Driving back to my hotel Friday night, all those beautiful moss-covered oaks seemed to take on a more menacing presence, their crooked and hairy arms inked out onto the asphalt in the form of sprawling moon shadows. Things can change here within the blink of an eye. One can move from stately opulence to ghetto and back again all within the same block. At times a jolting and disfiguring urban landscape, it is as if Savannah were endowed with great shape-shifting powers, a quaint southern belle and brooding sorcerer all at once, depending on the angle and time of day.
With those spectral night shadows from the previous evening still lingering in my head, I returned to the SMF the following day to catch a performance by the McIntosh County Shouters. The Shouters perform a genre of slave song called “ring shot,” perhaps the oldest surviving musical tradition of African origin in North America. Returning to their quarters after a long day in the fields, slaves would gather to perform this unique form of percussive call-and-response singing. Still performed today in some black communities in McIntosh County on Georgia’s coast, the ring shout combines a rhythm section of “clappers,” foot stomping, and the percussion of a stick beaten on a wood floor with a “songster,” usually a man, providing the “calls” or lead and a group of women called “bass-ers” who repeat the phrase in response.
Although once referred to as “running spirituals,” these songs are now called “shout” songs. The term “shout” here has a specific, unconventional meaning. Its refers not to the act of hollering but rather to the movements of the women, who shuffle their feat as they move in a counter-clockwise circular pattern during the performance. The women shuffle rather than step in order to avoid crossing their feat, which is considered profane, an invitation to evil. Interestingly, the word “shout” might have originally been derived from the Afro-Arabic saut, referring to movement around the Kabaa in Mecca. Over time, however, Christian cosmology has been slowly grafted on to this form of expressive culture, so that many of the original African (and, perhaps, Islamic) religious foundations have been lost or buried.
|McIntosh County Shouters|