Shall We Gather at the River: African-American Sacred Music from the Florida Folklife Collection (2011)

Shall We Gather at the River:
African-American Sacred Music from the Florida Folklife Collection
Florida Folklife Program – S1576 (2011)

1. Amazing Grace – Florida-Alabama Progressive Seven-Shape Note Singing Convention
Recorded May 18, 1980, by Dwight DeVane in Crestview
(S1576, T83-83)

2. I’ve Got Heaven on My Mind – Hickory Bottom Harmoneers
Recorded May 1, 1955, by Foster Barnes in White Springs
(S1576, T77-12b)

3. Babylon Is Falling Down – Deacon Dan Smith, Nick Hallman & the Georgia Sea Island Singers
Recorded August 30, 1975, in White Springs
(S1576, T79-18)

4. I Can’t Even Walk (Without You Holding My Hand) – The Cisrow Gospel Allstars
Recorded September 15, 1985, by Peggy Bulger in Orlando
(S1576, T85-151)

5. Jesus Met the Woman at the Well – The Versiteers
Recorded May 27, 1995, in White Springs
(S1576, D95-41)

6. Trouble of the World – Amigo Male Singers
Recorded May 2, 1958, by Foster Barnes in White Springs
(S1576, T77-68)

7. Wasn’t That a Mystery – Madison County Senior Center
Recorded April 19, 1983, by Nancy Nusz in Madison
(S1576, C84-58)

8. When I Come to God – Testerina Primitive Baptist Church
Recorded May 11, 1980, by Dwight DeVane & Doris Dyen in Tallahassee
(S1576, T83-89)

9. Daniel in the Lion’s Den – Bessie Jones & the Georgia Sea Island Singers
Recorded August 29, 1975, in White Springs
(S1576, T79-15)

10. I’m in His Care – The Washington Singers
Recorded September 15, 1985, by Peggy Bulger in Orlando
(S1576, T85-151)

11. Jesus Be a Fence Around Me – The Antioch Junior Choir
Recorded May 1970, in White Springs
(S1576, T77-214)

12. Jesus Is Coming Soon – The Dixie Hummingbirds
Recorded September 15, 1985, by Peggy Bulger in Orlando
(S1576, T85-153)

13. Come and Go to That Land – The Religionaires
Recorded September 15, 1985, by Peggy Bulger in Orlando
(S1576, T85-152)

14. O for the Death of Those – Troy Demps, James Robinson & Frank Spaulding
Recorded May 28, 2004, in White Springs
(S2034, CD04-91)

15. There’s a Bright Side Somewhere – Reatha Pearl Marshall
Recorded September 5, 1976, in White Springs
(S1576, T77-255)

The region where I live just narrowed dodged an total disaster scenario the likes of which I hope I never have to see.  The last two weeks have been a bit of a roller-coaster,  as forecasters changed their predictions and television network turned up the histrionics of their coverage. My favorite bit of completely unnecessary psychodrama is a new CGI simulation of what your house will look like with 3 feet of water, then 6 feet, then 10 feet of water that suddenly became mandatory for ratings-seeking news networks.  It should be outlawed.  The house I currently live in is rated to withstand a Category 4 hurricane, but all bets are off on a Cat 5, and who the hell wants to contend with 10 feet of “storm surge” submersion?  While it is apparently very easy for people leaving in distant places to judge other’s decisions on whether to ride out a storm or evacuate, those decisions become more complicated when faced certain niggling details – shortages of gas began while the storm was still 5 days away, and hotels were booked up all through the eastern seaboard with preemptive Irma refugees, many no doubt unnerved from watching the chaos in Houston just a week earlier.  With only one direction (north) in or out of the state, a “cone of uncertainty” about the storm’s direction, and the size of the hurricane exceeding the width of that state by a hundred miles, fleeing to safer terrain becomes a more dubious proposal.  Being trapped in gridlock on a highway, unable to refuel or find a room to stay in, experiencing a hurricane from inside your vehicle or the closest truck stop – none of these were particularly appealing options.  However the fact that I could theoretically just get in a car and start driving, with some cash on hand and a reasonable line of credit to charge expenses, already puts me ahead of the most disadvantaged, for whom either staying or evacuating were equally complicated and perilous, as some astute reports showed quite well.  As the tone of the reportage grew more apocalyptic, I kept thinking of the pivotal passage in Zora Neale Hurston’s 1938 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, where she described the 1928 hurricane that drowned more than 2500 farm worker (cited at the bottom of this post for your perusal).  Perhaps unsurprisingly, some things haven’t changed all that much in the region she was writing about, as last week’s Washington Post article about those living in shadow of “the monstropolous beast” of Lake Okeechobee shows.  I’m not so close to that lake to be threatened by it, but my imagination filled with delirious flowers of devastation waiting to bloom.

