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

Bessie Jones - Part 2: 1950s to 1970s

Bessie Jones on stage as other musicians applaud at Yale's Ellington Fellowship Event 1972

Jones on stage as fellow musicians applaud at Yale's Ellington Fellowship Event in Oct. 1972. Click on the image to access the full sized version of this photo.

Alan Lomax Recordings and Touring

In 1954, Jones met musicologist and folklorist Alan Lomax at St. Simons Island. Lomax visited the island with the intention of recording fellow vocalist John Davis performing old folk songs. Davis invited Jones to participate in the recording along with the other members of the Spiritual Singers of Coastal Georgia. After the recording, Lomax invited Jones to New York to document her life story as well as African American music and folklore.

In For the Ancestors: Autobiographical Memories, Jones divulged to John Stewart that she broke away from Lydia Parrish’s Spiritual Singers of Coastal Georgia due to the fact that Parrish heavily controlled the group’s activities and the way members of the group dressed. Jones decide to create her own black choral group, which she called the Georgia Sea Island Singers.

From the 1950s to 1980s, Jones toured the country both as a solo act and as a member of the Georgia Sea Island Singers. In For the Ancestors, Jones states, “When Lomax first got me started, I traveled two years by myself—no guitar, no tambourine—and he didn’t want the group either. Then when I got out in California with Kate, who was my agent, I told them about the singers back home and what they could do. And the group back home had already said they’d be glad to come and sing if there was any way it could be worked out.”

Jones made various concert, campus, and festival appearances during this period. In 1954, Jones performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Eleven years later, she performed at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. In 1977, she performed at President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration in Washington D.C. Jones also held workshops at various public schools in the US to share African American folk music and culture.

Image taken from Brochure of Ellington Fellowship Program of Event from 1972. Lists dates and activities that took place bet Oct 6-8, 1972.

Schedule for Ellington Fellowship Event featured in "The Conservatory without Walls" Ellington Fellowship Brochure (1972). Click Image to View Larger Version.

Yale’s Duke Ellington Fellowship

In October 1972, Jones traveled to Yale University to attend the first Ellington Fellowship Program event called “The Conservatory Without Walls.” There she was awarded a gold medal for her artistic contributions to music.

Dan Morgenstern writes that Willie Ruff founded the Fellowship “to attract attention and funding to an African-American music program at the university. No fewer than forty musical figures, including Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, and jazz musicians ranging from Eubie Blake to Jon Faddis, were honored with medals.”

In Ruff’s interview with Jones, Ruff and Jones discussed the importance of the Ellington Fellowship. Ruff disclosed that he wanted to bring together black musicians and local children together as way to show the children “that they come from something because it’s not written in the books.” For Ruff, it was important for African American children to learn about their history from African American pioneers in music.

Ruff speaking to Jones about his goals for the Ellington Fellowship. Jones expresses that the event was a part of God's Plan (1972)

Jones recalled discussing the event with a fellow female audience member. She indicated that she both enjoyed the festivities and was overwhelmed by them. She disclosed, "I haven’t got [the] tongue to explain it.” Jones also highlighted that the participants came from around the country to come together for the event and she believed it was God's plan to bring together the young and the old.

Ruff and Jones speaking about their experience at the Ellington Fellowship event. Jones expresses how glad she was to be there (1972)

Transcripts for interview clips on this page are available here