by Peter Stone
A member of The Georgia Sea Island Singers Mable Hillery was less known than leader, Big John Davis or Bessie Jones, who also had her own performing career. Looking her up, one finds her name spelled in various ways. The New York Times obituary published on Saturday, May 1, 1976, spells the name as Mable Hillery; Step It Down, co-written by Bessie Jones and Bess Lomax Hawes (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), renders it as Mabel Hillary. The young children of the Harlem school where she taught in 1969 spell her name Mable Hillary in their notes wishing her well and asking her back, suggesting they were coached to spell her name that way. And to complete the permutations, the record of her death in the New York City Department of Health reads Mabel Hillery. “Real facts” are more slippery than printed words that mesmerize us into feeling that we are in control of the Truth. Yet this talented and forceful woman, who died tragically young, deserves to be commemorated, not only as a performer, but also as a songwriter, educator, and political activist.
Mable Hillery, born July 22, 1929 in LaGrange, Troup County, just southwest of Atlanta, Georgia. She married Will Adams in 1950 and moved to Brunswick, Georgia, near St Simons in the Georgia Sea Islands, about 1960. In 1961 Mable, a contralto, joined the Georgia Sea Islanders, performing with John Davis, the community leader; Bessie Jones, the song leader; Peter Davis, bass; Emma Ramsey; and Henry Morrison. Ed Young joined them from time to time, but he hailed from Memphis and was not a regular member.
Although a grandmother in St Simons Island, Mrs. Hillery was younger and somewhat less traditional in her interpretations than Bessie Jones and the other members of this very conservative group. Bess Hawes mentioned that Mable sometimes finished her performance in a “shout” by inadvertently crossing her legs. “Shouts,” progenitors of the spiritual (and not simply vocalizations) were performed by singing while stepping in a circular motion, in a religious ritual that trod the line between African dance rites and the European Protestant proscription of dance as a sinful act unfit for church. Participants in the shout frowned on pointing or crossing the feet as “sinful” — in this way, the movement style retained the traditional flat-footed, close- to-the-ground step style characteristic of African sacred dance. “I just can’t keep my heels down,” Mable admitted.. “Mable can’t shout,” John Davis explained philosophically, nor could Bessie [Jones] (who, herself, was not originally from the Sea Islands), he continued, but Bessie “can walk around just fine.”
In her work with the Sea Islanders, recreating traditional children’s games of the past, Mable, who described herself as “ raised up with boys,” would pose more difficult tasks for the children to win back “forfeits” they had lost earlier.
In Step It Down, Bess Hawes recounts her own experiences in joining in the song games:
My friends and I moved through the ancient pattern [of a game], originally a child’s reenactment of a mourning rite. In most of the English speaking world, “Green, Green, the Crab Apple Tree,” is called “Green Gravel” or, sometimes, “Green Graves.” Actually it is a ceremonial dance. . . . Mrs. Hillary [sic] joined in with a “tenor” part of . . . brilliant and intense dissonance. . . . Though the game is always played quite cheerfully, when Mrs. Hillary’s [sic] vocal part is added, this little fragment of man’s remote past becomes solemn and mysterious.
In raising her six children Mable passed on generations-old east-Georgian games, dances, plays, and fantasy songs. She also continued the traditions of blues, spirituals, and gospels, and was not shy about bringing this repertory to the broad public, appearing in an episode hosted by Alan Lomax, on June 14, 1962, of the CBS Accent series, whose regular host was the poet John Ciardi. And when the ideas of integration began to stir throughout the country, she composed freedom songs to reinforce the movement. Between 1961 and 1965 she toured the college circuit of campuses, coffee houses, church basements, and festivals, from Berkeley to Philadelphia, from the Ash Grove in Los Angeles to the Café à Go-Go in New York City.
Music, education, and religion were rarely unyoked in Georgia Sea Island practice. The Newport Folk Festival held a preview concert at New York City’s Central Park in the summer of 1965, at the height of the Civil Rights era. Alan Lomax produced and emceed the concert, in order to bring New York audiences closer to the black South and what was happening there through this event. The concert included Mable and the Sea Islanders, among others, who talked about their material. Joan Halifax assisted and made tape-box notes; little else is known about the surrounding circumstances. (Recordings of the concert are available on our database.)
In May of 1966, from her home on St Simons Island, Georgia, Mable wrote Joan Halifax about the voting situation there:
This is the report from my work in Coweta County [Georgia]. When you read this I hope you will understand . . . some of the problems that the people have deep in the heart of Dixie. . . . Most of [the counties] are very small. You have to look hard to find [them] on the map. . . . In all of these places there are more Negroes than Whites. The towns are owned and operated by Whites. Maybe two white men in each town own the whole town. Only one person in the family gets a chance to vote. Believe it or not I have learned a lot from them. They liked what I came in there to do. . . . [T]he right hand Negro who I went to see first . . . was glad to have someone there to wake up the people. His name is Mr. Tommie Alexander. He drives the Negro school bus in Coweta County, which is Haralson, Georgia. . . . On Friday afternoon, March 25, we got together a group of people that sing notes. All of them came from different towns . . . and gather every second Sunday in June at Gay, the third Sunday in October at Senoia, and have what they call a singing association. They have never had a gathering in Haralson, so I arranged it so they can. On the 5th Sunday of May at White Oak Grove Church, Mr. Alexander, the Deacon to the Usher Board reunion [consecration? Congregation?], will be there along with them. It has never been held there before. We had about 75 people attend Friday night.
