings, Cesar asks, ‘Anybody feel like he wants to sing?’ Julia Murray sings softly, ‘I Want to String Up My Shoes’” [the pronoun “he” could refer to both men and women in the Gullah language]. Later in the scene, the cast “get religion” and “Maum Mack stands up waving her hands as she dances and cries ‘Git out my way and let me shine like a morning star!’,” before raising the old spiritual of the same name.
Listen to this 1937 sound recording of “Plantation Echoes,” including: “Jesus Loves Us”; “Jesus on de Mainline Too”; Sermon: “The Old Man Doan’ Last Always”; and “I Heard the Angels Singing.” Source: John Avery Lomax, et al., “Plantation Echoes, a Folk Play in Three Acts.” Charleston, South Carolina, 1937, Library of Congress. Stream on-line at loc.gov.
Tupper was moved by the second act, a “twilight plantation” burial scene. She wrote, “The second act is highly emotional. The curtain rises on a child’s grave in the wilderness. Two women kneel on each side of the mound. They sing, ‘I Am Some Poor Mother’s Child.’ The spiritual father leads the mourners singing, ‘Jordan River, So Chilly, So Cold.’ They carry dimly lit lanterns and bits of glass and china. The child’s playthings.” The two Gullah women who performed this moving duet in the 1937 Lomax recordings were Mrs. Mae Murray (another of New Jerusalem church member Frank Murray’s relatives) and Mrs. Arlene Washington. It is notable that Porgy as well as Porgy and Bess also prominently feature a Gullah wake and burial scene.
Tupper called the third act “The Saturday Barn Dance,” but it was also identified in a 1936 program as “Native Untutored Negro Dancing.” It provided an opportunity and space for secular expression as an instrumental band is improvised. “One negro picks a guitar, another beats the family wash tub for a drum, and a third scrapes a scrubbing board with thimbles and a kitchen knife.” Some of the most popular Black social dances of the time are performed: the Pigeon Wing, the Grapevine Twist, the Camel’s Walk, Ball de Jack, and, of course, the Charleston, which is widely believed to have originated in the city’s waterfront Gullah communities in the 1920s. “Even rheumatic old Negroes forget their stiff joints and throw themselves into a whirl,” Tupper marveled.
It is important to understand that it was not a wholly novel idea in the 1920s and 30s to present traditional Gullah music in concert in Charleston. There were a great number of White people in Charleston for whom the sounds of Gullah music triggered a comforting and rosy nostalgia for a time when nurturing Gullah women contentedly tended the children of Charleston’s slave-owning class: a sprawling, close-knit group (by blood and marriage) of wealthy families that once owned plantations worked by generations of enslaved and exploited African and Gullah families. At one point, no less than three groups of White singers had organized themselves to publicly perform Black spiritual music in the region. The most prominent was the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals. The group counted DuBose Heyward among its members and famously performed locally and nationally in antebellum dress (Kytle and Roberts 2018). Wealthy Whites’ nostalgia for the antebellum era was reflected in their broader interests in maintaining and perpetuating what they believed to be their tangible and intangible Charleston heritage. They were adamant that this heritage included the Gullah spirituals they had heard sung in their youth.
But even at the time, such performances caused other Whites in Charleston to look askance. Rosa Warren Wilson wrote to ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax (son of John Lomax, then working at the Library of Congress) in 1937: “[A]s hard as the White people try – and they do wonderfully well – they cannot get the marvelous rhythm and something that touches one’s very soul.” What was novel about the production of “Plantation Echoes” is that the performers were actual Gullah people sharing their own musical heritage onstage in 1930s Charleston. They have transcended any memory of Wilson’s highly problematic staging through the compelling virtuosity of their performances as memorialized in the 1937 Lomax recordings.
Despite swirling questions about the appropriateness and authenticity of what they were doing, on April 14, 1936, the all-White Society for the Preservation of Negro Spirituals were invited to appear with the Mayor of Charleston on NBC’s popular Maxwell House Show Boat Hour to promote the city’s annual Azalea Festival. The performance aired on the network’s premiere Red network, home to NBC’s most profitable, sponsored programs. DuBose Heyward introduced the group and assured the audience that, while the singers were all White, many were born on Lowcountry plantations and they had learned the Gullah songs on the plantations from the “lips of their negro nurses” (Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress).
