Deacon James Garfield Smalls sings songs that date back to the mid-19th century and stands as one the most important active Gullah singers and cultural ambassadors. Smalls’ repertoire includes many of the songs documented in the ground-breaking songbook Slave Songs of the United States. The songbook was informed by the fieldwork of William Allen, Charles Ware, and Lucy McKim, who visited St. Helena Island in 1860. In addition, Smalls is a walking archive of the sacred songs that rang through the small confines of the Lowcountry praise house. His songs and inspirational words serve to educate younger generations, challenging them to learn about their rich history.

As a young man, Smalls received musical training from B. H. Washington, a member of the St. Helena Quartet and the musical director at St. Joseph Baptist Church. Smalls sang in Washington’s renowned community choir The Hundred Voices, and he later assumed leadership of the ensemble. Smalls also served for many years as the director of the Senior Choir at St. Joseph Baptist Church. Beyond his early musical career, Smalls served in the U. S. Navy’s Seabees, carrying out his duties in the Pacific during World War II. Upon his return home to St. Helena Island, he supported a wife and family, worked a civil service job, managed a farm, and participated in programs at Penn Center. For over forty years, Smalls was active in the Penn Echoes, a musical ensemble comprised of Penn School graduates.        

Of the original thirty-three praise houses in the Lowcountry, St. Helena Island has two of the last remaining buildings, Jenkins and Croft. Historically, within the safety of the praise house, enslaved Africans would pray, sing, and perform the West African-derived ring shout. In the praise house, there are no instruments – only feet stomping and hand-clapping, which relate to West African clapping and drumming traditions. These rhythms, and the call-and-response style, speak to the creativity of enslaved Africans, who forged a new form of music from both African and European influences.

Smalls first led Croft Praise House, but decreasing membership required joint services with members from the Jenkins Praise House. During the service, he sings many of the songs the community considers “his” songs, such as “The Old Sheep Done Know the Road,” “Every Time I Feel the Spirit,” “In that Great Getting Up Morning,” and “Ride On, Jesus.” Smalls fondly remembers staying with his grandparents, who instilled in him the importance of praise house services.          

Smalls was featured in an episode of the SCETV program Carolina Stories, in which Gullah scholar Emory Campbell stated that the praise house is “one of the most vivid legacies of Gullah life.” Over the past three decades, Deacon Smalls has led the singing at Penn Center Community Sings, various island churches, and music festivals. His is a vital connection to the past, a time when the old songs were sung by everyone on the island. Smalls embodies a life of dedication to community and the expressive power of sacred music. Smalls received the Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award in 2018.

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