In 1966, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto produced a film, Blues Special, for its TV series, Festival. Highlights from those sessions have been released on Blues Masters, a DVD whose performers include Muddy Waters, James Cotton, Willie Dixon, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Otis Spann, Sunnyland Slim, and Mable Hillery. In the late 60s, Mable often performed on Johns Island with the Sea Island Singers, and from 1966 through 1975, she sang throughout the South, not only on college campuses but in prisons as well. In his notes for Georgia Sea Island Songs (New World Records 80278), Alan Lomax wrote that the Sea Island Singers’ “most prized experience was as staff culture-workers for the whole of the Poor People’s March in Washington in 1968, where they taught their music to many thousands of other blacks.”
In 1968, after touring in England, where Mable did TV and concert dates and made a recording for the record label Xtra, she settled in New York at 504 W 110th St. She traveled to Turin, Italy, in 1971, participate, along with Barbara Dane, the blues singer and long-time union and civil rights activist, in one of the festivals produced by L’Unita, the leftist Italian newspaper. In 1974 she sang in the Puerto Rican Solidarity Day concert at Madison Square Garden, and, in 1975, at the Blues festival at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, and at the Civic Center in Atlanta, Georgia, visiting Louisiana prisons, reform schools, and old folks’ homes that same year.
During the last eight years of her life, in addition to continuing her concert appearances, Mable Hillery worked as a consultant with the Interdependent Learning Model at 144 West 144th Street, a program of the graduate school and university center of the City University of New York designed to aid teachers with materials for helping preserve black culture. It was part of the Follow Through Program, established by Congress in 1967 to continue in elementary school the advances wrought by the Head Start preschool program that had been enacted in 1964. She helped develop teaching manuals and audio tapes that preserved traditional Southern folk songs. She also was a member of the Board of Directors of the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project.
On April 7, 1969, Alan Lomax wrote Marjorie Martus, a Program Officer of the Ford Foundation, with a proposal that he, Mable Hillery, and the Reverend Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, a preacher and folksinger, had prepared in which he speaks of the success of Hillery in improving the “atmosphere and the educational exchange in a Harlem school [PS 76, at 220 West 121st St.] by bringing to the kids the complex and culturally rich folk songs and dances of the Southern United States. A pilot experiment is ready to be set up involving Mable Hillery and Reverend Kirkpatrick and the Sea Island Singers in the New York City school system.” (Interestingly, Kirkpatrick was also an organizer of Deacons for Self-Defense, an armed Bogalusa, Louisiana, civil rights group formed to protect protesters against the Klan.)
Then, on June 11, 1969, Lomax wrote Robert Hutchinson Finch, the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare: “Last year two black friends of mine, who are ‘natural educators’ and also great singers of folk songs, worked in one of the most disturbed schools in the [New York] metropolitan area.” His letter to Secretary Finch continues,
[Hillery and Kirkpatrick] brought peace and a renewal of educational activity into situations which had formerly been totally chaotic, where school administrators and teachers were out of contact with their pupils. . . . [T]heir art is itself a communication about the black cultural tradition which has been mistakenly omitted from our educational curricula. . . . [T]he most talented black folk [should] be brought into the schools to give the children a formal education in the Afro-American musical tradition . . . . [teaching the children] the songs and dances of their ancestors. . . . [T]he lessons of history and social science and literature can be given a richer meaning. . . . By bringing in people from the community, the schools will be establishing natural ties to the entire black community.
Hillery also worked with six Atlanta schools and, in 1969, at Manhattan Community College. In the 1970s, because of her special interest in the preservation, historical interpretation, recital, and uses of “play songs” for black children, she apparently also taught in seminars at the Bank Street School, an innovative teacher-training school.
The New York Times obituary tells us that Mrs. Hillery, 46 years of age, died of a heart attack, at St. Luke’s Hospital in Manhattan, on Tuesday, that is, on April 27. Most other sources, including the New York City Department of Health, say April 26. (The discrepancy might be explained by the event having occurred late on the evening of the night shift).
She lies buried in Strangers Cemetery, St Simons Island.
The Lomax Collection contains interviews with Mable Hillery and Bessie Jones, among many others.
Bishop, John. The Films of Bess Lomax Hawes, introductory notes and study guide on four films by Hawes.
Harris, Sheldon. Blues Who’s Who: A Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers. New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1979.
“Mable Hillery.” Living Blues 28 (July/August 1976): 6
“Index to Music Necrology, 1976.” Notes (1977): 806
Brinsson, Betsy. “Crossing Cultures: An Interview with Alessandro Portelli.” Oral History Review 28/1 (Winter/Spring 2001), 87–113
Barron, Mary Jo Sanna. “‘Singing for the Ancestors,’ IN RETROSPECT: Bessie Jones
Hedy West, Mable Hillery, 1929–1976.” Sing Out! 25/1 (May/June 1976): 38.
Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs, 1960-1966. Smithsonian Folkways 1997. Smithsonian Global Sound.
Sonnier, Austin M. A Guide to the Blues: History, Who’s Who, Research Sources. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Southern, Eileen. Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1981).