S.C. Arts Awards: Voices of Gullah Singers

2019 Recipient Feature Series

As the day nears for the 2019 South Carolina Arts Awards, The Hub is taking 15 days to focus on this year’s recipients: nine receiving the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Governor’s Awards for the Arts and five receiving the Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award, which are managed jointly by the South Carolina Arts Commission and McKissick Museum at UofSC. In between the two groups, we’ll run a special feature on S.C. Arts Awards sponsor Colonial Life.

The Voices of Gullah Singers

Gullah Singing

The Voices of Gullah Singers—Gracie Gadson and Rosa and Joseph Murray—have performed as an ensemble for five years. Each of these singers has a long and distinguished performing career.

  • Gracie “Minnie” Gadson (right) first learned Gullah songs from her grandmother Queen Singleton, who was a member of the Hopes and John Fripp Praise Houses on St. Helena Island. These praise houses were maintained by Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Gracie has been a member since 1968. In the 1970s and 1980s, Gadson sang with local groups the Soul Survivors and the Praise House Shouters. Her early exposure to the old spirituals and experience singing in performing groups has resulted in a large repertoire of songs, including the shouting song “Adam in the Garden Pickun’ Up Leaves” and the mournful song “Remember Me, Lord,” which date back to the mid-19th century.
  • Rosa Mae Chisolm Murray (center) is one of the few living islanders who attended the famed Penn School. Murray gained early exposure to Gullah songs as a member of the Mary Jenkins Praise House, which still holds Sunday evening services on the island. She later joined the group Gospel Four and the Adam’s Street Gospel Singers in the 1980s. These groups sang gospel songs but also performed reenactments of the slave songs first recorded on St. Helena Island. Murray continues to sing songs such as “Till We Meet Again” and the haunting “Lord Do Something for Me” at festivals on the island. Murray first joined Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1952 and continues to serve as president of the Senior and Adult Choir, thus ensuring the survival of the Gullah spiritual tradition.
  • Joseph Murray’s (left) first experiences with Gullah songs came as he watched his mother Helen Murray dance the ring shout at the praise house in Big Estate, South Carolina. He later sang for many decades with choirs in Huspah Baptist Church in Beaufort. Murray currently serves as a deacon in Ebenezer Baptist Church, one of the few churches on St. Helena Island where the congregation still sings the old Gullah songs. Visitors to Penn Center’s annual Heritage Days Festival are often directed to Ebenezer during the prayer meeting services to hear the old slave songs. Murray’s extensive knowledge of Gullah songs and language has been a critical part of maintaining the tradition within the church.

As the Voices of Gullah Singers Gadson and the Murrays have performed at many events including Heritage Days, The Original Gullah Festival, and local praise house services. Voices of Gullah Singers also features 2018 Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award recipient Deacon James Garfield Smalls. The Arts Center of Coastal Carolina has presented the trio to seven schools in Beaufort and Jasper Counties as part of their program, Reach: A Gullah Musical Journey. The singers truly enjoy singing for students and teaching the next generation their rich legacy of Gullah-Geechee spirituals.

South Carolina Arts Awards Day is Wednesday, May 1, 2019. The festivities begin at 10 a.m. with a reception that leads up to the awards ceremony at the UofSC Alumni Center (900 Senate St., Columbia). The event is free and open to the public. Following the ceremony, the South Carolina Arts Foundation honors the recipients and the arts community at the S.C. Arts Awards Luncheon and Art Sale. Tickets are $50. Please go here for more information and reservations.

Meet the Recipients

Use these links to read the long-form bios of the other 2019 South Carolina Arts Awards recipients.