The woman who made black traditions an essential part of music education

It’s early afternoon on a week, and school is in session. A class of second graders stand and hastily shake hands, their teacher joining to form the group of children in a circle. She turns her toes to the left and gently nudges the ring to start spinning clockwise, as she sings, “Walk Daniel, walk Daniel…” The students begin to sing, their feet stepping to the beat on the worn carpet. The teacher continues, “fly Daniel”—some children spread their arms like soaring airplanes, while a few quickly wave their fingers in imitation of birds. They sing several more sets of “Jump Daniel”, “Dance Daniel”, “Jump Daniel”, while keeping their circle in rhythmic rotation. After many minutes filled with giggles, they end with “sitting Daniel”, and the students sing to their seats to continue their music lesson.

“Walk Daniel” is just one of many songs from black cultures taught by music teachers in classrooms for more than half a century. These folk songs and games are used to teach musical concepts in a fun way, while providing students with a deeper cultural understanding than any rote history lesson could provide. The prominent and prominent place that black music occupies in modern education is due in large part to the life and work of Bessie Jones, a black woman born into poverty in the rural south at the turn of the century who used his voice to break the race. barriers to education, while forging an undeniable space for black traditions to exist in perpetuity.

Born in rural West Georgia, Bessie Jones later settled on St. Simons Island in Georgia, a center of Gullah-Geechee culture. Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images and Edwin Remsberg/VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Mary Elizabeth “Bessie” Smith Jones was born on February 8, 1902, in Smithville, Georgia, and raised in the nearby community of Dawson by her mother, stepfather, and various members of her extended family. They lived in rural conditions and faced considerable poverty, forcing Jones to start working at an early age to supplement the family’s income. Her school attendance was sporadic, and after the death of her stepfather in 1911, she left entirely to work full-time. She held various domestic and agricultural jobs, and although she herself was only a child, she was mainly employed as a nanny and babysitter for children of well-to-do white families. Jones gave birth to her own daughter, Rosalie, at the age of twelve, after marrying her first husband, Cassius Davis, in 1914.

Music has always been part of Jones’ life. Almost all of his family members were musically inclined; his stepfather, Jet Sampson, was a former slave with a marked singing talent and a gift for storytelling. He taught Jones many African American folk songs, work songs, and spirituals that she would carry with her throughout her life. Several members of the family played the banjo, the guitar, the accordion, the autoharp and even began to make their own wooden instruments. Her husband Cassius was from a singing family in the Georgia Sea Islands, a place that would later hold great significance in Jones’ life. Jones and her family were active participants in local churches, where she learned and memorized many hymns, schoolyard songs, and plays.

During the long days Jones spent working, she made these songs and pieces a part of life. She considered them a natural and necessary part of childcare, stating in the liner notes of her album Enter the Unionrecorded between 1959 and 1966, “I remember about a hundred games, I guess… We had all kinds of plays… we heard all these [songs]-riddles and stories… And then I have excellent memories of these things.

Ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax (second from right) met Bessie Jones when he came to St. Simons Island to record the Spiritual Singers Society of Coastal Georgia.
Ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax (second from right) met Bessie Jones when he came to St. Simons Island to record the Spiritual Singers Society of Coastal Georgia. CBS Photo Archive via Getty Images

In 1926, when Jones’ husband Cassius fell ill and died, she left for Florida in search of better paying work. While working as a cook on a farm in 1928, Jones met and married her second husband, George Jones. Together they spent the next seven years traveling the East Coast as migrant farm workers, before settling on St. Simons Island, Georgia. Here Jones joined the Spiritual Singers Society of Coastal Georgia, a vocal ensemble dedicated to preserving the musical traditions of African and Gullah cultures.

Years earlier, the Singers Society had come to the attention of Alan Lomax, an ethnomusicologist at the head of 20th-century American and British folk revivals. Throughout his life, Lomax captured thousands of field recordings across the United States, Europe and the Caribbean, collecting a treasure trove of folk lore. When he returned to St. Simons Island to record with more modern equipment in 1959, he met Bessie Jones. Following this session, Lomax recruited Jones and a handful of other singers from the group to participate in a film he was making about the early colonial period in Williamsburg, Virginia.

While in Williamsburg, Jones felt the beginning of his “call to teach”, saying, “It’s great for me when I sing and can tell myself that I’m singing something that I need to sing. …that my ancient ancestors and the other tribesmen at that time knew…I believe they would rejoice. From then on, Jones worked to answer his call.

In addition to teaching, Bessie Jones gained fame performing with the Georgia Sea Island Singers at events such as the Newport Folk Festival.
In addition to teaching, Bessie Jones gained fame performing with the Georgia Sea Island Singers at events such as the Newport Folk Festival. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images and photo by Blank Archives/Getty Images

Alongside Alan Lomax, Jones spent most of the next two decades teaching and speaking in the United States, offering workshops on black musical tradition to children and adults. She taught while performing regularly with the Georgia Sea Island Singers, a group she had formed in 1963, making appearances at such notable events as the Newport Folk Festival and the Poor People’s March on Washington.

In 1972, with the help of Lomax’s sister, Bess Lomax Hawes, a selection of Jones’ papers was published as step down. Jones presented the usefulness of these songs and games for teaching children at the Kodály Musical Training Institute in Watertown, Massachusetts – Kodály being a widely practiced philosophy of music education that emphasizes singing to cultivate musicality, l cultural belonging and personal identity – among other lectures. His teachings quickly spread to classrooms across the country. In the preface to the book, Hawes says:step down will keep [Bessie Jones] alive for generations of children and teachers to come.

Bessie Jones, pictured here with two great-grandchildren in 1973, died in 1984, but her legacy can still be heard in classrooms across the country.
Bessie Jones, pictured here with two great-grandchildren in 1973, died in 1984, but her legacy can still be heard in classrooms across the country. Hum Historical/Alamy Stock Photos and Images

Indeed, that is exactly what he has done, as Jones’ work has only become more embedded in music education in the years since 1984. Of his lasting impact, the Music scholar Mary Jo Sanna Barron says, “She made you feel part of the human community that goes from the past to the future. Songs recorded by Jones have even made their way into popular culture, appearing on iconic shows like Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. step down continues to be part of most teacher training programs today, and children across the country sing the songs, play the games, and listen to the stories Jones collected throughout his life. Through these materials, they learn the basics of music theory, deep cultural traditions, and an alternative perspective on American history.

But for children, these merits are secondary. In their experience, they just enjoy singing and playing with each other, just like Bessie Jones intended.

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