The shelter in my area was scheduled to open at 10 a.m. on Saturday, with a second to be opened after that one filled.  Despairing of our ability to withstand 10 feet of storm surge (CGI-generated or not), we were planning on heading there when at 7:30 in the morning a text message ordered us to evacuate – not to a shelter, but just to GTFO of the county itself.  Presumably, lines had formed overnight of people who did not live in ‘hurricane-proof’ homes and a headcount lead officials to declare those shelters full before they even opened.

Thank the stars for generous friends, especially friends at twenty feet above sea level, who offered us and  several others a place not just to shelter but to commiserate and make the best out of a dire situation.  Meals were shared, drinks were made, stories told, movies watched (until the power went), and shattered nerves were soothed by good company.  The storm definitely made quite a mess in Cuba and the Florida Keys, and wiped out the entire island of Barbuda, but it mercifully slowed down to a Category 1 by the time it reached where we were all holed up.   It was enough to make even me want to yell a hallelujah. We got our electricity back in the middle of the week (many are still without power), and internet service returned yesterday. So I figured I might as well make a blog post.  This album seems timely, even more so because I only stumbled across it just last week.  You might think that you never need to hear another version of Amazing Grace in your life but the opening track from the Florida-Alabama Progressive Seven-Shape Note Singing Convention may change your mind.  Some of this collection makes me want to dig out the ear-opening Arhoolie collection of ‘sacred steel’ guitar players that completely blew my mind when it was released in the 1990s, but I’m still unpacking boxes that I stashed as high up as I could get them in my house.  If I find it later maybe I’ll post that too.  That collection actually originated as a similar ethnomusicological  / “folklife” project also run by the state historical societies that put together this one.  It’s deep stuff, but I’ll let the liner notes tell you more about it.

Have a listen via the direct links here, or you can also stream the audio from the Florida State Library page here.

password: vibes


Liner notes:

This disc highlights Florida’s African American religious music traditions. The collection features both nationally recognized acts and previously unknown local artists, including the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Georgia Sea Island Singers, the Versiteers, and the Amigo Male Singers.

Christian sacred music is performed by African-Americans in a variety of social contexts which range from informal unaccompanied singing, to spirited church meetings, to gospel concerts by professional artists. Like its secular counterparts such as jazz, blues, and various other popular music forms, the music combines African and European influences to create unique and compelling musical expressions.

The tradition of lining hymns, as demonstrated in the rendition of “O for the Death of Those,” dates back to the mid-17th century, when slaves (and many whites) could not read and hymnals were scarce. Similarly, shape note singing takes its name from the use of note heads of various geometrical shapes to teach the vocal parts to those who could not read standard musical notation. It has been part of Florida’s musical life since the late 19th century. The clear diction and rather formal sound of the Amigo Male Singers reflect influence by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a popular touring group formed shortly after emancipation to raise funds for Fisk University and often credited with introducing the Negro spiritual to the general public.

Call-and-response is an important element of music with African roots and is employed on this recording by smaller groups as well as by large ensembles, such as the Antioch Junior Choir, and in congregational singing, such as the selections by the Testerina Primitive Baptist Church and the members of the Madison County Senior Center.

