Saturday, March 30, 2024

The Easter Rock Tradition (a very old Louisiana Black American religious ritual) videos & information

National Endowment for the Arts, Nov 18, 2021

This tribute to Winnsboro Easter Rock Ensemble was released in November 2021 as part of “The Culture of America: A Cross-Country Visit with the 2021 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellows.
Here are two comments from this video's discussion thread:
1. @KyndraJoi, 2022
"This is very similar to the ring shout of us, the Gullah Geechee from the Carolina's.  This is just a reminder that we are one."

2. @susankenny8209, 2022
"Wow! What a blessing. I’m from south Louisiana and never knew about this tradition.

Edited by Azizi Powell

This pancocojams post showcases two videos of the Winnsboro (Louisiana) Easter Rock Ensemble and presents information about that very old Black American tradition.

This post also includes brief information about the Jamaican revivalist tradition of "thanksgiving tables" that reminded me of the Winnsboro Easter Rock tradition.

The content of this post is presented for historical, folkloric, religious, and educational purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to the Winnsboro Easter Rock Ensemble for continuing this tradition and thanks to all those who are quoted in this post. Thanks also to the producers and publishers of these videos on YouTube.
Click for Part I of a two part 2019 pancocojams series on the Winnsboro Easter Rock tradition. That post is entitled "Folkloric Article Excerpt About Easter Rock Ceremonies, A Little Known & Seldom Performed African American Religious Tradition In Louisiana (USA)".

Click for Part II of that 2019 pancocojams series for a post entitled "Four Video Examples Of Winnsboro Easter Rock ceremonies (A little known African American religious tradition)."

I happened upon some videos of Easter Rock while "surfing YouTube" for African American Easter celebrations and I realized that they reminded me of YouTube videos I had watched about Jamaican Revivalism "thanksgiving tables"*. 

Click for a pancocojams post about Jamaican Revivalism "thanksgiving tables". 

*Jamaican Revivalism's "thanksgiving tables" aren't associated in any way to the annual Thanksgiving holiday that is celebrated in the United States and elsewhere.

Here's a short video of singing and moving around a Jamaican Revivalism Thanksgiving Table:

Babsy Grange at #Revival Table in Tawes Pen

Andre Grange, Feb 21, 2013

I don't know if there is any connection between Winnsboro Easter Rock ceremonies and Jamaican Revivalism's thanksgiving tables or any other aspect of Jamaican Revivalism. If any folklorists have considered this possibility, I'd love to know about their research.

Online excerpt #1

The Winnsboro Easter Rock Ensemble, under the direction of Hattie Addison Burkhalter, maintains a rare women-led African American traditional spiritual ritual, rooted in both Christian worship and West African ring shout tradition. Documented only in the Northeast Louisiana Delta region and first practiced by enslaved Africans during the antebellum period, Easter Rock was held from Lake Providence to Ferriday, Louisiana, typically in the Baptist church. Today, this Franklin Parish group appears to be the last practitioners of this once thriving tradition.

Easter Rock, held on Easter Eve to celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ, offers a visual, musical, culinary, and spiritual feast, filled with Christian and West African symbolism. The lighted lamps in the darkened sanctuary create an otherworldly, hypnotic atmosphere as the streamers of the banner representing Christ’s cross sweep back and forth around the white table representing Christ’s sepulcher. Moving counter-clockwise around the table, the Easter Rockers sing spirituals accompanied by the syncopated beat of their feet hitting the wooden floor of the Delta plantation church, echoing their ancestral drums and call-and-response improvisational singing."...

Online Excerpt #2
From " "Everyone Rockin' Together: Continuity and Creativity In The Louisiana Delta Easter Rock" by Susan Roach (no publishing date cited, the latest year mentioned is 2013)

In Memory of Ellen Addison

"One of the most spectacular folk traditions documented for the Delta Folklife Project, Easter Rock, an Easter eve vigil ceremony, commemorates the death and resurrection of Christ.2 Easter Rock belongs to the category of traditional events called "rocks" associated with the old plantation churches (usually Baptist) in the Mississippi Delta floodplain of north Louisiana and has much in common with other African American religious ring shout traditions, according to Janet Sturman (1993: 24) and Joyce Jackson (2006).3 While the tradition is said to reach back to the antebellum period in Louisiana, today only one group appears to be continuing this Louisiana Delta tradition: the Winnsboro Easter Rock Ensemble, as the group named itself for performances of the tradition in state and national folklife festivals. Various factors including modernity, losses of group members and performance venues, and the effects of public presentation have threatened the continuity of the Winnsboro Easter Rock's performance of the tradition, but the group's creative responses have maintained the tradition and heightened its visibility in the Winnsboro community and beyond. A look at the Winnsboro Easter Rock service and public performances, including the context, the participants, and the sequence of acts and how these have developed over the past eighteen years, will shed light on the continuity and creativity in the tradition.

