Interview and visual media by Sandra Davidson
Music from the Black South has always been a part of Mary D.Williams' life. She grew up watching her father perform in a quartet at churches and listening to her grandmother sing traditional spirituals as she cooked.
That music has defined much of her life. Today, Mary travels the country performing and lecturing about the music of her childhood, which is the music of her ancestors.
The performer and historian, who once struggled to find her niche in gospel music, has become a go-to voice and authority on the narrative of music and black southern culture. For a decade, she and historian Tim Tyson have educated students, teachers, and communities about race through experimental lectures that blend performance, classroom engagement and traditional lecturing. She believes the music of her ancestors still has the power to bring people together today, as it did during slavery and the Civil Rights Movement.
Mary is busy. She will perform at the National Folk Festival in Greensboro this September, and is currently writing a screenplay about Mahalia Jackson. If you’re lucky enough to catch one of her classes or performances, plan to sing.
Meet Mary D. Williams.
What is your connection to Johnston County?
My grandparents lived in Johnston County and my parents [were] born and bred in Johnston County. That’s a big part of who I am even though I was raised in Garner, NC. What always sticks out in my mind, and what caused this whole infatuation with history as well as the music, was the sign that I would see every time I would go. I remember as a little girl looking up at this huge billboard and it said, “Welcome to KKK country.”
That’s a legendary sign.
Yeah! And it didn’t come down until the late 70s.
Did you always know what that meant?
I didn’t. I really didn’t. My grandparents were so protective, My grandmother went to Hudson Belk just about every Saturday — at least every Saturday I visited. I have never forgotten the things that my grandmother experienced when she would go shopping. How she was treated in the store. How the sales reps would try to just make her feel like she was nobody. She couldn’t try on shoes. I can remember distinctly [that] if she would touch something, they would tell her, “You touch it you take it. You touch it you buy it.” I remember her holding my hand, and she always held me very closely. She kept me really close to her. She didn’t want me to get away from her at all. I knew that. I could feel that. And I remember how music was such a part of a safeguard.
I think [the] entire focus of the work that I do has a lot to do with visiting my grandparents in Smithfield.
How do those trips fit into your relationship to music?
[I remember] my grandmother [singing] in that kitchen, especially after the experiences in Belk. It’s like she would be... she would just be moaning. Sometimes she said that, “When you moan the devil don’t know what you’re talking about.” It took me years to understand that the devil were the clerks in Belk, and that moaning was that way of communicating within herself, that way of expressing that, “You don’t understand, but I am defying against what you’re doing. I am able, well-able, as an African American woman to do what I’m doing. I have a right.”
The songs she would sing during those times just kind of washed over me, but then they were [also] a big part of who I was inside of me…. and that resistance. The songs of resistance. I had no idea until I became older how important it was to have a song that you could lean into or rest on in the midst of a turbulent time. How important the lyrics were. How important it was to just have that place that you could literally steal away [to].
When did you become a student of the history of traditional gospel songs?
As I grew older I began to look into things on my own. [I’d] research the songs [she’d sing] like "Steal Away." That song had duality of meaning. Stealing away was a moment in time [when] and a place where she could steal away to, an invisible place she could go. It was that invisible church. She could place herself there knowing, “I ain’t got long to stay,” meaning that it’s not going to be like this always. “But for now, I’ve got to go to my place of refuge. I have to go to my place where I can get away from all of this.”
[And] I think that’s what the slave narrative was all about. They would use music as a means of communication, as a means or an opportunity to build community. They knew what they were talking about, but the slave masters had no idea. None whatsoever, so this was their way, their inside way of communicating with each other.
How did you meet Tim Tyson?
I’d done work in Raleigh for the Racial Reconciliation committee, and [about ten years ago] they called me up and said, “We’re flying in Tim Tyson from Wisconsin, and we’d like for you to open before his lecture.” I didn’t know Tim. I didn’t know anything about him. He didn’t know me. I didn’t know him.