Florida was and remains an important destination for professional gospel touring groups. The Dixie Hummingbirds (Pennsylvania), the Religionaires (Georgia), and the Cisrow Family Gospel Allstars (New Jersey), as well as Florida groups such as the Washington Sisters and The Versiteers, were recorded at a 1985 concert in Orlando which paid tribute to Otis Jackson, a gospel deejay, composer, and performer with strong ties to Orlando and Jacksonville. These groups performed in the gospel quartet style which saw its heyday in the 1940s through the 1960s. The Georgia Sea Island Singers are known for their repertoire of old-time spirituals which have been handed down among the Gullah people of coastal Georgia for generations.

This recording emphasizes older musical forms; however, many African-Americans constantly reshape their sacred music to reflect contemporary cultural contexts, yet maintain connected to deep traditional roots. Today, millions of Floridians of African descent continue to express their faith, trials, and triumphs through a rich variety of Christian sacred music.

-Robert L. Stone


Zora Neale Hurston, 1937

Sometime that night the winds came back. Everything in the world had a strong rattle, sharp and short like Stew Beef vibrating the drum head near the edge with his fingers. By morning Gabriel was playing the deep tones in the center of the drum. So when Janie looked out of her door she saw the drifting mists gathered in the west—that cloud field of the sky—to arm themselves with thunders and march forth against the world. Louder and higher and lower and wider the sound and motion spread, mounting, sinking, darking.

It woke up old Okechobee and the monster began to roll in his bed. Began to roll and complain like a peevish world on a grumble. The folks in the quarters and the people in the big houses further around the shore heard the big lake and wondered. The people felt uncomfortable but safe because there were the seawalls to chain the senseless monster in his bed. The folks let the people do the thinking. If the castles thought themselves secure, the cabins needn’t worry. Their decision was already made as always. Chink up your cracks, shiver in your wet beds and wait on the mercy of the Lord. The bossman might have the thing stopped before morning anyway. It is so easy to be hopeful in the day time when you can see the things you wish on. But it was night, it stayed night. Night was striding across nothingness with the whole round world in his hands.

A big burst of thunder and lightning that trampled over the roof of the house. So Tea Cake and Motor stopped playing. Motor looked up in his angel-looking way and said, “Big Massa draw him chair upstairs.”

“Ah’m glad y’all stop dat crap-shootin’ even if it wasn’t for money,” Janie said. “Ole Massa is doin’ His work now. Us oughta keep quiet.”

They huddled closer and stared at the door. They just didn’t use another part of their bodies, and they didn’t look at anything but the door. The time was past for asking the white folks what to look for through that door. Six eyes were questioning God.

Through the screaming wind they heard things crashing and things hurtling and dashing with unbelievable velocity. A baby rabbit, terror ridden, squirmed through a hole in the floor and squatted off there in the shadows against the wall, seeming to know that nobody wanted its flesh at such a time. And the lake got madder and madder with only its dikes between them and him.

In a little wind-lull, Tea Cake touched Janie and said, “Ah reckon you wish now you had of stayed in yo’ big house ’way from such as dis, don’t yuh?”



“Yeah, naw. People don’t die till dey time come nohow, don’t keer where you at. Ah’m wid mah husband in uh storm, dat’s all.”

“Thanky, Ma’am. But ’sposing you wuz tuh die, now. You wouldn’t git mad at me for draggin’ yuh heah?”

“Naw. We been tuhgether round two years. If you kin see de light at daybreak, you don’t keer if you die at dusk. It’s so many people never seen de light at all. Ah wuz fumblin’ round and God opened de door.”

He dropped to the floor and put his head in her lap. “Well then, Janie, you meant whut you didn’t say, ’cause Ah never knowed you wuz so satisfied wid me lak dat. Ah kinda thought—”

The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.

As soon as Tea Cake went out pushing wind in front of him, he saw that the wind and water had given life to lots of things that folks think of as dead and given death to so much that had been living things. Water everywhere. Stray fish swimming in the yard. Three inches more and the water would be in the house. Already in some. He decided to try to find a car to take them out of the ’Glades before worse things happened. He turned back to tell Janie about it so she could be ready to go.

