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Although she died in 1984, Bessie Jones is a woman for our times. The granddaughter of a slave, she grew up in rural Georgia and at 30 underwent a transformative Christian experience, eventually becoming a one-woman, gospel-folk-song revival. In 2014, Tompkins Square released Get in Union, two CDs of mostly a cappella recordings made by Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers for Alan Lomax in 1960. An expanded, digital-only edition has just been released by Global Jukebox. In the following edited exchange, Nathan Salsburg, the curator of the Alan Lomax Archive, discusses Jones’ enduring relevance.
Why did you reissue Get in Union? It was out of print for several years and never available digitally. A central part of my role as the archive’s curator is to make and keep Lomax’s recordings available, so it seemed that a reissue was overdue.
How and when did you discover Bessie Jones’ music? I don’t remember, but it seems as if I’ve been hearing her sing all my life (which might be the case, as my parents were folkies in their own ways). I certainly can’t imagine my life now without her music.
Jones obviously took her faith seriously. What would you say to nonreligious listeners who might think that she has nothing to say to them? I subscribe to no religious faith in any traditional sense and am more nonbeliever than otherwise, but I would distrust anyone who heard music like that made by Ms. Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers and rejected it for its religiosity. To not be moved—or at least intrigued—by the performances’ power and heft, the depth and breadth of their emotion, and their profound humanity would call into question such a listener’s capacity to engage with music any deeper than, say, the Eagles.
What about listeners who simply find a cappella folk music too strange or exotic? I would be surprised if anyone found Jones’ music too exotic, as many of her tunes and much of her performance style has become deeply, intuitively familiar to fans of black music, whether they’ve experienced their echoes in or through gospel, blues, R&B, hip-hop, or any other Afro-diasporic tradition.
Get in Union was reissued shortly after the George Floyd protests had begun. In what sense is it “just what the doctor ordered” during these unnerving times? I don’t feel equipped to answer this with any objectivity (and certainly not authority), not least because I’m a white man, but also because I’ve listened to Bessie Jones’ music for so long, it has always felt like what the doctor has ordered. But in the midst of all the righteous anger that this moment has brought to a boil, I’ve been heartened by the seriousness with which white people are seeking out, learning from, and amplifying black voices and perspectives. And for those who are taking the time to listen to Bessie Jones sing now, to reckon with her references, influences, aspirations, and her own commitment to honoring the voices of those she called “the ancestors,” I hope they’ll also be moved to investigate the many enduring points of connection between what we call past and what we call present.