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 music is polished by all the needles and the threads and the stories and the fat quarters and the time. “Quilting is a healing,” says China Pettway, one of the four. “I think quilting and singing is healing for our soul.” The way she does it, it most certainly is.

It’s a recording made recently, but recorded in analogue on a portable reel-to-reel Ampex 601, of the kind used to make all those field recordings that have since become the canon of North American folk music. The 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. It’s joyful, humourous, mysterious, wise. Just as the tradition of field recording, it’s like listening through a cosmic keyhole onto another reality, and 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’s such a brilliant example of.

The first track is the women—Mary Anne, China, Larine, and Nancy Pettway—just in the studio giggling and trying some lines out. It’s the perfect beginning to a perfect, moving, telling, important recording. Some of the songs are familiar, others won’t. 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 know what that relation might be. Did it come first, or later? “This Little Light of Mine” is the song you know, but at a tangent, and in a minor key, making the chestnut new, and different, in ways you likely don’t feel are 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. In the liner notes, Bill Frizell says that, too. He writes, “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.” You have to hear this.

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