South Georgia Folklife Overview

From 1996-2005, the South Georgia Folklife Project (SGFP) was a collaborative effort of the Valdosta State University (VSU) College of the Arts and the Georgia Folklife Program to provide support, documentation, and interpretation of traditional arts within a 41-county service area which stretches from the Alabama border to the Atlantic, and the Florida state line to Cordele. This series includes fieldwork material and correspondence that is not associated with any other series, such as initial South Georgia Folklife Survey (1996) and the 1997-98 Exploring Community Heritage grant (Georgia Humanities Council), as well as administrative files from the various NEA Folk and Traditional Arts infrastructure Initiative grants. This series also includes administrative and fieldwork material associated with the following concerts and public programs: Tunes and Traditions (2000), African American Studies Series Lectures and the Georgia Sea Island Singers, Ballads and Breakdowns (2003), Hymns and Hoedowns, (2005) Visions and Voices: the Artistry of Wiregrass Women (2006), and the Wiregrass Folkways Celebration (2006).

Folklorist, Laurie Sommers


Top left, Laurie Kay Sommers, folklorist and primary collector for the South Georgia Folklife Collection, holds a pot of wiregrass—the native forage grass for much of South Georgia--at the opening reception for the Folklife of Wiregrass Georgia exhibit in Valdosta, 2001. Other fieldworkers include Timothy Prizer, primary fieldworker for the Turpentine Series (top right, pictured in 2004 photo by Laurie Kay Sommers); Okefenokee collector Francis Harper, pictured here transcribing stories by Lone Thrift, Suwanee Lake, 1930 (copies of much of Harper’s Okefenokee field materials from the first half of the 20th century are included in the Okefenokee Series); and fieldworkers for the 1977 Folklife Survey of South Central Georgia, a collaboration of the American Folklife Center (Library of Congress) and the Arts Experiment Station in Tifton: from top left Bill Lightfoot, Carl Fleischhauer, David Stanley; from bottom left, Thomas Adler, Howard Marshall, Beverly Robinson (copies of selected materials are included in the Wiregrass Series).

Geographic Scope

The geographic scope of the collection coincides with the service area of Valdosta State University: 41 counties in South Georgia stretching from the Altamaha River in the North, the Chattahoochee River/Alabama line in the West, the Florida state line in the South, and the Atlantic coastline in the East. Culturally, this area includes a diversity of folk groups and genres. Clockwise from left: Shrimpers at the port of Brunswick; Striplings Market between Warwick and Cordele features whole hog sausage; pecan harvest scene for the West Jakin Convenience Mart by Donalsonville sign painter Curtis Everett; fiddle maker Mike Daugharty of Hahira in his workshop. Photos by Laurie Kay Sommers, 1999-2006.

Folklorist, Laurie Sommers


Different landscapes shaped the traditional culture of South Georgia and guided collecting in the region: among them the salt marshes of the Georgia coast which shaped the Gullah-Geechee culture (listen to the Sounds of South Georgia radio show on the McIntosh County Shouters); wetlands like the great Okefenokee Swamp (see the Okefenokee Series); and longleaf pine and wiregrass forests, one of the native ecosystems of the region (see Wiregrass Series). Photo credits from left: Laurie Kay Sommers, Francis Harper courtesy of Delma Presley, Diane Kirkland of the Georgia Department of Industry, Trade, and Tourism, and Ashley R. Suttles.

Folk Music

Different genres or types of folklore are represented in the collection through field and commercial recordings, oral interviews, vertical file materials, and photographs. A particular strength is traditional music.

Wesley Chapel Singing Convention, Pulaski County, uses the seven-shape or “new gospel” shapenote singing tradition. The Sacred Harp Series features the four-shape traditions of southeast Georgia. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, 2001.

Agrirama Fiddler’s Jamboree, founded by Joe and Frank Maloy of Tifton, features fiddlers from around the region. Various fiddlers are included in the collection, along with recordings of the Jamboree. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, 2003. Listen to the fiddling program from Wiregrass Ways radio series.

Bob Bennett of Valdosta spins records as background to his sung calls for the Beaux and Belles Square Dance Club, Valdosta. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, 1997.

Members of the Valdosta State University Mass Choir sing for the university’s MLK Celebration. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers,1997.

