The Ringshout & the Birth of African-American Religion
McIntosh County Shouters: Gullah-Geechee Ring Shout from Georgia
By MARGALIT FOX
Published: April 1, 2013
Lawrence McKiver, a founder and the longtime lead singer of the McIntosh County Shouters, a Georgia group representing the last community in America to perform the traditional ring shout — a centuries-old black form of ecstatic worship that marries singing, percussion and movement — died on March 25 on St. Simons Island, Ga. He was 97.
His death, at a nursing home there, was confirmed by a cousin, Carletha Sullivan.
The ring shout, rooted in the ritual dances of West Africa and forged by the Atlantic slave trade, is believed to be the oldest surviving African-American performance tradition of any kind. Centered in the Gullah-Geechee region of the coastal South, it differs from traditional black religious music in repertory, style and execution.
“The shouters, historically, had a separate body of songs that were used expressly and exclusively for the ring shout,” Art Rosenbaum, the author of “Shout Because You’re Free” (1998), a book about the tradition, said in an interview on Friday. “They are not the spirituals or gospel songs or hymns or jubilees that you’d hear in the church.”
Mr. McKiver, the Shouters’ last original member, appeared with the group until he was in his mid-80s and was widely acknowledged as the ring shout’s chief custodian.
A resident of Bolden, a tiny community about 50 miles south of Savannah, he had long helped perpetuate dozens of its traditional shout songs — including “Kneebone Bend,” “Move, Daniel,” “I Want to Die Like Weepin’ Mary” and “Hold the Baby” — whose subject matter can range from the devout to the secular and from the joyous to the apocalyptic.
Margo Newmark Rosenbaum——–Lawrence McKiver leading a ring shout — a form of worship that combines singing, percussion and movement — in 1983.
With the founding of the McIntosh County Shouters in 1980, Mr. McKiver introduced the ring shout to wide audiences throughout the country.
Despite its name, the ring shout entails little shouting. That word refers not to the singing but to the movement: small, deliberate steps in a counterclockwise ring. (“Shout” has been said to be a Gullah survival of the Afro-Arabic word “saut,” the name of a ritual dance around the Kaaba, a sacred site in Mecca.)
Mr. McKiver was the Shouters’ songster, as the lead singer is known. A shout typically begins with the songster singing the opening lines; other singers, known as basers, reply in call-and-response fashion. The group’s “stick man” beats a syncopated rhythm on the floor with a tree branch or broomstick as other members clap contrasting rhythms.
The circular steps for which shouting is known are by no means dancing. To avoid even the faint appearance of dance (considered sinful in some Christian traditions), shouters may neither cross their feet nor lift them high. The result — a low, measured step that is sometimes described as a shuffle — is shouting’s visual hallmark.
On the plantations of the antebellum South, where it took on elements of Christianity, the ring shout flourished covertly for generations of slaves.
“They were just doing something to keep their mind off the past tense,” Mr. McKiver said, speaking in the local dialect, in an oral history in Mr. Rosenbaum’s book. “It was their happiness. They didn’t sing it for nothing at all sad.”
After the Civil War, the tradition endured in pockets where freed slaves had settled. By the mid-20th century, however, as Gullah-Geechee communities were increasingly swept aside by gentrification, the ring shout was presumed dead.
But in 1980 two folklorists, Fred C. Fussell and George Mitchell, were astonished to find it still being performed — a robust modern link in a chain stretching back generations — in Bolden, a coastal area in McIntosh County, Ga.
In Bolden (or Briar Patch, as the community is also known), ring shouting was, then as now, a vital adjunct to worship at the Mount Calvary Baptist Church. It was typically performed there on New Year’s Eve, also called Watch Night, to shout out the old year and shout in the new.
Tyler Hicks/The New York Times—–The McIntosh County Shouters in a performance of a ring shout in Eulonia, Ga., in 2004.
The folklorists encouraged the people of Bolden to take the shout public; under Mr. McKiver’s stewardship, a touring group, the McIntosh County Shouters, was assembled.
Over the years, the group (typically four men and five women, all related by birth or marriage) has performed at City Center in New York, the Kennedy Center in Washington and the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. in Charleston, S.C., as well as on many college campuses.
It can be heard on recordings, including “Slave Shout Songs From the Coast of Georgia,” released on the Folkways label in 1984, and in “Unchained Memories,” a 2003 HBO documentary built around slave narratives.
In 1993, the McIntosh County Shouters were awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Lawrence McKiver was born in Bolden in April 1915. (The family name is sometimes spelled McIver.) His mother, the former Charlotte Evans, was a shouter, as were his maternal grandparents, Amy and London Jenkins, slaves who were the wellspring of most of the shouts performed by the community today.
Mr. McKiver was educated in local segregated schools and served in the Army during World War II. Afterward he spent much of his working life as a shrimper, a job in which, he said, he “hauled till my hands be so sore till blood come out.”
Performing with the Shouters, Mr. McKiver took pains to explain to audiences the messages from slave to slave that were encoded in the lyrics of some songs.
Introducing “Move, Daniel,” for instance, he would say that “Daniel was not the Daniel of the Bible, but was a slave that had stolen some meat from the master’s smokehouse,” Mr. Rosenbaum recalled on Friday. “And the words of the shout — ‘Move, Daniel/Go the other way, Daniel’ — he understood to be instructions to Daniel about how to flee from the master’s whip.”
Mr. McKiver’s wife, the former Anna Mae Palmer, whom he married in 1934, died in 1962. Survivors include a daughter, Renelda Nelson; a son, Ricky Scott; five grandchildren; five great-grandchildren; and a great-great-grandchild.
The ring shout, which is believed to have survived in Bolden because of the community’s stability — its young people tended to settle there — seems destined to endure: Mr. McKiver’s cousin Ms. Sullivan is a member of the Shouters, as are her daughter and grandson, the group’s current stick man.
This continuity is due in no small part to Mr. McKiver’s influence.
“I know I’m the one that got the songs alive today,” he told Mr. Rosenbaum. “And I don’t mind talking with a person on my heritage. I can bravely talk about my heritage, because my people come over the rough side of the mountain. Understand?”