The southeastern ring shout is probably the oldest surviving African American performance tradition on the North American continent. It continues to be performed in a black community in McIntosh County on Georgia's coast. This compelling fusion of counterclockwise dancelike movement, call-and-response singing, and percussion (in the form of hand clapping and a stick beating a drumlike rhythm on a wooden floor) is clearly African in its origins. The ring shout affirms oneness with the Spirit and with ancestors as well as community cohesiveness.
As the tradition developed in slavery times, strong elements of Christian belief were grafted onto it. The ring shout was first described in detail during the Civil War (1861-65) by outside observers in coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia.
Its practice continued in those areas well into the twentieth century, even as its influence was felt in altered forms, like spiritual, jubilee, gospel music, and elements of jazz. By the last quarter of the twentieth century, however, the ring shout itself was presumed to have died out until its rediscovery in 1980 in McIntosh County.
To this day, the shouters of Bolden or "Briar Patch," a community near Eulonia, perform the ring shout at the Mt. Calvary Baptist Church on Watch Night, or New Year's Eve, to welcome in the New Year. In earlier times the shout, often criticized by white missionaries and some black clergy, occurred in the church after the formal worship, or in "praise houses" in the woods, or even in homes or barns. Today it continues to be separate from formal worship, though it takes place in the church's annex, a building with a wooden floor that permits movement in the ring and percussive resonance.
A "songster" will "set" or begin a song, slowly at first, then accelerating to an appropriate tempo. These lines will be answered by a group of singers called "basers" in call-and-response pattern. The stick-man, sitting next to the leader, will beat a simple rhythm with a broom or other wood stick, and the basers will add rhythm with hand clapping and foot patting. The songs are special shout songs, at one time called "running spirituals." For the most part they form a separate repertoire from spirituals, jubilees, and later gospel songs. Ranging from light-spirited to apocalyptic, they at times carry coded references to slavery. Sometimes participants pantomime the meaning of the verses being sung—for example, extending their arms in the "eagle wing" gesture to evoke friends urging a slave, Daniel, to fly from the master's whip.
While the word shout is used to describe the collective elements of the tradition, it more specifically refers to the dancelike movement. Today's shouters differentiate between the singers and the shouters, the latter referring to those who move counterclockwise in the ring. Linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner has convincingly proposed that the word shout here derives from the Afro-Arabic saut, referring to movement around the Kabaa in Mecca. The shout movement is a forward hitching shuffle in which the feet never cross; the practitioners of the tradition maintain that crossing the feet would be unholy dancing, whereas the shout is in the service of the Lord.
Public Performance and Recognition
When the living ring shout tradition in Bolden became known to outsiders in 1980, a performing group from the community was organized, calling themselves the McIntosh County Shouters. Under the leadership of elder songster Lawrence McKiver, they endeavored to present on stage faithful re-creations of their community tradition that had been passed on from their slave forebears, especially London and Amy Jenkins, grandparents of the current group's elder shouters. From their first appearance at the Sea Island Festival on St. Simons Island, the group went on to such venues as the National Folk Festival at Wolf Trap Farm in Virginia, Atlanta's Black Arts Festival, and New York's Lincoln Center. They were featured in a Georgia Public Television documentary and on a Folkways LP. In 1993 the group was awarded the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 2010 it received a Governor's Award in the Humanities.
Although the tradition is in some ways modified for public performance, adding what their presenter Bettye Ector calls "showmanship," the shouters maintain that the core spiritual and community values are intact—what one shouter calls "the same sweet, sweet spirit." Continuing the dynamic development of tradition, some elements added in stage presentations have reentered practice in the Watch Night shouts in the community.
Survival of the venerable ring shout tradition in Bolden can be attributed to several factors: a relatively stable community with economic viability, significant outside recognition of the value of the tradition, and the perseverance of several elder tradition-bearers who are deeply committed to continuing the tradition in both community practice and public performance and to encouraging its practice by a new generation.