These performances by White singers problematically, even if unintentionally, warped audiences’ understanding of what traditional South Carolina Gullah music actually sounds like in concert and in church: heavily percussive with audible footwork, dizzying polyrhythms that make use of the entire body, a distinctive clapping style (today sometimes called a “Gullah clave” or “Charleston clap”), heavy reliance on call-and-response, and sometimes a “shout” singing style. (Interestingly, research by Andrew S. Kohler found that the stage manager’s prompt book for the first production of Porgy and Bess indicates that there was originally a direction for a “Charleston clap” for one section of “Leavin’ for the Promise’ Lan’.”)
A journalist enthused before a Society concert in Boston in 1929 that “[p]eople familiar with the coastal negro spirituals attest that the Charleston society renders them truly” (Charleston News & Courier, 18 March 1929). One can listen to the archival recordings of the Society’s 1936 radio concert and the 1937 Lomax recordings of “Plantation Echoes” and discern, as Rosa Warren Wilson did, that this was not entirely the case.
Today, audiences and performers have access to a rich archive of sound recordings of Gullah Geechee musicians to help us better understand the Gullah people, their cultural expressions, and the performances George Gershwin absorbed in the summer of 1934. Recordings stripped of the burden of corrosively racist stereotypes about Gullah Geechee people and of presentations that reflected White nostalgia for Charleston’s deservedly fading slave society. We need to interrogate the broader impact of Gershwin’s inimitable creative license and the (still) controversial liberties he and Heyward took with their depiction of a real Gullah community. That conversation starts with a clearer, deeper understanding of early 20th-century South Carolina Gullah culture followed b
y a broader consideration of how and why Gershwin and Heyward got from there to what became Porgy and Bess. It is in that chasm between Gullah culture and what has been represented about that culture that we find the roots of many of the complaints from people of color about the opera. Well-received productions in Charleston that deliberately included Gullah creatives and positively highlighted the culture demonstrate that audiences are receptive to performances that deeply leverage the rich, cultural wellspring for the opera.
The Gullah people have a saying: “Mus tek cyear a de root fa heal de tree.” It is past time for us to revisit this painful, challenging history and to more deeply honor the rich culture and history of the Gullah Geechee people — on their own terms.
Further Reading and Viewing
Campbell, Emory. Gullah Cultural Legacies: A Synopsis of Gullah Traditions, Customary Beliefs, Art Forms and Speech on Hilton Head Island and Vicinal Sea Islands in South Carolina and Georgia. Charleston: BookSurge Publishing, 2008.
Cooper, Melissa. Making Gullah: A History of Sapelo Islanders, Race, and the American Imagination. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.
Crawford, Eric. Gullah Spirituals: The Sound of Freedom and Protest in the South Carolina Sea Islands. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2021.
Freedman, Samuel G. “A Black Cultural Tradition and Its Unlikely Keepers.” New York Times, 17 June 2011.
Kytle, Ethan J., and Blain Roberts. Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy. New York: The New Press, 2018.
Mitchell, Allen. Wadmalaw Island: Leaving Tradition Behind. Kearney, NE: Morris Publishing, 1996.
Rosenbaum, Art. Shout Because You’re Free: The African American Ring Shout Tradition in Coastal Georgia. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013.
Silver, John. To Live as Free Men. Hathen Productions, 1942. Documentary footage of a meeting and ring shout in a praise house on St, Helena Island, SC begins at 30:05.
Tupper, Virginia. “Plantation Echoes In Which the Author Describes a Visit to a Negro Folk Music-Drama, the Most Primitive of American Negro Musics Given Each Year in Charleston, South Carolina.” Etude, March 1937.
Yuhl, Stephanie E. The Making of Historic Charleston: A Golden Haze of Memory. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.
Header Photograph: The McIntosh County Shouters (1993 NEA National Heritage Fellows) performing the traditional music of the Gullah Geechee people at the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016. Credit: Heather L. Hodges.