Lawrence McKiver, who died on April 2 at age 97 in St. Simons Island, Ga., was the guardian of a musical tradition dating to the time when Africans brought in chains across the Atlantic kept their spirits up by lifting their voices in song. With his fellow members of the McIntosh County Shouters, McKiver practiced the ring shout, a vocal genre that gospel music historian W. K. McNeil says grew out of West African religious rituals and “is probably the oldest surviving African American performance tradition on the North American continent.”
The ring shout is a little difficult to explain: It’s a call-and-response style of singing in which the lead singer – or “boss songster”- gradually increases the tempo, as the pounding of a stick on the floor and the clapping and footsteps of dancers moving in counterclockwise circles accentuate the rhythm. Better to see it practiced, in this 1990s CNN segment about McKiver and his group, or just listen:
“They were just doing something to keep their mind off the past tense,” McKiver once explained to musical historian Art Rosenbaum. “It was their happiness. They didn’t sing it for nothing at all sad.”
The ring shout, first described by outsiders who visited the Georgia and South Carolina coast during the Civil War, helped influence the development of gospel, and you can hear traces of it in classic rhythm-and-blues from the 1940s. But by the late 20th century, most assumed that the ring shout itself was extinct, supplanted by newer musical forms. In fact, however, it had been kept alive by a few stalwarts such McKiver, who, according to his New York Times obituary, learned it from his mother. McKiver, who served in the U.S. Army in World War II and worked for many years as a shrimper when he wasn’t singing, also provided a blood link to the circumstances from which the ring shout had sprung. His maternal grandparents had been slaves.
That’s why folklorists Fred Fussell and George Mitchell were surprised to discover in 1980 that McKiver and the McIntosh County Shouters were still performing ring shouts at Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Bolden, Ga. They encouraged the group to share their music outside their isolated rural community, and they went on to record an album for Smithsonian Folkways records and perform at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
As McKiver told Rosenbaum, he was proud to have kept the ring shout alive: “I can bravely talk about my heritage, because my people come over the rough side of the mountain. Understand?”
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