James Jamerson and Edisto Island

Detail of early painting from South Carolina, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum

Detail of early painting from South Carolina, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum

As a child, my mother rocked me to sleep in a rocking chair and sang a song about ‘going to tell Aunt Dinah.’ It went on…. “the old grey goose is dead… the one she’s been savin’…. to make a feather bed.”

Who was Aunt Dinah, and where did this song originate? I have no clue, but I remembered it, and sang it to my children, and again, a generation later, to my grandchildren. These are the arts that live in the everyday; they are the family recipes, the songs, the music we listen to even now, I believe, that tie us to the stories of where we came from, even when there is no written history.

Jack McCray, author of “Charleston Jazz,” wrote a piece in the Charleston Post & Courier about James Jamerson, the legendary bass guitarist, who lived from 1936 to 1983. On March 19 of ’09, largely unnoticed, at the State Capital, State Rep. Wendell Gilliard presented Charleston musician Anthony McKnight, a South Carolina House of Representatives resolution honoring McKnight’s late cousin, James Jamerson, an American music innovator.

To borrow from a tribute written by Allan Slutsky, his biographer, “James Jamerson was a jazz musician born on Edisto Island and grew up in the city of Charleston. Before he finished high school he moved to Detroit, Michigan. Like many other jazz players, Jamerson, a bassist, took to playing pop music to earn a living and he ended up a charter member of the Funk Brothers, the legendary house band for Motown Records, the sound of young America, as it called itself, during the 1960s and 1970s. That period was its prolific heyday. He took the rhythm and aural textures of the Lowcountry to Detroit and made major contributions to one of the greatest phases in the evolution of American music. Jamerson played on virtually all of the hits by acts such as the Supremes, Temptations, Four Tops, Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Martha and the Vandellas. He played on more No. 1 records than the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Beach Boys combined.
This story is long overdue.

Jamerson began playing music as a little boy on Edisto Island, with one string in the sand, “to make the ants dance.” John Michael Vlach, professor of American Studies and Anthropology at George Washington University has written much about American Folk Art, and he reveals the interesting history of many instruments that owe their history to “Afro-American instrument makers….one of these is called the “one-string” or “one strand”.

Early African Americans made this into a banjo, which was built from a gourd. He goes on to say, “It is clear that the banjo as it was first known in America was an African instrument. It remained a black instrument until the 1840’s when minstrel shows took it on as part of their black face farces. Only then did the banjo become a badge of ridicule for Afro-Americans; they generally gave it up, allowing white southerners to claim it as their own invention.” For an in depth discussion of this and many other traditional folk arts of the Lowcountry I highly recommend Mr Vlach’s book, The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts, University of Georgia Press.

The one string instrument that James Jamerson played as a child was one his ancestors most likely played. This was his Aunt Dinah song. Music heals and soothes us, and her history in the Lowcountry is a large part of her soul. I can only imagine the sounds of the boatmen who sang in rhythmic time, during long travels over these waters, and the metaphoric music of work songs, and spirituals, songs that often spoke in secret codes. The music worked ingeniously to communicate one message to the master and another to the slave, yet all along it continued to be music, to soothe and heal the spirit. How many more stories like James Jamerson’s exist? Do you have songs passed down in the family whose roots may tell you something about your ancestors?

To borrow again from Jack McCray, “The next time you hear the soulful bass introduction to “My Girl,” the thunder-and-lightening licks to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” or the rollicking romp of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” remember Jamerson and the pulse of the Lowcountry.”

Now, this is pretty close to church, I say. Amen, brother.

I was called to be an artist. And as an old old midwife said to me "If the Lord wants you to do something, you won't have no good luck' til you do." So, here I am, sharing what I love, longing to illuminate the work of art, which is everywhere.

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Posted in art, Arts & Culture, Charleston South Carolina, creativity, Gullah, music, Poetry, South Carolina History, spirituality
One comment on “James Jamerson and Edisto Island
  1. The Carolina Chocolate Drops! A new African American fiddling group!


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What’s this?

Welcome to my blog about the Lowcountry of South Carolina, a place proud with beauty, history and art. Sometimes we feel a call, to be, to go, to do. I was called to be an artist, and as an old midwife from Alabama said, “If the good Lord wants you to do something, you won’t have no good luck until you do it.”

So here I am writing about what I know, about the 'under glimmer' as the poet Basho, says, the way I have learned to see, to notice. I am inspired by, and talking about the history and art and culture of this place that has called me to herself. By the ancestors.

My background includes a degree in fine arts from a small private college in Florida, and before that, four years of all girls' boarding school in Asheville. I worked as a professional photographer, helped my children grow up, and now and I love seasoned things, good food, better conversation, beauty, my beloved and beautiful Italian Greyhound, Beau. Moved by the sacred places and stories of this beautiful historic land called the Lowcountry, I am here in spirit and I hope to infect you with my love of this place.

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