1961 to 1962
Bessie Jones was one of the most popular performers on the 1960s and '70s folk circuit, appearing either solo or at the helm of the Georgia Sea Island Singers at colleges, festivals, community centers, the Poor People's March on Washington, and Jimmy Carter's inauguration. Alan Lomax first visited the Georgia Sea Island of St. Simons in June of 1935 with folklorist Mary Elizabeth Barnicle and author Zora Neale Hurston. There they met the remarkable Spiritual Singers Society of Coastal Georgia, as the group was then called, and recorded several hours of their songs and dances for the Library of Congress. Returning 25 years later, Lomax found that the Singers were still active, and had been enriched by the addition of Bessie Jones, a South Georgia native with a massive collection of songs going back to the slavery era. He invited her to New York City in 1961 to record her “oral biography,” carried out over three months and some 50 hours of tape. (Lomax’s then-wife Antoinette Marchand can be heard as interviewer in many segments.) Over this period, Lomax and Jones worked together on a plan to turn the Sea Island Singers into a touring group to present, promote, and teach Southern black folk song across the country, from nightclubs to elementary schools.