Q&A with Eric Crawford, author of Gullah Spirituals

August 20, 2021 | by scpress

In Gullah Spirituals musicologist Eric Crawford traces Gullah Geechee songs from their beginnings in West Africa to their height as songs for social change and Black identity in the twentieth century American South.

What will readers learn from Gullah Spirituals: The Sound of Freedom and Protest in the South Carolina Sea Islands?

Readers will see the great contributions of Gullah Geechee spirituals to the American story.

Which genres of music are more informed by Gullah spirituals?

All genres of music have been influenced by Gullah Geechee spirituals. This music's bent notes, syncopated rhythms, and improvisational qualities heavily influenced gospel and country music. These musical traits found a secular home in the blues, jazz, and even later popular styles like hip hop.

What traditions from the Gullah spiritual are most recognizable in contemporary music?

Many black church services have traditionally been framed by the old spirituals or gospel songs, which contained bent notes, call and response, improvisation, and syncopated (clave patterns). This explains why so many famous singers (Dionne Warwick, James Brown, John Legend, Beyonce) have strong church roots.

Was there anything surprising you learned in your research for this book?

Two things were most surprising to me: The legacy of slave boatmen entertaining white passengers through song; and the importance of Gullah spirituals in the civil rights movement.

How is the Gullah spiritual “God’s a-gwineter Move All de Troubles Away” connected to civil rights freedom songs in the 1960s?

Natalie Curtis added new words to the St. Helena Island song "God's-a-gwineter Move All de Troubles Away," transforming it into patriotic song during WWI. She sympathetically tells of the African American men who were drafted into the war and "Loyally spilled their blood in France." She writes, "Twas the white man's fight, but the black man heard, And went without a questioning word."

What are you working on now?

I have begun to write about the great Georgian Gullah Geechee singer, Bessie Jones. Many of her popular songs have been given new life by the Grammy-award-winning group Ranky Tanky.

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