The second installment of our Black History Month Throwback Thursday series features American Folk Singer and Educator Bessie Jones, and her song, So Glad I’m Here.
Mary Elizabeth “Bessie” Jones (Feb 8, 1902– July 17, 1984) was born in Smithville, Georgia, and moved to the Georgia Sea Islands shortly thereafter. She was a founding member of the Georgia Sea Island Singers. She had a fifth grade education, but was deeply aware of the importance of music in socialization and education. She began caring for children when she was ten years old; child care and education became an integral part of her long and colorful life thereafter. In Step It Down: Games, Plays, Songs, and Stories from the Afro-American Heritage, (1972; reprint, Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1987) she talks about the value of such games and songs, and the role they played in her own childhood:
“The children, they don’t even know how to play those things now, see. But it’s just good fun games, keeps you out of devilment, keeps you from fighting. I never had fights with children when I was little — didn’t have time to fight, we had to play. When we wasn’t eating or sleeping or working — and so that was it. But now they got time to talk about the grown things.” (pg. 172)
Jones’ grandfather, Jet Sampson, was born in Africa, enslaved and brought to the Americas around 1843. He was a large influence on Jones’ musical education, teaching her his repertoire of ancient songs and encouraging her abilities. Music was the foundation of her life, it bound her to those close to her, and to the children and educators she worked with. She said:
“I remember a hundred games, I suppose; I would say a hundred because there are so many of them. We had all kinds of plays; we had house plays, we had outdoor plays. Some of the plays have songs, some have just pays-you know, just acts or whatnot…In my time comping up, the parents they would give quiltings and they would have songs they would sing while they were quilting and we would listen at those songs. And we would have egg crackings and taffy pullings and we would hear all those things – riddleses and stories and different things. That’s why I’m so loaded….”(pg.xii Step it Down)
Jones was a singer and song writer for most of her life, but national interest in her began after a 1959 visit from ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, who recorded her singing with the Georgia Sea Island Singers. After that time, she traveled the country, singing, teaching and participating in public ceremonies, such as the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter.
She died from leukemia in 1982, the same year she was the recipient of a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.