Gullah music expert joins movie team

By Alex Cone and Denise McGill

Dr. Eric Crawford serves as director of music for our documentary film. In that capacity, he is tasked with finding the right songs for each scene. The Gullah Project’s score will include a mix of traditional music, modern arrangements of existing tunes and Crawford’s original compositions.

In his day job, Crawford is assistant professor of musicology at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C. He studies Gullah music and its transformation since the antebellum period. Crawford says that many Gullah songs contain a high degree of musical retention since the antebellum period and carry vestiges of West African culture. He is interested in adapting classic Gullah songs to the hip hop genre so that younger audiences can hold on to their roots.

 Crawford is well qualified to be director of music for The Gullah Project. In April 2014, Coastal Carolina University’s Athenaeum Press released the compact disc, Gullah, the Voice of an Islandwhich features his field recordings on St. Helena Island from 2012-2014. The album involved students and faculty and contains the singing of four song leaders on the island: Gracie Gadson, James Smalls,  and Rosa and Joseph Murray. This project was the culmination of a seven-year study of St. Helena Island spirituals.

 Crawford says he has a natural interest in the culture’s music because it is unique in all of America. “The Gullah Geechee culture forms the root of African American music in this country,” he says. “Due to the fact that so many slaves reached America by way of Charleston ports, and that the Sea Islands presented a natural barrier from outsiders, the West African culture was strongest here.”

 “Our first musical examples, [documented in the book] Slave Songs of the United Statesof Negro spirituals, come from the Sea Islands in the 1860s,” Crawford says. “As a result, this period becomes the starting point for our understanding of the music of slave society, its language, and the emotion of black worship.”

 Crawford’s research examines how Gullah music responded to societal pressures. When slaves were prohibited from using African drums, the Gullah developed other ways to communicate and make music. “It was believed that slaves communicated through the use of drums, thus South Carolina banned the use of drums by slaves,” Crawford said. “In response, slaves relied upon handclapping, foot stamping, or occasionally a stick served to give the needed pulse or accompanying beat for a song. Even today, Gullah singers are able to tap one pattern with their foot, clap another pattern with their hands, and sing all at the same time. And these singers are quite elderly. In the end, the slave’s body became an instrument that could not be taken away.”

For generations, Gullah culture was considered backward. Places like the Penn Center on St. Helena help the community see their distinctions with pride rather than shame. Crawford has worked closely with the Penn Center to preserve songs that were once hidden from the public.

Crawford doesn’t just study music, he’s a performer. He has served as director for numerous African American choirs and ensembles. In 2016, Crawford composed and performed a jazz piano opus to commemorate the Charleston church shootings. His music puts him in touch with talented artists, whom he plans to enlist in performances for the movie score.

 The director of The Gullah Project, Denise McGill, met Crawford at the 2014 Penn Center Heritage Days Celebration. Crawford’s long term investment in Gullah culture and music expertise made him an easy choice for the film’s music chief.

 “I’m excited he’s on our team because he has the perfect blend of scholarly knowledge and musical talent,” McGill said. “He’s going to be able to find songs that are historically accurate that also fit the mood of a given scene.”

 She continued, “When you hear a traditional song, and it builds to a choir singing a modern rendition of that song – that’s the thing he’s going to be able to do with real grace.”