For Our 500th Post, Folklife Today Bids You Good Night
(But Not Goodbye!)
By Stephen Winick
The full article first appeared on the Library of Congress “Folklife Today” blog.
Way back when Folklife Today celebrated our 100th post, I highlighted one of Alan Lomax’s collecting triumphs, the disc numbered AFS 100. For this, our 500th post, I thought I’d do a similar story about AFS 500. This disc was also recorded by Alan Lomax, during a field trip to the Bahamas in 1935 which also featured collectors Zora Neale Hurston and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle. (Fun fact: the collection is officially called the “Alan Lomax, Zora Neale Hurston, and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle expedition collection” (AFC 1935/001), but drawing on the collectors’ last names, AFC reference staff refer to this collection colloquially as LoHuBa.)
Looking up the contents of AFS 500, I was delighted to find that it features a song with an interesting story: It’s the first field recording documenting the best known Bahamian rhyming spiritual, “I Bid You Good Night,” called in liner notes by the folklorist and musician Jody Stecher “one of the most beautiful songs in the English language—if not in the world.” The song has been covered many times in the pop and folk worlds, most famously by The Grateful Dead. Hear Lomax’s field recording below:
AFS 500 was one of several discs recorded at an evening at Elisha Portier’s house in Grants Town, Nassau, in August 1935. The singers were a group of sponge fishermen from Andros Island, geographically the largest of the Bahamas islands. We don’t know that much about the evening’s recordings, because as Lomax later wrote: “The experience was overwhelming. I took no notes.” With no notes to fix the events in his memory, he didn’t remain consistent in his later accounts either. For example, although elsewhere he states that AFS 502 was recorded by himself and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, on page 166 of this manuscript he identifies Elisha Portier, the homeowner who hosted the gathering, as the recordist. Since AFS 500 and AFS 502 were recorded the same night, this makes it possible that Portier engineered AFS 500 as well. It also sounds like it was a crowded gathering, and it may have been difficult to control the various singers’ distances from the microphones. Either an inexperienced recording engineer or the inherent difficulties of a crowded house may account for some of the recordings being made with levels too high, and therefore suffering from distortion. Sadly, one of the distorted takes is the B-side of AFS 500, an otherwise lively and powerful rendition of the hymn “Soldier of the Cross.” Hear that recording below:
Anthems and Rhyming Spirituals: The Songs of AFS 500
Both songs on AFS 500 have their roots in works by the American hymnodist Ira David Sankey; specifically, “Soldier of the Cross” is based on a hymn with music by Sankey and words by Isaac Watts, while “I Bid You Goodnight” is based a hymn with music by Sankey and words by Sarah Doudney. In both cases, the relationships between the Bahamian spirituals and Sankey’s hymns are hard to discern at first listen, because both the words and the melodies are heavily influenced by the improvisational style known as “rhyming,” which was described by Bahamian music scholar Clement Bethel in an article in the 1983 Bahamas Handbook:
Rhyming spirituals were a product of the sponging days, when Bahamian men and boys found themselves on the Great Bahama Bank, locally called “the Mud,” for weeks at a time. They entertained themselves by singing anthems. Over a period of time, and through continued close association, crew members became familiar with each other’s vocal mannerisms. Certain outstanding singers gained a reputation as lead singers or “rhymers,” others became known as “bassers.” Gradually this musical role playing evolved into established tradition.
These rhyming spirituals were traditionally sung, unaccompanied, by men, and the texts were based on the older anthems or on some biblical story, event or character. Sometimes the songs relate events of local interest, for example, the drowning at sea of someone in the community, or the sinking of a ship. The over-riding feature of the style is the high incidence of improvisation, and as each voice is permitted to extemporize freely the resulting performance is characterized by a rhythmically complex texture. With the failure of the sponge industry in 1938, the rhyming style declined sharply and is very seldom, if ever, heard in the Bahamas today.
In the 1930s, Lomax still found these “rhyming spirituals” referred to locally as “anthems,” an older name for Bahamas spirituals. He therefore referred to “rhyming” as “the anthem style,” and described it more thoroughly, in liner notes which he wrote in 1979, but which appeared later, with the Rounder CD Bahamas 1935: Chanteys and Anthems from Andros and Cat Island:
The handling of tempo is, perhaps, the most unusual feature of the anthem style. The several parts are likely not only to have different tonal levels, rhythmic patterns, and distinctive melodic patterns, but be proceeding at different speeds – one rather slow, one medium, one with accelerations, and one, the rhyming part, in quick time. Meantime the overall tempo of the song steadily increases the longer it is sung; this is characteristic of much African and African American music; it leads to religious possession, and inspires more and more dazzling passages by the dancers and the drummers. But the marked use of multiple tempos by Bahamian choirs – grave for the alto, presto for the bass, and prestissimo for the rhymer – is unique in the universe of song, so far as I am aware.
Interestingly, Lomax applied to these songs his longtime theory that singing styles grow directly out of other aspects of a culture, especially work roles:
The distinctive effect of multiple tempos…flows, I believe, from the marriage of Bahamians to the sea and small sailboats. A sailboat moving through the sea before a good wind moves in several tempos: the lift, plunge and roll of the vessel through the water, and the forward motion of the boat itself, which increases imperceptibly and with an effect of mounting thrill as sails are trimmed and as the breeze picks up. Other rhythms can be heard in the rapid slatting of ropes against the sails, the slow creaking of the mast and the blocks, and the slide of the water along the side and perhaps across the deck. As the weather gets heavier all these dramatic and independent sound effects grow quicker, louder and more intense. […]
I believe the anthem style, which is distinctive of the period of the sponge fleet, when the seamen of the Bahamas literally lived on their cackly shell craft for years on end, is a characteristically African reworking of these maritime experiences. One might call it an organization of energy patterns and social [work] roles primarily in terms of tempo, but also of dynamics and pitch. Increase of tempo, and multiple tempos, are the very heart of much of African music. What the Bahamian added was giving each member of the group a different set of words, with a different syllabic rate to each group member.
It’s hard to say whether Lomax’s inspiration as to the origin of “rhyming” is accurate, but it’s certainly an interesting take on this unique, African-derived maritime song tradition. Whatever the origins of the style, the published words and melody of any hymn adapted as a “rhyming spiritual” were only initial inspiration, the basis from which to begin improvisation. This is what we hear in both songs on AFS 500.
Take a closer look at “I Bid You Goodnight” in the full article on the Library of Congress’s blog.
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About the author:
Stephen Winick has been the writer and editor at the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center since 2005. He has M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Folklore and Folklife from the University of Pennsylvania and a B.A. in English from Columbia University. Before coming to the Library, he was one of the regional folklorists for New Jersey, where he ran the Delaware Valley Folklife Center in Camden, founded the South Jersey Caribbean Carnival, and produced seven successful exhibits of New Jersey folklife. He has taught at the University of Pennsylvania, George Mason University, and George Washington University. He is an active scholar, and serves as co-convener of the Music and Song section of the American Folklore Society. A singer with the OCEAN Orchestra and Ship’s Company Chanteymen, he has performed at diverse venues, including the Music Center at Strathmore, the Birchmere, the Lisner Auditorium, The U.S. Navy Memorial, and Mystic Seaport Museum. He is a contributing editor to the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition, and his writing has appeared in many publications, including Folklife Center News, Journal of American Folklore, Dirty Linen, All Music Guide, Music Hound, Sing Out!, and the Huffington Post Culture Blog.
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