The Struggles and Triumphs of Bessie Jones, Big Mama Thornton, and Ethel Waters

Bessie Jones - Part 1: 1900s to 1930s

Image of Bessie Jones Performing in "The Conservatory without Walls" Ellington Fellowship Brochure. Jones is shown while playing a tambourine. Image taken shows Jones from head to waist.

Photo of Jones featured in "The Conservatory without Walls" Ellington Fellowship Brochure (1972)

The Early Years

Mary Elizabeth “Bessie” Jones (February 8, 1902 – July 17, 1984) was born in Smithville, Georgia and raised in Dawson, Georgia. The gospel and folk singer grew up living in poverty and began working as a child doing agricultural work to support her family. Music had always been a part of her life as she recalled community members singing in church as well as students singing hymns and school songs as a child. In addition, her grandfather, a former slave, had taught her music and African lore.

At the age of 10, Jones left school and continued to work. According to John Stewart, “Bessie Jones had been a sharecropping farmhand in south central Georgia, a domestic servant in various white homes in Georgia and Florida, and a migrant worker traveling with crops between Florida and Connecticut.”

In 1933, Jones moved from the US mainland to St. Simons Island, located along Georgia’s coastal region. Jones brought along her knowledge of hundreds of children’s songs, games, riddles, and dances with her. She joined the Spiritual Singers Society of Coastal Georgia created by Lydia Parrish.

According to Bess Lomax Hawes, “The Singers…were so impressed with Mrs. Jones’s buoyant personality, extensive repertoire, and experienced singing style that they invited her to join the group; she became one of the only mainlanders ever so honored.” The Singers were a black choral group dedicated to preserving African American music, including spirituals, and folklore. Jones devoted her life to sharing the songs and games of her forebears. In addition, she particularly focused on teaching African American songs and games to children.

Jones telling the story behind the chain gang song "Sink 'Em Low" to Willie Ruff (1972).


Jones’ Childhood and Chain Gangs

In Willie Ruff’s interview with Jones, she shared various games, children’s songs, and work songs. In particular, Jones discussed “Sink ‘Em Low,” a work song sung by prisoners on chain gangs in Dawson, Georgia. As a child, Jones witnessed the brutal treatment towards male prisoners when she would travel to school.

The prisoners were forced to build roads while chained together as part of their prison sentence. She stated, "...some of the hands was young and they get on the chain gang and they would beat ‘em so bad because they wouldn’t get a shovel full of mud, you know, dirt. They get a little ‘cause it was heavy. And, they made this song and they sang this song to tell ‘em how to do it..."

Jones discussing the cruel treatment towards prisoners with Willie Ruff (1972).

Jones recalled the way the prisoners were watched by guards and forced to sing on command. The prisoners had to comply or else there was the risk of being brutally whipped with a leather strap lined with tacks.

She stated, "There was one boss man Mr. Riley, … the head boss of the chain gang out there. He would count, 'One! Two! Three!' That’s all they had to do and somebody stuck out on a song. That’s what it meant…for ‘em to quit being so still and roll the singing and they would sing."

In addition, Jones revealed that she feared the prisoners due to their uniforms. She stated, “They had chains on their leg. They could step a certain distance. You would hear them chains rattling as they step, as they walk. We were to be looking at them stripey clothes. I was scared of them stripey clothes. Oh God, I didn’t like ‘em. I was scared of them big stripes.”

Jones singing "Sink 'Em Low" to Willie Ruff (1972).

Performance of “Sink ‘Em Low”

After providing the backstory on chain gangs and “Sink ‘Em Low,” Jones performed the work song for Ruff during their interview. The song features the following lyrics:


Say, if you want to please your captain,

Sink ‘em low, boy

Raise ‘em high.


(Full lyrics available here)

* Transcripts for interview clips on this page are available here