Bessie Jones “Get In Union” (Alan Lomax Archives/Association For Cultural Equity, 2020)

This album is a vast collection of songs by Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers – captured on tape by Alan Lomax in 1959, when he returned to the island of St. Simons where he’d recorded in 1935. He found that the surviving singers from his earlier visit – Big John Davis (a former sailor and roustabout), fisherman Henry Morrison, and storekeeper Willis Proctor – had been augmented by a walking treasure trove of song, Bessie Jones. Bessie Jones certainly had heritage of song – raised in a musical family in South Georgia she had gathered her repertoire from her mother and – staggering to consider – her step-grandfather, Jet Sampson. Jet Sampson was born in Africa in 1836 and then sold into slavery as a child – he had taught Bessie about the slave experience. ‘Get in Union‘ distils this music, these recordings may be sixty years old, but some of the essence of this music is two centuries old, or more.

Get in Union‘ consists of mostly unaccompanied group singing, often with complicated hand-clapping percussion patterns. The topics are dominated by those in a religious vein – and that’s true whether the song is a raw gospel or a field-working song such as ‘Gonna Lay Down My Life for my Lord‘. These are intermingled with short introductions or spoken asides on where the songs came from. The presiding sound is that of joy in adversity – there’s no doubt that this is not the music of those living a comfortable strife free life. Where instrumentation does come in – such as the guitar on ‘You Got to Reap Just What you Sow / Just a Little Talk with Jesus‘ – it’s for a more modern-sounding gospel. There’s elemental blues here as well, ‘Diamond Joe‘ is a dream of escaping poverty and you’ll hear little that’s more plaintive than when Bessie Jones sings, unaccompanied, “I’m out of dough and I got no clothes / want to go home but I can”t go / Diamond Joe you better come and get me.”  In complete contrast is the seven-minute revival tent ecstasy of ‘That Suits Me‘.   There’s a special shiver down the spine for ‘Travelling Shoes‘ –  which celebrates the achievement of spiritual freedom with the embracing of Christianity through a metaphor of the unlocking of slave shackles.  Powerful is to rather underplay it.

Get in Union‘ is full of authentic riches, drawn directly from a strand of group singing that, but for the activities of song collectors such as Alan Lomax, could have easily have been lost for the greater part. Of course the gospel tradition has continued but it has often become more sophisticated in arrangements and musical accompaniment. Here it’s as raw as heck. The majority of children’s play songs such as ‘Little Johnny Brown‘ and the fieldwork hollers would have slowly faded from memory, reduced down to one or two examples of both – that’s the fate of oral musical traditions wherever they be. For that ‘Get in Union‘ is a worthy work – although its very extensive content – sixty tracks – does mean that it runs for well over two hours and so it is perhaps better dipped into rather than listened to end to end. ‘Get In Union‘ is available as a digital-only release by the Alan Lomax Archive and is an expanded version of the two-CD set issued by Tompkins Square in 2013.

Huge archival collection is full of riches from a time before country, rock or the electric blues
7/10

Author: Jonathan Aird

Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan's music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That's not much to ask, is it?

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