During the early 1900s, Luke Peeples, a gifted white musician, collected Negro spirituals.
He heard them in the churches and praise houses of Bluffton.
“A Gullah Psalm” by Estella Saussy Nussbaum & Jeanne Saussy Wright is a fascinating tribute to their uncle who, through his original music compositions, poetry and correspondence, managed to share the stories of Bluffton’s people—both black and white—and capture the Town’s unique character through the changes brought by Reconstruction, Prohibition, The Great Depression and World War II.
A classically trained pianios, Peeples had always been intrigued by the songs he heard around him. He loved the music pouring out of Bluffton’s three black churches: First Zion Baptist Church (founded in 1862), Saint John in the Wilderness Baptist Church (built in 1860) and Campbell Chapel AME (originally built by the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1853). However, Peeples realized his life’s purpose was to write down these unique a capella spirituals. Therefore, saving the verses and music for historic value.
In the winter of 1932, Miss Caroline “Lina” Huger became aware that St. John in the Wilderness was in desperate need of repair.
She attended a performance of white Charleston socialites, known as The Society for the Preservation of Negro Spirituals. She immediately came up with an idea to raise money and save the church. Miss Caroline presented her plan to the person who knew all the Gullah singers, Luke Peeples.
Enlisting the help of his brother, Andrew, Peeples assembled the May River Spiritual Singers. The choir of 30 “local Negro spiritual singers” came from area churches to perform a benefit concert. The account below of their first benefit performance came from the March, 1932 issue of the “Bluffton Newsletter”:
Friday night an audience of approximately 400, comprised largely of names prominent in Charleston and Savannah social registers, were delightfully entertained at Campbell AME Church with a spiritual concert-contest.
The program, sponsored and arranged by Miss Caroline Huger, was the first of its kind given in Bluffton, and was acclaimed as the most successful entertainment ever presented here. An admission charge of twenty-five cents netted the three participating churches nearly eighty dollars.
Each of the three choruses, composed of twelve singers, sang eight songs. After which Miss Huger offered prizes, and James Lynah of Savannah presented them. The judges with Mr. Lynah were Miss Margaret Stiles and Mrs. Olmstead.
Campbell AME church won first prize, a sixteen-pound home-cured ham.
The members of this group were Patsy Williams, Rebecca Stoney, Patsy Stoney, Estelle Johnson, Lottie Taylor, Maggie Brown, Jeanette Brown, Lula Grant, Elizah Grant, Bill Grant, Jake Johnson and George Brown. The songs sung by them were in the order as follows: “John Saw The Light”; “Give Me that Old Time Religion”: “Rasling Jacob All Night Long”: Noah Hist The Window”; “New Horn Gwine To Blow Dat Day”, “Don’t Mind Dying, If Dying Was All”; “Stand On The Wall of Zion”; and “Hold The Light”.
Second prize, a water pitcher engraved with a cluster of grapes, went to the Zion Baptist Church. Third prize, a beautiful altar cloth, went to the St. John, the Baptist Church.
Janie Chaplin of Zion Baptist Church won a prize for the most outstanding dramatic singer.
This dramatic character wore a blue gingham dress on and a red cloth tied around her head. She made wild and oftentimes dangerous gesticulations with a large stick. She encouraged the other members of her group to “get the spirit” and “sing.” Her singing was loud and melodious. Her freakish body moved as she sang and shouted.
In April of 1932, the group performed at Savannah’s Municipal Auditorium to critical acclaim. “The concert succeeded, and it raised money. St. John was repaired,” according to “A Gullah Psalm.” “Small groups of singers began to entertain at parties held in the Bluffton homes—at suppers, oyster roasts or any like gathering.”