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Bessie Jones

by Carey C. Giudici

Bessie Jones has been called the most venerated of all those who would keep traditional folk music alive.

Ms. Jones was still singing and teaching songs and games until her death in 1984 at the age of 82. She spent her long life keeping alive the traditions of people like her grandfather, who was sold into slavery in Virginia in 1843.

Having moved from southwest Georgia to St. Simons, in 1940 she joined a group then called The Coastal Singers. In 1954 they were recorded by legendary folklorist Alan Lomax, who personally promoted Bessie Jones' national solo performance tour. Then Pete Seeger, hearing her perform in the Catskills in 1956, arranged for a performance at New York City's Carnegie Hall.

The group--now the Sea Island Singers--continued to flourish, performing at the 1977 Inaugural celebrations in Washington D.C. In 1982 Bessie Jones was back in the nation's capital to be honored as a "master folk artist" with a National Heritage Fellowship during the annual Festival of American Folklife.

Since Ms. Jones' death the following year, Frankie and Douglas Quimby have led each performance for audiences such as First Lady Laura Bush, in October 2002.

The Sea Island Singers usually begin a performance with Bessie Jones' favorite song, "So Glad I'm Here":

So glad I'm here, In Jesus' name. Joy brought me here, Love brought me here, In Jesus' name, So glad I'm here.
We're all glad to have Ms. Bessie Jones and the Sea Island Singers here.
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