Meet Bessie Jones, the musicologist who made African-American folk songs a part of the school’s curricula

Stephen Nartey November 08, 2022
Bessie Jones, Folk legend/Photo credit: America Blues Scene/The Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

The life of Bessie Jones was immersed in music from the day of her birth to the period she became conscious of letting the world know about her talent.

Almost everyone in her family had some talent to exhibit. Her step grandfather, Jet Sampson, a freed slave, had a melodious voice that caught anyone’s attention the moment he sings aside from him being a good storyteller as well.

He was responsible for the early love of Bessie Jones for African American folksongs, work songs and spirituals which became the very essence of what the music legend became known for, according to atlas obscura.

Anything music could be linked to many of Bessie Jones’ family members from playing the guitar, autoharp, banjo and putting together their own musical instrument.

As if designed by fate, Bessie Jones’ husband had a long family tradition of vocalists in Georgia’s sea island, a region she will later find her purpose.

Born Mary Elizabeth Bessie Smith Jones on February 8, 1902. She grew up in Smithville, Georgia, with her mother, stepfather and other members of the family.

She had a tough early life filled with poverty compelling her to begin menial jobs to complement the family’s income. She had to stop school when her stepfather died in 1911. She moved into full gear working to make money to support the family.

Any job that would fetch some income, Bessie Jones was involved in. From being a nanny, working on the farms and nursemaids to white families who could pay for her services.

Life had a way of presenting Bessie Jones in its hard-pressed spaces. She gave birth when she was 12 after marrying Cassius Davis in 1914.

What kept her going while working to make a living were the songs of old taught her by her grandfather. She sung when taking care of the children. These songs made it to her early music album, ‘Get in Union’ between 1959 and 1966.

She had to move to Florida in 1926 in search of greener pastures when her first husband, Cassius Davis, died in 1926.

She later remarried George Jones while working as a cook on a farm in 1928. Before they settled in St. Simons Island, George and her worked as farm hands for seven years trying to eke out a living.

It was in Georgia Bessie Jones joined the Spiritual Singers Society of Coastal George, a music ensemble group that was devoted to preserving music of African origin and Gullah cultures.

Jones discovered her true calling to teach music when her path crossed with ethnomusicologist, Alan Lomax, who had considerable interest in preserving 20th century American and British folk revivals.

He met Bessie Jones when he came to St. Simons Island to record some folk songs in 1959. He employed Bessie Jones and a few others to participate in a film he was shooting about the early colonial period in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Bessie Jones taught while devoting part of her time touring with the Georgia Sea island Singers, a group she formed in 1963.

With the help of Lomax’s sister, Bess Lomax Hawes, Bessie Jones’ work was published under the title ‘Step It Down’.

She got a further boost when she presented her work at Kodaly Musical Training Institute, Watertown, Massachusetts, to enable children learn folk songs and games at the same time.

Her style of teaching soon caught up with many learning centres across the states. Today, her work has become a reference point in music education in America long after she passed on in 1984.

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