Folklorist, Laurie Sommers
A woman holds a quilt
Baskets on a table
Shelves full of Jellies, sryups, and vegetables
Image of a T-House

Material Culture

The collection includes documentation of traditional art, craft, architecture and food.

Painted Biblical quilt by Linda Bruton of Pineview, 2004. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers.

White oak baskets, traditionally used for harvesting cotton, State Farmer’s Market, Thomasville, 1998. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers.

Local cane syrup, honey, jams, and produce at the State Farmer’s Market in Thomasville, 1998. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers.

Corner view of a “T-house,” a type of traditional architecture named for its “t-shaped” floor plan, Fitzgerald, 1999. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers.


Family, community, religious, and ethnic events are documented in the collection.

Annual Turpentine Fire Stilling at the Agrirama Folk Life Festival is featured in on-line video as part of the Traditions of Turpentine website. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, 2004.

Taiwanese dances by students of Serena Huang at the Asian Cultural Experience, Valdosta. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, 2004.

Elder Clarke Lee (back to camera) leads group singing from Benjamin Lloyd’s Primitive Hymns after a family baptism in the Primitive Baptist tradition along the Satilla River in Brantley County. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, 2001. Listen to a Wiregrass Ways radio program on lined hymns from the Lloyd hymnal.

Young people practice choreography for a Mexican American quinceanera, or 15th birthday coming of age tradition, Douglas. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, 2003.

A turpentine Still
Taiwanists dancers on stage.
Sacred harp singers congregate outside
Mexican-Americans dancing together in a loose circle.
Hoboken Sacred Harp singers perform on stage.
Henry Rutland and Paul Massey teach the fiddle to a young class.
A family looks at display posters.
Tony Merrell teaches childern some dance moves.


The South Georgia Folklife Project sponsored special events and concerts; recordings, photos, and publicity from these events is part of the collections.

Members of the Hoboken Sacred Harp singing community gave a rare performance Sacred Harp at the Tunes and Traditions concert, Valdosta, 2000. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers. See the Sacred Harp Series for more on this tradition.

Henry Rutland and Paul Massey teach Rutland’s fiddle tune “Garfield” to students in the South Georgia String Project, Valdosta, 2000. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers. Listen to “Garfield” performed by Henry Rutland and George Custer.

Celebrating Cook County, held at Cook Middle School, presented student writing from the Folkwriting project. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, 2002.

Tony Merrell of the Georgia Sea Island Singers teaches traditional children’s games to students at Pinevale Lomax Elementary in conjunction with the Sea Island Singer’s performance at the VSU African American Studies Lecture Series, co-sponsored by the South Georgia Folklife Project and VSU African American Studies Program, 2003. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers


The Legacy of Harley Langdale, Jr. exhibit, which opened in September, 2004 in the Thaxton Hall conference room on the VSU Business School campus, was curated by Laurie Kay Sommers and draws from papers and oral interviews included in the VSU Archives and South Georgia Folklife Collection. Langdale is a major figure in turpentining and forestry throughout the region.

Twin Fiddles Henry Rutland (left) of Thomasville and his cousin George Custer of Salt Springs, Florida, performed both at the 2005 Hymns and Hoedowns concert (pictured here) and at the 2003 Ballads and Breakdowns concert. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers.

Hymns and Hoedowns was the final program of the South Georgia Folklife Project, before funding ended in June, 2005. The program included Rutha Harris of Albany, one of the original SNCC Freedom Singers during the Civil Rights Movement. Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, 2005. Listen to a radio program about Rutha and her brother Emory, including excerpts from “Wade in the Water” recorded at the Hymns and Hoedowns concert.

Visions and Voices, the Artistry of Wiregrass Women, featured women traditional artists included in the South Georgia Folklife Collection, among them tatter Myrtie Highsmith of Waycross (left), pictured here with Laurie Sommers, 2005.

Bookcover depicting Langdale turpentine workers
Two fiddle players and a guitarist on stage performing
Rutha Harris speaks or sings into a microphone.
Two women speaking into a microphone
Flyer for the Folkways Celebration, September 14, 2006.
Terry Heard sits over a large pot of swamp gravy.


The Wiregrass Folkways Celebration occurred during the Wiregrass Literature and Literacy Festival in Valdosta, and highlighted traditional artists included in the South Georgia Folklife Collection, among them Terry Heard of Bainbridge, shown here making swamp gravy. Photo by Bernadette Gunder, 2006.