Gee’s Bend Quilters, “Boykin, Alabama: Sacred Spirituals of Gee’s Bend”

For Penguin Eggs

Everything about this album is an absolute, unqualified, unbridled delight. It’s four women who live in Boykin, Alabama, and take part in a quilting tradition that began in the 19th century. They sing while they quilt, and the songs are polished just as the needles are, through endless passes through the fabric of their lives. “Quilting is a healing,” says China Pettway, one of the four. “I think quilting and singing is healing for our soul.”

This is a recording made recently, but in analogue on a portable reel-to-reel Ampex 601. It’s the same equipment used to make all those field recordings—per the Lomaxes—that have formed the canon of North American folk music. Inconceivably, these women have never been recorded before now. But thanks to this, people all over the world will hear them, because this is the kind of recording that people are going to share, and rightly so. It’s joyful, humorous, mysterious, wise. As with the entire tradition of field recording, it’s like listening through a cosmic keyhole onto another reality. It’s hard not to think that it’s a better one, despite the pain that has informed the African-American signing traditions that it exemplifies.

The first track is the women—Mary Anne, China, Larine, and Nancy Pettway—just in the studio giggling and trying out some lines. It’s the perfect beginning to a perfect, moving, telling, important recording. Some of the songs will be familiar; others won’t be. Some are tantalizing, such as “Give Me My Flowers,” which bears some relation to the Carter’s “Give Me Roses While I Live” though it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what that relation might be. Did “Roses” come before “Flowers,” or was it the other way around? It’s likely a little bit of both. “This Little Light of Mine” is the song you know, but at a tangent, in a minor key, making the chestnut new in ways you wouldn’t expect possible. But there you go. You have to hear this. Please jot that down, and do it as soon as you have a chance: “Must hear this.”

Great is an overused word, but it’s great in the truest use of the term. There are a few challenges—this is a full meal, not a mid-day snack—though all efforts are rewarded. The physical copy is recommended, this for the book, the essays, and the photos that come within it. Jazz guitarist Bill Frizell writes that, “music … [is] a reminder to see, to look, to listen. The women of Gee’s Bend are the pure embodiment of this. I was there for only a few moments. They may not remember me, but I will never forget them. I am so thankful.” Which is what music is about, ultimately. Ephemeral moments that nevertheless have the power to connect us in meaningful, substantive, powerfully mysterious ways.

The quilting tradition of Gee’s bend is distinctive. The designs are often asymmetrical, improvisational, and replicating patterns that were informed by the type and quality of the materials to hand. The artistic heritage is unique to the region, with the relative isolation of the community granting it the space to develop and evolve in its own way.

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