The newest release from the massive archives of Cultural Equity, Get In Union features the mighty voice of Bessie Jones. These recordings were made by the esteemed Alan Lomax over the course of his years of association with Jones. They are not only an example of Jones’s powerful vocals, but a further proof, if any is needed, of Lomax’s importance to American music history.
This collection is made up of 60 tracks recorded by Lomax in various circumstances and locations. They range from Jones singing with the famous Georgia Sea Island Singers in the late 1950s to her performing with small ensembles and some solo work. The solo pieces, recorded primarily in 1960 and ’61, weren’t meant for release, and of the 50 hours of tape Lomax recorded with Jones at this time, only 16 tracks are included on this recording. (All of Lomax’s recordings are available for streaming at the Cultural Equity website including all of the Jones music)
Even in the choral pieces where Jones is singing with the Georgia Sea Island Singers, listeners can’t fail to hear the power in her voice. Listen to one of the songs where she sings without accompaniment, however, like the old gospel hymn “This Train”, and you begin to hear what makes her so special. It’s the character she brings to her singing. You can hear her strength, and at the same time you can hear her years of doing menial work for survival, expressed in her voice.
For so many people like Jones, music was the solace, the relief and the release, from a life of toil and subjugation. Jones and her contemporaries might not have been technically slaves, but they weren’t treated much better than their parents or grandparents. Listening to her voice you can hear all these layers. She doesn’t hide who she is or what her situation in life is.
Lomax’s field recordings throughout the South, from prison gangs to church choirs, were perhaps the first time most Northern white people were exposed to the realities of life for African-Americans in the post-reconstruction world. While some might have treated these performances as cute folklore, others would have heard both the pain and the joy and maybe come to understand something about their world they hadn’t been exposed to before.
Probably neither Bessie Jones, nor the singers and musicians who accompanied her, would have sung for any other purpose than the sheer joy of making music. In truth, one can just sit back and enjoy this collection of music for that reason. But this is also the music of a society supposedly in transition, from Jim Crow to voter’s rights and civil rights, and should be appreciated as such.
However, as the streets of the U.S. show us, not much has changed since the lynchings and killings of the 1950s and ’60s when a great deal of this music was recorded. If vigilantes still feel safe to kill on the streets with impunity, how much did America learn from the music of Bessie Jones and her contemporaries? The release of this 60-track collection couldn’t be more timely as a reminder of how far we need to move as a society to bring about true equality.