Most travelers have little reason to pass through Bolden, a tiny community in Georgia’s coastal McIntosh County.
Even those who do happen that way – past a BP gas station and Dollar General off of Interstate 95, down the two-lane highway that cuts arrow-straight through the inland scrub pines and moss-draped live oaks – would probably never guess that an unremarkable old church by the side of the road there has been the vessel for something extraordinary.
If you pass at the right time, you’ll hear a singular sound coming from the Mt. Cavalry Baptist Church’s modest annex: the beat of a stick against the hardwood floor, call-and-response singing, clapping and the patting of feet.
This is the ring shout, and it is, in fact, one of the oldest continuously practiced African-American traditions in North America. In turn joyous, mournful, rousing or comforting, it sounds like an invitation to a homecoming, one that could strike even a total stranger to the bone and stop him in his tracks.
Passed down and practiced in McIntosh County since the times of slavery, the ring shout traces its roots back to 18th-century Africa.
Only in the past 33 years have the shouters of McIntosh County begun to share their centuries-old tradition with the wider world, and the group’s appearance at Georgia State University’s Kopleff Recital Hall on Friday represented a rare opportunity to see the ring shout in action.
“We always say that the songs were given to us at birth, and we will sing them for all we are worth,” says Carletha Sullivan, 71, a resident of Bolden who has been performing the ring shout for as long as she can remember. “My mother was a shouter. My grandmother was a shouter.
“The songs we sing are songs that were handed down to us from generation to generation.”
In a ring shout, a lead singer, or “songster,” sets the song, most often a spiritual, and “basers,” or back-up singers, stand behind him performing in call-and-response fashion.
A “stickman” beats the rhythm with a stick – slaves were often forbidden from using drums, so the beat of a broomstick on a wooden floor acted as a substitute – and “clappers” stand behind, clapping out the rhythm.
“It’s not the singing that’s the shout, it’s the dancelike movement,” explains Sullivan about the women’s shuffling in a counterclockwise circle.
Vocal shouting doesn’t take place at all during a ring shout: the term “shout” likely derives from the Afro-Arabic word “saut,” an ecstatic dance performed around the Kaaba in the Great Mosque at Mecca.
And when Sullivan says “dancelike,” she means it. Dancing is considered too unholy to perform in a church or as part of worship, so, according to tradition, as long as the feet never cross each other and aren’t picked too high off the ground then a shout technically never becomes a dance.
Ring shouts were once commonly practiced up and down the coastal areas of the American South. Nineteenth-century references to the tradition are plentiful, especially in the journals and letters of missionaries and teachers who came to the area to educate former slaves after Emancipation.
But the practice was often discouraged as “heathenish” or “savage” or disparaged as old-fashioned or a painful reminder of the degradations of slavery.
Witnesses who wrote about the ring shout during the WPA in the 1930s remarked that the tradition seemed to be ending, as new ways were adopted, black families migrated North to seek work, and formerly close-knit coastal communities dispersed.
By the mid-20th century, it was assumed the tradition had died out.
“It didn’t die out in the Bolden community at the Mount Cavalry Church,” says Sullivan. “We were the only ones left shouting. On New Year’s Eve we’d all go to the church and shout until the next morning. Back when we was children, we was glad when it was time to shout.
“We didn’t get a chance to stay out all night, so going to the shout was a big deal for us.”
Most thought the practice was extinct
In 1980, the shouters – comprised of Bolden community members mostly related by birth or marriage whose parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were all shouters – performed their beloved tradition in public for the first time at the Georgia Sea Island Folk Festival, donning costumes reminiscent of the old days.
In the audience was folklorist and now-retired UGA professor Art Rosenbaum.
“It was extremely striking to see that tradition brought to life,” he says.
Like others, he was stunned to learn that the shout was still being practiced at all.
“It was extraordinary that this group had kept the shout going in their community all those years unbroken and without a thought to bringing it to a wider public,” Rosenbaum said. “They did it because it had intense and deep meaning to them.”
Rosenbaum eventually recorded the McIntosh County Shouters for Folkways Records in 1984 and wrote the book “Shout Because You’re Free” (University of Georgia Press) detailing the history of the shout’s survival in Bolden.
Since that first performance, the Shouters have performed at the Kennedy Center, Atlanta’s National Black Arts Festival, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the World Music Institute and the Library of Congress, in addition to numerous colleges and other venues.
They also received a National Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1993.
So why did the shout survive in Bolden when it died out elsewhere? Rosenbaum points out that families were able to establish stability in Bolden. It was a cohesive mainland community where steady work and property ownership was possible.
As other black coastal communities began to disperse, says Sullivan, many residents of Bolden stayed put, adhering to the values of community, tradition, family and honoring ancestors through the shout.
There are so many extraordinary things about the shout’s survival, but perhaps most remarkable of all is the fact that many of its practitioners grew up thinking there was nothing unusual about it.
“I didn’t know it was something unique,” Sullivan says. “I thought it was something everyone did. It’s simple to us because it’s just like eating to us. It’s something we grew up doing, so it’s not a big deal.”
Says Sullivan’s grandson, Brenton Jordan, 26, the group’s stickman since 2010, “It’s literally something you’re born into.”