A celebration of Southern Grassroots Music

By Lauri deGaris

Recently, a good friend of almost 40 years gifted me an LP album entitled “Southern Grassroots Music Tour — Oh, What a Time,” produced in 1980.

Yes, I still have an LP record player, and it is permanently set up in my living room for frequent use. “Oh, What a Time” presents traditional musicians from the South coming together and sharing music, culture and the richness of Southern folklife. From the soul-stirring lyrics of the Sea Island Singers to the fusion of French Cajun and Afro-American music, Zydeco, “Oh, What a Time” moved me in many magical ways.

Bernice Johnson Reagon

The Southern Grassroots Music Tour was produced by the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project. Founded in 1966 by Bernice Johnson Reagon and Anne Romaine, the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project was dedicated to preserving and promoting the cultural heritage of southern working people, black and white.

The Southern Cultural Revival Project produced the first Southern Folk Music Festival. The festival featured traditional artists like spiritual singer Rev. Pearly Brown, mountain ballad singer Hedy West, civil rights activist Pete Seeger, and Mable Hillery, legendary blues singer. The festival evolved into the semi-annual, Southern Grassroots Music Tour. The tour played college campuses and community centers across the south.

The Southern Grassroots Revival Project developed other programs and events including the Georgia Sea Island Festival, Georgia Sea Island Public School Series, Acadian Music and History Series, Southern Prison Tours, and Summer Blues Festival.

The legendary Sea Island Singers participated in the Southern Grassroots Music Tour. The Sea Island Singers come from Brunswick, Georgia. Their music rose from a body of work called “Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands” produced in 1920, by the Spiritual Singers Society of Coastal Georgia. The songs and lyrics are about hope and faith and freedom. They were songs sung in the sweltering heat of rice fields and ballads belted out by boatmen navigating local waters. And stirring, soulful, spiritual songs that transcend time.

Southern Cultural Revival Project founding member and civil rights activist, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon become a celebrated MacArthur “genius,” historian, musician and the series’ creator of “Wade In The Water.” Wade In The Water is a 26-part music series, originally released in 1994. It was produced in partnership by the Smithsonian Institute and National Public Radio. The project celebrated African American sacred music traditions and documented cultural impact. It was a recognized platform for people who had been silenced. And, it promoted an appreciation for racial and cultural differences. The entire “Wade in the Water” series can be heard here. It is powerful and transformative.

Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon is also the founding member of “Sweet Honey in the Rock” an African-American a cappella ensemble. They are an American three-time Grammy Award-nominated troupe who express their history as black women through song, dance, and sign language.

Anne Romaine began her career as a missionary in an Arkansas girls’ reform school. It was here she heard songs like “Will Your Lawyer Talk to God.” Anne became involved in the civil rights movement and enrolled in graduate school. Later, she married and moved to Nashville.

Anne Romaine

While in Nashville, Anne got her hands on Johnny Cash’s phone number. She called Johnny Cash, and Maybelle Carter answered the phone. Anne told Maybelle her ideas for a folk music tour and found encouragement and assistance from the Carter-Cash family. Anne Romaine was already on her way when she and Bernice teamed up in 1966 to begin The Southern Cultural Revival Project.

A few days after listening to the “Oh, What a Time” album on my LP player, I had the pleasure of meeting Phyllis Free at a birthday party for a mutual friend. Phyllis hails from Folkston, Georgia and is a professional percussion artist. For the last 50 years, she has been performing “expressive improvisation” drawing from many musical styles. World genres incorporated into her music include traditional West African djembe rhythm, jazz, blues, pop rock and folk. Turns out, Phyllis was to accompany The Peck Center Ensemble for their 30th anniversary concert on June 30 at Story and Song Center for Arts and Culture here in Fernandina Beach.

I made plans to attend the Peck Center Ensemble concert. And oh, what a time I had! Phyllis and the seven-member, all-women, Peck Center Ensemble shared sacred songs both a cappella and with accompaniment. The songs were performed in the traditional style — according to the colorful celebration brochure produced by “Sister in Song” Glenda Jenkins. The Peck Center Ensemble was named to honor those who attended Peck Center High School in Fernandina Beach. The ensemble was founded in 1993 and performs throughout Nassau County and the surrounding region.

I could feel sound and emotion emanating during the concert through the story and song performance. And oh, what a joy it was to learn performances like the Peck Center Ensemble concert will continue indefinitely in our community. Thank you Mark and Donna Paz Kaufman for your generous endowment securing the financial future of the Story and Song Center for Arts and Culture. Oh, what a gift!

And finally, music by southern grassroots folk musicians recorded on the Oh, What a Time – Southern Grassroots Music Tour album can be heard by clicking on the following links. Enjoy the tour!

Georgia Sea Island Singers

Hazel Dickens

Dewey and Tony Balfa

Freeman Fontenot Band

Furry Lewis

Jane Sapp

Johnny Shines

Rising Star Fife and Drum Band

Delta Hicks

Omer Forster Band

Anne Romaine


Anne Romaine – Papers 1935-1993. University of North Carolina, Wilson Special Collections Library.

Anne Romaine – Photograph courtesy Exploring the Southern Folklife Collection. University of North Carolina, Wilson Special Collections Library.

Bernice Johnson Reagon – https://www.bernicejohnsonreagon.com/

Bernice Johnson Reagon – Photograph by Dane A. Penland, SI: Dane Penland, Smithsonian Libraries and Archives

The Peck Community Ensemble’s 30th Anniversary Concert. “A Black Music Month Celebration”. June 30, 2023.

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Mark Tomes
Noble Member
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
4 months ago

Thanks so much for sharing this important part of our history and our current cultural opportunities. I would also recommend the film, “We Shall Overcome,” about the history and power of that song.