Frankie and Doug Quimby Sing Songs of Slavery to Keep Alive the Lore of Their Forebears

updated 10/12/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/12/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Dressed in bright dashikis for the audience at Riverwood High in suburban Atlanta, Doug and Frankie Quimby are doing the original Jump for Joy, a slave dance. "Watch my hands, cuz they gon be a little tricky," warns Doug, rhythmically slapping his knees. Then he starts sliding his hands from knee to knee and back, giving the illusion that he's crossing his legs. For slaves to cross their legs was considered presumptuous, "so when they moved like this," Doug explains, "they were getting something over on the master." With a few more steps and gestures, he demonstrates just how that knee-slapping routine led to the Charleston, the white dance craze of the '20s.

Meanwhile, Frankie, his wife, is adding rhythm by leading the audience softly in an old slave work chant:

You sift your meal
You give me the husk
You cook your bread
You give me the crust
You fry your meat
You give me the skin
And that's where Mama's troubles begin.

These are the Georgia Sea Island Singers, both 50, and they are offering a look at part of America's heritage that many blacks and whites would sooner forget. Long cut off from the melting pot of the mainland, blacks on the barrier islands along the Georgia coast have preserved the folk traditions of their slave ancestors. Doug and Frankie (who was raised on St. Simons island) have collected chants, work songs and games from the islanders, and their resulting treasury of slave music and lore has taken them to the White House, Carnegie Hall and the Smithsonian. But their fame has spread mainly in the same way they came by their material—"Mouth to mouth," says Frankie—as a result of little shows at schools and festivals in every state but Alaska.

Frankie comes from a family that traces its lineage back to the Foulahs—a tribe from what is now Nigeria—who were enslaved on the Hope-ton and Altama plantations along the Georgia coast. Exposed to slave lore from earliest childhood, she grew up proud of her forebears' capacity for enduring great hardship. "They had what you call mother wit, or common sense," she says. Doug is a sharecropper's son from outside Baconton, Ga., who cut his teeth on gospel music. His first paying job, at the age of 8, was singing to a neighbor who went on shopping trips with Doug's family. "I'd sit in the cab of the truck with her and sing My Mother Is Dead and Gone," says Doug, "and she'd cry all the way into town. Then she'd dry her eyes and give me a quarter." As an adult, he sang with gospel groups, and he was performing with the Friendly Five at a church on St. Simons in 1968 when along came Frankie.

"I saw her coming in this red dress," Doug recalls, "and I thought she was the best-looking woman I'd ever laid my eyes on. It was love at first sight." Frankie says she had hesitated about coming because she thought the Friendly Five "would be a bunch of old men singing Uncloudy Day. But I was considered treasurer of the church, and after the singing I went over to them and said, 'Y'all can have all this money if y'all just leave him here.' " She and Doug wed in 1971, and they began performing as a duo in 1984.

The Sea Island shows usually include Down by the Riverside and Wade in the Water, spirituals born of a very practical need. "They were sung in the fields," says Frankie, "to let people who were escaping know that dogs were in pursuit and that they should get in the water to hide their scent." Pay Me My Money Down began as a protest by emancipated slaves who had been cheated out of their wages, and it is sung in Gullah, a mix of African dialects and English. Dance was also a strong part of the tradition. "The slaves used their bodies like human drums," says Doug.

When he and Frankie perform, members of the audience invariably join the stomping and shouting. Black children especially relate almost instantly to the songs, and Doug and Frankie think they know why. "There is something in their genes," Frankie says, "if they can get over their shyness and let it out." Most of all, she and Doug hope their songs give young blacks a feeling of pride. "This is our beginning, our foundation," Frankie says. "It made us a strong people."

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