Robert Ralph Middleton, August 2009


Robert Ralph Middleton, August 2009


Crawford, Eric (Interviewer)





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Interview with Ralph Middleton, a native of Saint Helena Island and continued worshipper at Coffin Point Prays House. In the last minutes of this interview, he discusses his role in World War II and getting back and forth from the island to Beaufort via boat before the bridge was built. He attended the Penn School as a child, and the interview begins with Eric Crawford asking Middleton about the Big Chapel at Penn Center. Middleton describes the order of the program, as well as spirituals used in general at Penn School. The conversation covers house blessings, particularly the one that Courtney Siceloff recorded in the 1950s. They discuss the transcription of spirituals by Penn students, and the improvised nature of songs and their variations, and the way that the Penn School encouraged the individuals to not use the Gullah language and to use and speak English, even when performing spirituals. Middleton provides a comparison of spirituals performed at the prays houses, the types of instruments (like washboards), used to accompany the spirituals. They also discuss the various choirs and quartets that would travel and perform the spirituals to audiences, both internal to the island and external. After a break in the recording, Middleton continues the discussion of his education and work when he graduated from Penn School and before he was drafted into World War II. Though he had the option to get kicked off the draft roster, he chose not to in order to get the G.I. Bill. Middleton then used the G.I. Bill to attend Howard University in D.C., and he was able to get an apartment and job through his family connections. He recollects that most of the students who attended Penn spoke both English and Gullah, though they were careful not to let the Gullah slip out. He discusses the complications of performing and traveling for spirituals, which remove the songs from their original purpose.


Spirituals (Songs)--Sea Islands;Hymns--South Carolina--Saint Helena Island;Sacred vocal music--Sea Islands;Gullahs--South Carolina--Saint Helena Island--Religion;Gullahs--South Carolina--Saint Helena Island--Interviews;Sea Islands--Religious life and customs;Saint Helena Island (S.C.)--Religious life and customs;Saint Helena Island (S.C.)--History;African American churches--South Carolina;African American choirs;Penn Center of the Sea Islands;Penn School (Saint Helena Island, S.C.);Middleton, Robert Ralph, 1920-2020;Saint Helena Island (S.C.);Coffin Point Community Praise House (Saint Helena Island, S.C.)


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Robert Ralph Middleton, August 2009