I bought Blood Done Sign My Name, and I read the book. I loved the book. I really did. I knew everything he mentioned. I knew the songs. I knew the title song. So I thought, “You know what? I’m going to do a medley of the songs that are in this book.” So I got with my musician and that’s what we did.
I got up on stage and I sung the songs. When I finished singing, he was standing at the end of the steps. He just grabs my hand, and he hugs me so tight it’s like he was taking something out of me, and his face was wet. In my mind I’m thinking, “Wow he perspires as heavily as I do!” Because when I sing I perspire really heavily, so I’m thinking he’s sweating. But then, as he got up to lecture he was really struggling.
He told me while he was trying to get it together, “Nothing’s ever touched me the way that you just did. Nothing.”
The water I was feeling was because he was in tears. He was crying.
That was the beginning of a relationship from that day to this day, and it still continues. Out of that I’ve found my place. I found my place.
I’ve always sung traditional gospel. I always lean into the tradition and the music I grew up on, and I was ridiculed a lot. Everybody asks me the same thing: “Your voice is so powerful! Why don’t you sing contemporary gospel?” But it’s not in me. It’s okay for whoever sings it, but I just loved what I’m compelled to sing.
And so [now] I get an opportunity to travel to universities, churches, colleges, schools, under the label of the history, and I get to talk to them about this music. I get a chance to travel the world and talk about the music of the African American slave; how the music really tells that narrative, how this music has transcended through time and made an impact, and even today, how this music is still yet applied.
Tell me more about how it fits today.
We have to think about how that music fits appropriately in the context of what’s going on in the African American community today. We’ve got so many issues within our black community that no one is to blame for except our own community, and then we have issues that there are others [to] blame [for] that need to be addressed. Today the music fits appropriately because again, we’re not going to let anybody turn us around. I think it’s important that we use what we’ve known: our music.
I always talk about my children. My boys are of a darker hue — Tim and I used to talk about this all the time — what I tell my boys… you don’t even… you have no idea because you don’t have to tell your son and have these talks with your son when he leaves home. You don’t have to do it. You know why? Because he’s white.
But me, every time my sons were younger and they left home… oh, my God, the fears and the prayers that I would have to pray. I still do it now too because of what’s going on in society. Oh my… you’re talking about a weight on me as a mom. [I would say,] “Okay if you get stopped by a police officer call me, put the phone down on the seat and just leave the phone on so I can hear what’s going on [or] where are you, are you okay?” Because as a black mom, my boys could be stopped for any reason.
My oldest son was stopped driving while black. He had a very nice truck. [When] he got out of college, he’d gotten a good job counseling juveniles because that’s something he’s passionate about, even today. You know, wanting to help youth, wanting to make a difference with African American boys. They stopped him at night and said the tint in his windows was too dark. Ramshacked his truck. He was literally picking up his brother from work, and then when his brother comes out from working the police officers pick him up, put him in handcuffs and sit him on the ground. Why? He was working! He had on his uniform. He was like, “Man you see my uniform?” But they thought it was a drug dealer.
I often think about that night when that happened to him. They arrested him. They said he was resisting. They broke his wrist, and he’s like 350lbs. He was a football player in college. He said to me that night, and I won’t ever forget it, but he said, “Mama I did it right. I did everything the right way.” He said, “And it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that I’ve never been in trouble. It doesn’t matter that I graduated summa cum laude from college. It doesn’t matter.”
And it doesn’t.
And the music that you’re singing and telling the story of has functioned as a way to address issues within the community over the course of history?
It is, but what I’m learning is that music has been such a blanket. It has allowed people to come together to have some very difficult conversations. [In the past] you had people who were in their own community that the history books have not named – they’re not even in the books, [who] came together and rallied people through song in community settings. They got up at mass meetings, and they talked about the issues at hand and how the issues need to be addressed.
