Shall We Gather at the River
African-American Sacred Music from the Florida Folklife Collection


This disc highlights Florida’s African American religious music traditions. The collection features both nationally recognized acts and previously unknown local artists, including the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Georgia Sea Island Singers, the Versiteers, and the Amigo Male Singers.

Christian sacred music is performed by African-Americans in a variety of social contexts which range from informal unaccompanied singing, to spirited church meetings, to gospel concerts by professional artists. Like its secular counterparts such as jazz, blues, and various other popular music forms, the music combines African and European influences to create unique and compelling musical expressions.

The tradition of lining hymns, as demonstrated in the rendition of "O for the Death of Those," dates back to the mid-17th century, when slaves (and many whites) could not read and hymnals were scarce. Similarly, shape note singing takes its name from the use of note heads of various geometrical shapes to teach the vocal parts to those who could not read standard musical notation. It has been part of Florida's musical life since the late 19th century. The clear diction and rather formal sound of the Amigo Male Singers reflect influence by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a popular touring group formed shortly after emancipation to raise funds for Fisk University and often credited with introducing the Negro spiritual to the general public.

Call-and-response is an important element of music with African roots and is employed on this recording by smaller groups as well as by large ensembles, such as the Antioch Junior Choir, and in congregational singing, such as the selections by the Testerina Primitive Baptist Church and the members of the Madison County Senior Center.

Florida was and remains an important destination for professional gospel touring groups. The Dixie Hummingbirds (Pennsylvania), the Religionaires (Georgia), and the Cisrow Family Gospel Allstars (New Jersey), as well as Florida groups such as the Washington Sisters and The Versiteers, were recorded at a 1985 concert in Orlando which paid tribute to Otis Jackson, a gospel deejay, composer, and performer with strong ties to Orlando and Jacksonville. These groups performed in the gospel quartet style which saw its heyday in the 1940s through the 1960s. The Georgia Sea Island Singers are known for their repertoire of old-time spirituals which have been handed down among the Gullah people of coastal Georgia for generations.

This recording emphasizes older musical forms; however, many African-Americans constantly reshape their sacred music to reflect contemporary cultural contexts, yet maintain connected to deep traditional roots. Today, millions of Floridians of African descent continue to express their faith, trials, and triumphs through a rich variety of Christian sacred music.

-Robert L. Stone

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1. Amazing Grace - Florida-Alabama Progressive Seven-Shape Note Singing Convention
Recorded May 18, 1980, by Dwight DeVane in Crestview
(S1576, T83-83)

2. I've Got Heaven on My Mind - Hickory Bottom Harmoneers
Recorded May 1, 1955, by Foster Barnes in White Springs
(S1576, T77-12b)

3. Babylon Is Falling Down - Deacon Dan Smith, Nick Hallman & the Georgia Sea Island Singers
Recorded August 30, 1975, in White Springs
(S1576, T79-18)

4. I Can't Even Walk (Without You Holding My Hand) - The Cisrow Gospel Allstars
Recorded September 15, 1985, by Peggy Bulger in Orlando
(S1576, T85-151)

5. Jesus Met the Woman at the Well - The Versiteers
Recorded May 27, 1995, in White Springs
(S1576, D95-41)

6. Trouble of the World - Amigo Male Singers
Recorded May 2, 1958, by Foster Barnes in White Springs
(S1576, T77-68)

7. Wasn't That a Mystery - Madison County Senior Center
Recorded April 19, 1983, by Nancy Nusz in Madison
(S1576, C84-58)

8. When I Come to God - Testerina Primitive Baptist Church
Recorded May 11, 1980, by Dwight DeVane & Doris Dyen in Tallahassee
(S1576, T83-89)

9. Daniel in the Lion's Den - Bessie Jones & the Georgia Sea Island Singers
Recorded August 29, 1975, in White Springs
(S1576, T79-15)

10. I'm in His Care - The Washington Singers
Recorded September 15, 1985, by Peggy Bulger in Orlando
(S1576, T85-151)

11. Jesus Be a Fence Around Me - The Antioch Junior Choir
Recorded May 1970, in White Springs
(S1576, T77-214)

12. Jesus Is Coming Soon - The Dixie Hummingbirds
Recorded September 15, 1985, by Peggy Bulger in Orlando
(S1576, T85-153)

13. Come and Go to That Land - The Religionaires
Recorded September 15, 1985, by Peggy Bulger in Orlando
(S1576, T85-152)

14. O for the Death of Those - Troy Demps, James Robinson & Frank Spaulding
Recorded May 28, 2004, in White Springs
(S2034, CD04-91)

15. There's a Bright Side Somewhere - Reatha Pearl Marshall
Recorded September 5, 1976, in White Springs
(S1576, T77-255)