Article Bahamian American Song

James Weldon Johnson
Poet James Weldon Johnson, who, with his brother, composer J. Rosamund Johnson, wrote the civil rights song, "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing." [1] The brothers were born in Florida to an American father, James Johnson, and Helen Louise Dillet, a native of Nassau, Bahamas. Portrait by Carl Van Vechten, 1932.

Bahamians first arrived in the Florida Keys in the eighteenth century, usually working there temporarily, with few settlers. They salvaged wrecked ships, fished, and logged trees. In the nineteenth century, larger numbers of Bahamians took up permanent residence in Florida, working in agriculture or fishing. Poor economic conditions back home and the proximity of the nearest island of the Bahamas to Florida contributed to the migration. The majority of these Bahamian settlers had African ancestry. A result of this migration was that when Florida became a United States territory in 1822 it had one of the largest populations of free African Americans in the country, with the majority settled in Miami. Today large populations of Bahamian Americans live in Miami, Florida, Atlanta, Georgia, Oklahoma City, and New York City. Large populations of white Bahamians of British extraction settled in Key West and Riviera Beach, Florida. They were formerly called "Conchs," but today that term is used to describe all the inhabitants of Key West.

The melodies of many Bahamian American songs are derived from British, African, and American folk music, ring games, square dances, and church hymns. The music most characteristic of the Bahamas combines British and African music and instrumentation. With the ripsaw, goatskin drum, shakers and the triangle providing the rhythmic foundation, many songs with varying melodic lines are strung together in a continuous free flow. Instruments such as the accordion, guitar, or concertina provide the basic three-chord progression to support the melody.

In 1935, Alan Lomax, Zora Neale Hurston, and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle gathered recordings of Bahamian Americans singing work songs, ballads, sea songs, children's songs, gospel music, hymns, and voodoo music. The recordings were made in Frederica, St. Simon's Island, Georgia, and Eatonville, Belle Glade, and Chosen, Florida as well as recordings made in the Bahamas. This collection is housed and is available at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. The American Folklife Center also houses a pair of recordings made in 1943 and 1944 of the Bahamian American performer David F. Pryor singing Bahamian spirituals.

In 1937, folklorist Stetson Kennedy was put in charge of the Florida Federal Writers' Project, which included the documentation of Bahamians of British and African descent. Kennedy recorded Bahamian-American performers of African descent in Key West, singing songs learned in the Bahamas. Bahamian-American performers of British descent were recorded in Riviera (now Riviera Beach) singing "Conch songs" and telling tales. These field recordings are presented online as Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, and songs from the collection are available in this presentation. Because of the period of these recordings, the music of white Bahamian Americans of British descent and those with African ancestry showed distinct differences in their song styles and repertoire. Traditional songs sung by white singers were often sung without instruments, for example, as this was common in traditional English song. But some songs were known to both groups, and the mixed tradition that is common today was developing. For example, an African-Bahamian version of "Bingo Was His Name," sung by Robert Butler, is a familiar song in English tradition.

The songs collected as part of the Florida WPA project provide a sense of the wide variety of traditional songs of Bahamian Americans. White British Bahamians who settled in Riviera Beach, Florida recalled songs they had learned in the Bahamas such as the sea shanty "Drive the Nail A'right, Boys," sung by Naomi Wilson, and a temperance song, "I Heard a Sweet Robin," sung by Wilber Roberts. The ethnographers captured the song of a fish peddler, or "Pescador," and a humorous African Bahamian complaint song sung by Robert Butler called "Phylis Stole the Ham." An expression of patriotism for a new country comes from an unidentified Bahamian American quartet: "The First Time I Come Into this Countree."

A relatively new style of music in the 1930s and 40s when these recordings were made was jazz, using the piano and brass instead of, or sometimes in addition to, traditional Bahamian instruments. For example, a traditional version of the Bahamian song "Hoist Up the John B Sail" is sung by Robert Butler accompanied by Theodore "Tea Roll" Rolle. Rolle, a jazz composer, singer, and band leader from Abaco Island, Bahamas also sings his jazz version of "Hoist Up the John B Sail." Rolle demonstrates scat singing in this song, concluding by telling the audience, "I am here because I am here." This song was the inspiration for the Beach Boys song, "Sloop John B," released in 1966. An example of "Tea Roll" Rolle's playful jazz composing style is available as well: "A Tea Roll Idea," sung by Rolle accompanying himself on piano was recorded by Stetson Kennedy in 1940. Bahamian American music of the 1930s and 40s, as found in these recordings, was undergoing changes to new musical styles familiar to us today, but a good part of what makes it Bahamian still remains.


  1. The song "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" is available on video in this presentation, performed at the Library of Congress by the Washington, D.C.-based group Reverb at timecode 00:08:55 (select the link to view this video). [back to article]


Rights & Access

The Library of Congress is providing access to these materials for educational and research purposes and makes no warranty with regard to their use for other purposes. The written permission of the copyright owners and/or other rights holders (such as holders of publicity and/or privacy rights) is required for distribution, reproduction, or other use of protected items beyond that allowed by fair use or other statutory exemptions. There may be content that is protected as "works for hire" (copyright may be held by the party that commissioned the original work) and/or under the copyright or neighboring-rights laws of other nations.

Responsibility for making an independent legal assessment of an item and securing any necessary permission ultimately rests with persons desiring to use the item. Users should consult the bibliographic information that accompanies each item for specific information. This catalog data provides the details known to the Library of Congress regarding the corresponding items and may assist users in making independent assessments of the legal status of these items as related to their desired uses.

Items included here with the permission of the rights holders are indicated as such in the bibliographic record for each item.

In some cases, the Library was unable to identify a possible rights holder and has elected to place some of those items online as an exercise of fair use for strictly non-commercial educational uses. The Library of Congress would like to learn more about these materials and would like to hear from individuals or institutions that have any additional information or know of their history. Please contact:  Performing Arts Reading Room.

Suggested credit line: Library of Congress.

Cite This Item

Citations are generated automatically from bibliographic data as a convenience, and may not be complete or accurate.

Chicago citation style:

Bahamian American Song. Web..

APA citation style:

Bahamian American Song. [Web.] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

MLA citation style:

Bahamian American Song. Web.. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.

More Articles like this