CCU’s Crawford to hold public signing for new book on Gullah spirituals
The book is a culmination of Crawford’s research surrounding Gullah Geechee music and culture on St. Helena Island, S.C., widely considered a foundational birthplace of the culture. Gullah Spirituals traces the direct connection of traditional Negro spirituals, such as “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore,” “Those Troubles I’ve Had,” and “Down by the Riverside,” to their roots on St. Helena Island during the slavery period of the 1860s. Crawford’s goal for the book is to not only establish that history, but also to give credit to the Gullah singers who composed and originally recorded the songs.
“I was intrigued by this topic and recalled singing spirituals, these various songs, and never knowing where they came from,” Crawford said. “To me, the research and writing the book was kind of like writing history, saying, ‘Let’s give credit to the origins of these songs.’ The Gullah Geechee connection was lost throughout the years, and part of the book is asking, ‘Why?’”
Crawford notes many unique features of the Negro spiritual genre, including the original incorporation of West African languages and the fact that the songs have been adapted, repurposed, and used in numerous contexts throughout American history.
“During World War I, these songs became very important for patriotism,” Crawford said. “People would change the words to these island songs into patriotic text, but that’s been forgotten, that’s been a century later. And these same songs that served in the antebellum period were called upon during the Civil Rights period, termed Freedom Songs now. But again, they’re the same songs from this same area of St. Helena Island.”
Crawford wants to raise awareness of the origin of these songs, but it’s just as important to him that the Gullah singers themselves, who still reside on St. Helena Island as well as in Horry and Georgetown counties, recognize their role in history.
“For the singers, I hope they can see themselves in it and say, ‘Yeah, that’s my story. That’s where I go to church,’” Crawford said.
Crawford serves as a Gullah scholar and leader not only within the Joyner Institute but also CCU’s Athenaeum Press. His participation and guidance in the multimedia project Gullah: Voice of an Island involved the recording of a CD that includes many songs, and singers, mentioned in his book. His field recordings and transcriptions will also be included in the Gullah Geechee Digital Project, a multi-year grant project that will create a digital guide to Gullah Geechee collections and artifacts.
For more information, contact the Rice Museum at 843-546-7423 or Athenaeum Press at 843-349-2947.