“Git our insurance papers tuhgether, Janie. Ah’ll tote mah box mahself and things lak dat.”

“You got all de money out de dresser drawer, already?”

“Naw, git it quick and cut up piece off de table-cloth tuh wrap it up in. Us liable tuh git wet tuh our necks. Cut uh piece uh dat oilcloth quick fuh our papers. We got tuh go, if it ain’t too late. De dish can’t bear it out no longer.”

He snatched the oilcloth off the table and took out his knife. Janie held it straight while he slashed off a strip.

“But Tea Cake, it’s too awful out dere. Maybe it’s better tuh stay heah in de wet than it is tuh try tuh—”

He stunned the argument with half a word. “Fix,” he said and fought his way outside. He had seen more than Janie had.

Janie took a big needle and ran up a longish sack. Found some newspaper and wrapped up the paper money and papers and thrust them in and whipped over the open end with her needle.

Before she could get it thoroughly hidden in the pocket of her overalls, Tea Cake burst in again.

“ ’Tain’t no cars, Janie.”

“Ah thought not! Whut we gointuh do now?”

“We got tuh walk.”

“In all dis weather, Tea Cake? Ah don’t b’lieve Ah could make it out de quarters.”

“Oh yeah you kin. Me and you and Motor Boat kin all lock arms and hold one ’nother down. Eh, Motor?”

“He’s sleep on de bed in yonder,” Janie said. Tea Cake called without moving.

“Motor Boat! You better git up from dere! Hell done broke loose in Georgy. Dis minute! How kin you sleep at uh time lak dis? Water knee deep in de yard.”

They stepped out in water almost to their buttocks and managed to turn east. Tea Cake had to throw his box away, and Janie saw how it hurt him. Dodging flying missiles, floating dangers, avoiding stepping in holes and warmed on the wind now at their backs until they gained comparatively dry land. They had to fight to keep from being pushed the wrong way and to hold together. They saw other people like themselves struggling along. A house down, here and there, frightened cattle. But above all the drive of the wind and the water. And the lake. Under its multiplied roar could be heard a mighty sound of grinding rock and timber and a wail. They looked back. Saw people trying to run in raging waters and screaming when they found they couldn’t. A huge barrier of the makings of the dike to which the cabins had been added was rolling and tumbling forward. Ten feet higher and as far as they could see the muttering wall advanced before the braced-up waters like a road crusher on a cosmic scale. The monstropolous beast had left his bed. The two hundred miles an hour wind had loosed his chains. He seized hold of his dikes and ran forward until he met the quarters; uprooted them like grass and rushed on after his supposed-to-be conquerors, rolling the dikes, rolling the houses, rolling the people in the houses along with other timbers. The sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.


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  1. Thanks so much – this looks terrific!

  2. Glad you’re okay! Thanks for the vibes!

  3. FLAC link appears to be dead?

    • How’s it going Kovina, good to see you. Yeah the link wasn’t working, was having FTP problems and still am but I managed to manually get this one fixed.

  4. Yes FLAC link is “Not Found” mp3 sounds good thanks, FLAC please – Great work

  5. thanks, been a long time but glad you’re still up to bloggin about.

  6. Just came across this blog few days ago. Let me tell you, first place to hear some new music in a while (new.. hah). Used to read nad discuss (and collect and eventually buy vinyl) on (rip) Whatcd, now ill stick here for some ear candy.
    Thank you for effort, many many thanks actually!

    • Welcome and glad to have you! What is NAD Discuss? A discussion forum for NAD gear? I recently got hold of an integrated amp of theirs for next to nothing at a salvage / charity shop. Cleaned out the pots with DeOxit and it sounds great!

  7. Thank you Dr. V for fixing the FLAC link. It is indeed good to be back and this looks like a really interesting walk into the sacred music arena. I really like music that comes from a place of passion and this looks to be that kind. I also think it’s cool that most of the recordings come from a more recent time than many of these types of comps do. Thank you!

  8. Just discovered Mississippi John Hurt and his version of “I shall not be moved”. I got curious, googled him and discovered your site. Great work!

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