One of the newly acquired traditions during holiday season is a nice journey down the wormhole of ancestry.com. My mother has made this a regular practice around the Winter holiday season and she easily sucks me in. With each dive into the wormhole we return with a new piece of ancestral treasure, some new way to understand the narratives of our past.
Here’s a couple narrative threads I’d like to share as the history of clay clans and shape note singing in the Deep South are rather fascinating. Above, is a picture of my great, great grandfather “Pa” George Crowell (on the left). He was a potter in Louisville, MS whose father (John Marion Crowell) had migrated from the Alabama clay clans of Randolph, AL.
And, so, a little bit about the clay clans… Basically, families at that time held the legacy of a certain craft. As for the craft of pottery…the families were called clay clans. The book Alabama Folk Pottery covers this in fairly good detail.
Common family names were Hamm, Morton, Hughey, Ussery, and Crowell (in that part of Alabama, that is; just South and West of Birmingham, AL). Many of these families settled among each other and even migrated with each other (the Usserys and Crowells migrated together from eastern NC to Alabama).
Their sons would apprentice with another family and, many times, end up marrying a daughter of another clay clan (thus strengthening bonds and keeping the craft alive). This is the case for my Pa Crowell’s father ~ John (not pictured) ~ who married Lecia Jane Morton from the well-known Morton clay clan (the daughter of folk potter, Green Berry Morton).
Another interesting thing about Pa Crowell is that he was a Shape-note Singer (also called Sacred Harp Singing). Check out this recording of Present Joys from a church in Alabama in 1942. When he would make his monthly rounds to different towns to sell pottery and urns, he would stick around for a couple days and teach ‘shape-note singing’ in local schools and churches.
Basically, people would sit and face each other to hear each other and match pitches and tones (bass, tenor, soprano, and alto). Each song would be fa sol la mi’d first and then it would be sung with the proper words. The music was written in tones, not notes. They would sing old hymnals and folk songs, Amazing Grace was a favorite. Shape-note singing came from the British Isles.
My mom used to take me to the location of Pa Crowell’s old kiln in the Louisville. We would take little spades and dig up shards of broken pottery. I didn’t necessarily appreciate this kind of outing at the time, but I understand what she was doing now. We were not only digging up pottery pieces, we were sifting through the shards of our family’s spirit.
And fortunately, some of this spirit lives on… The potters of this time did everything manually and they would fire pottery in a kiln called a Groundhog. These kilns were enormous and they would fire a month’s worth of pottery at once, staying up and watching the fire for up to 48 hours. There are many of these kilns left…many ruins are scattered around the Deep South.
However, one newly arrived potter from Spain has revived the old pottery craft in Oxford, MS. He is firing in a groundhog, digging his own clay, mixing the clay with a mule-powered grinder, and throwing on a foot-powered wheel. Check out Pablo’s site here.