Bessie Jones: Get in Union review – 60 songs straight from the gut and heart

(Alan Lomax Archive)
This remastered set of Jones’s recordings with the Georgia Sea Island Singers richly celebrates a traditional vocalist of key historical importance

A woman from a small farming community in the state of Georgia, Bessie Jones was one of the most important traditional singers of the mid-20th century. Her accordion-playing grandfather, Jet Sampson, was enslaved as a child before the American civil war. He lived to 105 and taught her the songs of his times, which Jones was so determined to share with future generations that she travelled 1,000 miles to ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax’s New York flat in 1961 and told him to record her.

Bessie Jones - album cover - digital only - Lomax Archives - a3921525269 10

Jones sang at the Poor People’s March on Washington in 1968, in Carnegie Hall in Manhattan, and at Jimmy Carter’s inauguration. She died in 1984. In 1998, her vocals from the song Sometimes were sampled on Moby’s single Honey. Moby thanked Lomax on the liner notes, but not Jones: “I wrote Honey in about 10 minutes,” he boasted. Get in Union, a remastered collection of her recordings from 2014, was out of print until early June, when the Lomax Archive uploaded it to Bandcamp with nine new tracks and all proceeds benefitting the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s legal defence fund. It shouldn’t be sidelined or silenced any more, but played and played again.

The 60-track anthology includes a cappellas and spirituals with the group that Jones joined, the Georgia Sea Island Singers. All sing from the gut, clear and warm. Jones sings O Death straight-backed, speeding up, asking straightforwardly to be spared. Her version of folk standard John Henry, about an African-American steel driver who died after working too hard, is powerfully slow, drawing you into his last moments.

The harmonies elsewhere are thick and contagious. They weave magnificently around the polyrhythmic clapping on Walk Daniel; on Got on My Traveling Shoes, they’re ecstatic in their surrender. There’s a sense of soft determination throughout, including on Sometimes. “I’m going over here,” Jones sings near its end. Her backing singers laugh in approval. It’s up to us to go with them.

This month’s other picks

Andrew Tuttle’s Alexandra (Room40) is a gorgeous, pointillistic portrait of his eastern Australian homeland. His dappled banjos and guitars with reverb-laden electronics bring to mind heat haze and still lakes. Minnie Birch’s You’re Not Singing Anymore (self-released) unpacks folk songs normally sung, often to bawdier lyrics, on football terraces. A bit of roaring welly would be welcome in-between her wistfulness on John Brown’s Body and Blaydon Races. Snowgoose’s The Making of You (Glass Modern) sees old Soup Dragon Jim McCulloch, plus other Glasgow indie glitterati from Teenage Fanclub and Belle and Sebastian, doing a Pentangle. The occasional bossa nova flourishes are lovely, as is the easy-on-the-ear Anna Sheard.

Contributor

Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Sound Portraits from Bulgaria review | Jude Rogers's folk album of the month
Martin Koenig’s wonderful collection, recorded in rural Bulgaria between 1966 and 1979, is quietly heroic

Jude Rogers

15, Nov, 2019 @8:30 AM

Article image
Broadside Hacks: Songs Without Authors Vol 1 review – contemporary artists tinker with tradition
The folk project led by Sorry’s Campbell Baum offers new takes on anonymously composed tunes, with varying success

Jude Rogers

03, Sep, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
Alula Down: Postcards from Godley Moor review | Jude Rogers's folk album of the month
Kate Gathercole and Mark Waters mark the shape-shifting effects of Covid in rural Britain, mixing traditional music with post-rock and ambience

Jude Rogers

14, Aug, 2020 @7:30 AM

Article image
Ainsley Hamill: Not Just Ship Land review | Jude Rogers's folk album of the month
Possessed of a big and intriguing voice with a touch of wildness, Hamill has real crossover potential

Jude Rogers

19, Mar, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
Linda Buckley: From Ocean's Floor review | Jude Rogers's folk album of the month
The Irish composer combines traditional séan-nos singing with an electronic soundscape, connecting past and future

Jude Rogers

09, Oct, 2020 @7:30 AM

Article image
Sam Lee: Old Wow review – Britain's nature crisis in gnarly song
Lee’s twee-free third album, produced by Bernard Butler and featuring Liz Fraser, is a stark reminder of this country’s environmental concerns

Jude Rogers

31, Jan, 2020 @8:30 AM

Article image
Gwenifer Raymond: Strange Lights Over Garth Mountain review | Jude Rogers's folk album of the month
Raymond’s accomplished guitar playing, inspired on her second album by her Welsh upbringing, makes for horror-tinged blues full of atmosphere

Jude Rogers

06, Nov, 2020 @8:30 AM

Article image
House and Land: Across the Field review – a magical recasting of music history
Electronic experimentalism duels with classic banjo sounds for this ambient, affecting new twist on American folk music

Jude Rogers

28, Jun, 2019 @9:00 AM

Article image
Burd Ellen: Says the Never Beyond review | Jude Rogers's folk album of the month
Debbie Armour and Gayle Brogan harmonise beautifully and add unnerving sounds to British seasonal songs

Jude Rogers

04, Dec, 2020 @8:30 AM

Article image
Khasi-Cymru Collective: Sai-thaiñ Ki Sur (The Weaving of Voices
) review – from Wales to India
Gareth Bonello (the Gentle Good) and musicians of the Khasi hills explore messy missionary history in this beautiful album

Jude Rogers

11, Jun, 2021 @7:30 AM