David Lauderdale

This Beaufort County 98-year-old still sings the old Gullah spirituals. Here's why SC will say thanks

Could this song, sung by enslaved Africans, be lost with this Lowcountry 98-year-old?

St. Helena Island resident James Garfield Smalls, 98, sings a spiritual on Wednesday, April 25, 2018, one of many in his repertoire. Smalls is to be recognized by the South Carolina Arts Commission with the Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award.
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St. Helena Island resident James Garfield Smalls, 98, sings a spiritual on Wednesday, April 25, 2018, one of many in his repertoire. Smalls is to be recognized by the South Carolina Arts Commission with the Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award.

Deacon James Garfield Smalls is 98, but he's still got a boombox inside that rumbles out spirituals he learned from his great-grandfather on St. Helena Island.

Spirituals are the biblical songs of hope that the enslaved sang, now considered the roots of jazz and blues and all of American music.

Smalls will be honored by the S.C. Arts Commission, the governor and state legislature at the State House in Columbia this Wednesday. He will be cited as one the most important active Gullah singers and cultural ambassadors.

Still, there is trouble on the water for Gullah traditions, even on rural St. Helena where its isolation nurtured strong Gullah roots.

Who will be next? Who will sing the old songs in the old way when today's Lowcountry kids plug themselves into earbuds to hear the sounds of California, nothing like the rocking little wooden buildings called praise houses that defined the world of Deacon Smalls.

"They don't know these songs," said the man who still stands tall, lives at home, tends his cows on Eddings Point Road — and leads the singing of spirituals on Sunday evenings in some of the state's last praise houses.

He talks about pitching a song, catching a song and hanging onto a song.

But, he said, "I never hear them sing these songs in church. Very seldom."

Eric Crawford, a Coastal Carolina University professor and scholar of the music, said, "He's the most important Gullah singer we have."

He can raise dozens of songs that he learned to the accompaniment of clapping hands and stomping feet.

"He's singing songs that lead back to the mid-19th century," Crawford said. He's a living link to the publication 'Slaves Songs of the United States,' which Crawford called "the capstone compendium of Negro spirituals."

The youngest of Smalls' six surviving daughters, whom they called "the last button on Job's old coat," can sing along with her dad.

She was raised with it, but left home for the North at 18.

Back home, her father sings "Roll, Jordan, Roll" for the visiting newspaper people.

"I just pick it up and go it on," he said.

'Voices of Gullah'

Smalls is the second person from St. Helena to be honored recently with a Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award.

Joseph "Crip" Legree Jr. was recognized in 2009 for his hand-sewn shrimp nets.

"He was my cousin," said Smalls, who grew up in the Doctor White section of the Saxonville community. He went through fourth grade at Frogmore School. He later took carpentry at the Penn School, and built his own brick house while working 37 years and seven months in civil service at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. He also farmed enough to feed his family.

Smalls wouldn't let his girls work in the fields of truck farmers because he thought it turned into a dead end for too many, and he wanted them "to get what I didn't get," an education. One by one, the girls would move to New York and stay with their oldest sister. She gave them six months to get out on their own.

Smalls has been a deacon for 50 years at Bethesda Christian Fellowship on Martin Luther King Drive, formerly St. Joseph Baptist. He led a choir there. He was part of the quartets of St. Helena that made it famous for music long before native child Candice Glover won the "American Idol" competition in 2013.

"I learned from the older people," Smalls said. "Man, those people would ring the spirituals. They could catch the spirit of the song."

Spirituals have fascinated outsiders for more than 200 years, and many efforts have been made to document them and preserve them.

Smalls was one of the stars when professor Crawford, then at Norfolk State University, joined a Coastal Carolina effort in 2014 to record St. Helena spirituals singers before it was too late.

They ended up with a CD box set, "Voices of Gullah." It also features Rosa and Joseph Murray, Minnie Gracie Gadson and the Mary Jenkins and Croft praise houses on Eddings Point Road. Proceeds have helped maintain the praise houses, which Smalls calls "prayer houses."

But even with the voices and words recorded, it's hard to describe spirituals.

'Spiritual people'

The Rev. Kenneth Doe of Bethesda Christian Fellowship has known Smalls for 43 years.

As leader of what appears to be St. Helena's largest church, Doe knows that spirituals are losing ground.

"There are some younger people who still sing them — rhyming and raising metered hymns — but it's not the old way," he said. "It's up to the community to intentionally do things to maintain that lifeline of spirituals. We're doing what we can to push it."

Doe knows why it matters.

"Those songs were maintained by spiritual people for whom life was not so bright," he said. "They found refuge in the truths of what was spiritual."

Ironically, the praise houses were permitted by slave owners who felt religion could help regulate the slaves. But in truth it gave them a place to experience more freedom.

"The 'pray houses' gave a sense of community, a way to maintain accountability, a way to look out for each other and a way to enjoy spiritual expression without a lot of control," Doe said.

At the heart of the spirituals, he said, is this spiritual understanding: "They knew their destiny was not in their hands."

Maybe all that will come through in Deacon Smalls' booming voice in Columbia on Wednesday.

"It's what God wanted me to do, I guess," is how he puts it. "I did it to the best of my ability and knowledge."

David Lauderdale: 843-706-8115, @ThatsLauderdale