'American Idol' the latest to love sea island singing

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comMarch 5, 2013 

"American Idol" winner Candice Glover will return to Beaufort for a concert Sept. 14, according to sources.

SUBMITTED PHOTO

As far as we know, singing has always been a second form of breathing on St. Helena Island.

Beautiful singing on the Sea Island near the city of Beaufort has been documented for at least 150 years.

That's why it's not surprising to see singer Candice Glover of St. Helena shining this week in the bright lights of Las Vegas. She's turned the red-hot "American Idol" spotlight on the Lowcountry, where singing has done more to hold a people together than fish and rice.

Glover advanced to the top 20 contestants last week in the national television series. She sang again Tuesday night, and will know Thursday if she made the next cut. Either way, she's close enough to hear old Jordan roll.

Singing was the first thing many outsiders noticed when they came to these isolated shores at the outset of the Civil War. Some even wrote down the words and tunes of the haunting songs that would become known as spirituals.

The Penn School published "Saint Helena Island Spirituals" in 1925, a book documenting songs such as "Fix Me Jedus" and "Eb'rybody Wants t'Know Jis How I Die." Singing on St. Helena cut to the soul, reflecting great wisdom, and Penn School board member George Foster Peabody knew it. Long before "American Idol" took note of a St. Helena Island songstress, Peabody commissioned African musician Nicholas George Julius Ballanta-Taylor to come document the music that would eventually give the world gospel, rhythm and blues, blues, rock 'n' roll and jazz.

The Penn School Quartet traveled the nation to raise money for the school founded on St. Helena by Northerners in 1862 to educate the newly freed families.

Photographs in the Penn School papers at the University of North Carolina show "The Saint Helena Quartette" with Lorenzo Hall, Joshua E. Blanton, Anthony Watson and Benjamin Washington. Singers Melvin Wildy and James P. King are in other photos, now about 100 years old.

Bluesman "Cool" John Ferguson, whose mother is from the Scott community on St. Helena, performed gospel as a small child with his siblings. The Ferguson Sisters sang on the weekly "Lowcountry Sing" show on Channel 5 in Charleston. They put little John on a stool, then stuck a big guitar in his hands, which he turned upside down because he was left-handed. Now he's praised for his hot licks by the likes of Taj Mahal.

Delbert Felix grew up on St. Helena, where his father was the high school band leader, and become the original bassist in the Branford Marsalis Quartet.

Walter Mack, director of the Penn Center that succeeded the school, says St. Helena singers never had any formal training. Like Candice, they got it at church.

Carole Glover said her 23-year-old daughter's generation doesn't know the old spirituals that first turned heads to the beautiful music of St. Helena Island.

Maybe she can keep winning and stay in the nation's spotlight and someday be like Mahalia Jackson and Marian Anderson, who often sang the old songs. Maybe Candice in her later years can see the old spirituals as a chariot, comin' for to carry her home.

Related content

  1. "American Idol"
  2. Penn Center
  3. Cool John Ferguson

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