Odd Bluffton musical genius gets his voice in 'A Gullah Psalm'

dlauderdale@islandpacket.com

February 15, 2014 

  • WHERE TO GET THE BOOK

    "A Gullah Psalm" by Estella Saussy Nussbaum and Jeanne Saussy Wright is available in Bluffton at Stock Farm Antiques, the Heyward House Historic Center and The Store; and on Hilton Head Island at the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn.

Luke Peeples of Bluffton stood out, even in a village of eccentrics.

At age 4, he watched from a corner of the room as his aunt played the family's new piano. Then, with everyone gathered around, Luke timidly stepped to the keyboard and played it back, note for note.

With this gift, Luke spent a lifetime hearing the musical notes in everything -- birds singing, donkeys braying, an oar in the May River, and each individual bell in the village churches.

Luke graduated with honors from the Atlanta Conservatory of Music in 1928, and it was assumed he would hit the road to perform under the bright lights, maybe all the way to Carnegie Hall.

Instead he poured his gift into the small hands of piano students back home. And his classical rhapsodies flowed through open windows into the still, early-morning life of Calhoun Street.

Luke was often seen by night, leaning against an oak tree outside one of Bluffton's three African-American churches. There, he scratched down the notes and lyrics of the a cappella spirituals and gospel songs.

He was welcome there. And that unique music became the inspiration for his life..

But all of Luke's work -- the scores, lyrics, poems and letters -- was almost lost.

Gone would have been the stuff that brought Dubose Heyward to his side when "Porgy and Bess" was being created. Gone would have been documentation of a Lowcountry era that is vanishing like the old Peeples home place, now held together by kudzu.

During his lifetime, Luke resisted publication of his musical works, which can be very intricate and difficult to perform. Only once was there a public concert of his works.

All of his effort ended up in a large grocery bag lying in a closet. It had been passed to Luke's lone surviving sibling when he died in 1994. His sister, Maud Estella Peeples Saussy, wanted to have his collection published. When she died in 1998, the grocery bag was scooped up by her daughters, Estella Saussy Nussbaum and Jeanne Saussy Wright, both of Savannah.

They now share it in a new book, "A Gullah Psalm: The Musical Life and Work of Luke Peeples."

Luke's genius has come out of the shadows and into the light it deserves.

'A BEAUTIFUL TIME'

All 11 boys in Luke Peeples' family were named for Apostles. Also born to Jesse D. and Maud Estella Guilford Peeples were three girls. They attended both the Baptist and Methodist churches, and they all learned to play the piano.

His mother's parents had come to Bluffton in 1887 with eight children. The home of this Yankee father and English mother also was bursting with music, poetry and the Scriptures.

Luke's father ran a store on Calhoun Street in the building now occupied by Babbie Guscio's shop called The Store. Luke helped his father with that enterprise, and in his other businesses. He also did paralegal work and typing.

In that context, Estella and Jeanne present a patchwork of Bluffton's characters during Luke's lifespan of 1906 to 1994.

"It was a beautiful time of life," Jeanne said.

The sisters spent more than a decade connecting the dots in writings left by Luke, a trove of family letters found in a drawer, and the well-organized and dated writings and photographs of his brother, Arthur.

They searched out survivors of the characters who walked through Luke's letters and lyrics. They recalled the stories told time and again in their long, childhood visits to Bluffton. They even trekked through courthouses and cemeteries before they could outline Luke's story.

Through Luke's gifted eyes and ears, they tell of life in a village where a man's fishing companion was an elderly dolphin, a dwarf skipped and flipped down the street with children in her wake, Episcopal monks settled on an island in the May River, and crowds gathered at the post office whenever there was big news.

Luke also documented Gullah traditions that include acts of redemption, baptism, seeking, shouting, dancing, fishing, living.

'TRUS' IN IN DUH LAWD'

Luke's gift of perfect pitch helped him write the music for a piece played at the opening of the first bridge to Hilton Head Island in 1956.

He wrote the "Processional" used for 31 years in the village high school.

He and his brother Arthur organized the May River Spiritual Singers, a community choir assembled in the 1930s and again in the 1960s to benefit buildings for the St. John in the Wilderness Baptist Church.

The book includes a list of Luke's arrangements of classic hymns like "Under the Blood of Jesus," and spirituals like "Till I Git Deh," as well as scores for some of his original works.

The sisters tell the story behind a piece Luke called a South Carolina Lowcountry psalm, and his most complete composition.

It's about his Gullah friend, Celia Cheney Ferguson Carroll, known as "Maum Celie." She had powers of healing, and interpreting dreams. She could cast her spirit into a neighbor's donkey named Atlas, whose screeching bray would alert Luke to "Sen' some soup fuh Celie soon."

Luke wrote and rewrote his piece about Maum Celie. Versions appeared in the grocery bag under three different titles.

In it, Luke ultimately turns to the words of the pipe-smoking Maum Celie.

They make the perfect Gullah psalm.

"Gone is my husban' to Gawd' uddah planet,

Gone is my chillen dem to be wid 'm deh;

Gone is my healt', but by grace I kin stan' it

Trus'in', trus'in' in duh Lawd."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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