We’ve got issues within our own community that we need to address. I’m not addressing Black Lives Matter because black lives matter to me; when I think about that it’s kind of one sided because we’ve got so many other issues other than police brutality. I’m talking about how we need to come together as a people and start really addressing some of our issues within our own community.
We need to come together and start addressing them one at a time. We need to come up with programs that help our African Americans. [We need to] let them see, for example, people in our history like Abraham Galloway, [who] was in Wilmington back in the 1800s. He was like an undercover agent. People don’t even know about him. David Cecelski just wrote a book about three or four years ago, about how he fought in Wilmington. He had a system and a group of men that were like with him and he was the leader.
An unsung local hero?
Yes. Yes. Yes. They need to know that, that right here in our community there are things that we can do as we rally together. So, yeah, the music is a good way of pulling people together. I like to tell my students it’s a way of getting us all on the same page.
Do you have a favorite memory of working with students?
I love the response of the students. They love it. First of all, it’s something that they’ve not heard. It’s crazy. Students don’t realize that these songs were used as a method of combatting injustice.
It’s such a part of our history. We don’t want to lose this. Music is a part of everything we do. When you talk about music in the application of slavery – the lullabies – like "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" – that was a lullaby that slave women sang to not just black children but to caucasian children because some times they had to actually take their own child from their own breast and nurse the white plantation owner’s children. Every piece of work, everything that was done, there was music involved. I think that’s why it’s so important that students today still apply that.
Often when I’m doing a lecture with students I ask them, now what lyrically could you put in that particular song that you feel is important or would empower you when you say, “I ain’t going to let nobody turn me around?” Some of them will say “I’m not going to let peer pressure turn me around, or I’m not going to let my boyfriend turn me around.” Whatever the case may be, they know that’s something they can apply now. They can use it now. It empowers them.
And something about singing embodies that in a different way than just saying it to yourself does.
That’s right. That’s right.
When Dr. Tyson and I do our course, The South in Black and White, one of the important things I talk about during my opening lecture is that students need to realize that we want this class and the information – even though it is history – we want it to impact them emotionally, mentally, intellectually… not just because of the context of it, but because of how empowering it is [and] how much this can make a difference in them as a citizen.
When I talk about the history and the context of where this stuff came from it gives them better opportunity to see [that] this is not anything new. This is actually just the residue of our past. And that’s what’s going on now.
How does it feel when you’re seeing these songs?
Oh wow. I love it. I love it. I don’t even know how to describe it. I don’t even know the right words. I just have a good time. And I love it because it’s a part of who I am, a part of my culture, a part of who we are as a people. I love seeing the expressions on African Americans' faces… to see them and to realize that some of the songs mean so much and to also know that 12% of the country affects the entire world. Whether it be sports or music, 12% of the population affects the entire world. That says a lot for us as a people. It’s exciting.
I found my place [doing] something that’s very important that I don’t want to die. I feel proud. I feel like I’m a voice for the ancestors, particularly my grandmother. I think about that a lot. Some of the places I go [now] wouldn’t have allowed her to come in through the front door, or come in there to do anything, let alone stand up in front of people. She would have been the maid, or something like that.
So I feel honored. I hadn’t had any training or anything like that, and I know I’m not the best there is. It’s just a blessing. I’m very fortunate. A lot of people haven’t had the opportunities I’ve had.
Is there a moment after you met Tim Tyson and started touring that it clicked you were in the right place?
When I start talking about this music and the kids and the teachers and the people – whoever I’m in front of – when they start participating in it and I can talk about where it came from, then that’s when it clicks. It shows. So much has evolved out of it. I’m very busy. Now I have a place. Tim often tells me, “When the door opened, you just walked in.” I love it and I want to learn as much as I can about it. I’ll stay in this vein because it works for me. A professor was telling me that there’s nobody doing it this way with the music and the history and the context. I’m just glad to be that person.