Easter Rock History and Scholarly Documentation
The contemporary Winnsboro Easter Rock is surprisingly similar to the early rocks described by scholars. Easter Rock's origins are not clear, and scholarship is scanty, with only three major scholarly articles devoted to the subject and one more article including it among several other Africanisms. The first scholarly publication by Mariana and Lea Seale in the Journal of American Folklore (1942) notes that participants remember the tradition as pre-dating the Civil War; therefore, the ritual probably has its origins in the customs of enslaved Africans.4 The Seales' observed three Easter Rock services: two at St. John the Baptist Church, at Dunbarton Plantation, near Clayton in Concordia Parish and another at the Baptist Church on Lemarque Plantation, next to Dunbarton. In the 1942 description, the rocks began with brief testimonial service (called a "cul'n" for covenant), which could be similar to the contemporary service's "devotional," followed by musical performances and an offering (Seale and Seale 1942: 212). Then the pews were turned to face the middle aisle, and a table with a white cloth was placed in the aisle. Interestingly, the Seales' description of the opening of the rock itself prefigures the Winnsboro rock held in the 21st century:
Precisely, at midnight by the deacon's watch, the deacon orders the congregation to "come quiet." Shortly thereafter, the voices of many women and a single man rise in the song, "When the Sancts [sic] Go Marchin' In," and a procession moves into the church through a door at the rear.
At the head of the procession is a Negro man carrying what is called "the banner." The banner is a barrel hoop attached to one end of a six-foot stick. The hoop has, stretched across its area in drumhead fashion, a covering of white crepe paper, and to its circumference is attached tasseled crepe of various bright colors. (1942: 213)
In many ways, the event as described by the Seales is similar to the Easter Rocks documented by subsequent scholars. In 1956, folklorist/musicologist Harry Oster recorded Easter Rock at one of the same churches. Evidently, Easter Rock occurred as far north as Lake Providence and south as Ferriday, according to anthropologist H .F. Gregory, who in 1962 recounted the typical rocks he witnessed growing up in Ferriday. He writes that the basic form of the rock was "exactly the same," from the "Primitive African Baptist Church near Waterproof . . . to the Pittsfield Plantation Church near Ferriday" (1962:18). However, instead of the 12 women bearing 12 lamps and 12 cakes noted by the Seales, these rocks featured 7 women carrying 7 lamps, and 7 cakes. While the Seales had found elders who recalled the symbolism of the objects, Gregory did not find explanations of the symbols (1962:18). From the 1960s until the 1990s, no documentation appears to have been done; however, at Gregory's suggestion, ethnomusicologist Janet Sturman located and documented the ceremony at the Springfield Baptist Church, also in Clayton in 1991.

According to organizer Martha Daniels' presentation for that 1991 Easter Rock, church records at the Springfield Baptist Church in Clayton, show that the church mothers of the St. Paul Baptist Church in Wisner held Easter Rock in 1930, when one of the Springfield Baptist Church deacons saw the ritual and decided to bring it to the Clayton church in 1932 (Sturman 1993: 26-27). Martha Daniels relates that Easter Rock was held sporadically there until the 1990s when the wood structure church was replaced with a brick one.


Before Lionel Wilson moved to Georgia, he often served as the spokesperson on narrative stages. His presentations sometimes included information that was undoubtedly learned from the presenters. For example, in 2003 Wilson uses the scholarly term "Call and Response" (a term I had used initially) to describe the performance of the "Oh, David" spiritual and to explain the symbolism of ritual and its circular banner:

The Easter Rock is a call and response. You have a caller who will call out to the crowd and to the other rockers and they will respond. In the rock today you will notice that there will be a song that will be sang and it is a call and response. It is a song of David who was the victor over the giant Goliath and so therefore since David was a victor we sang a song of victory because Jesus Christ had victory over the grave on the third day morning and that's why we rock to a risen savior. You will notice that as we come around to the table you will see different items being placed on the table. One of them will be cakes, there will be 12 cakes placed on the table which represents the 12 disciples. You will have 12 lanterns on the table which represents the 12 tribes of Israel. You will also notice that there will be some red punch on the table, it used to be red wine but now we serve red punch instead of wine, and that represents the blood of Jesus Christ. The white that we see here symbolized purity, the eggs on the table behind me represent the grave and the breaking of the grave when Jesus rose from the grave with all power in his hand. You will notice that there will be a person in the front carrying a banner, the banner represents the cross. The banner will not be a cross, but it will be a circle, which represents the continuation of life. The circle is covered with different colors to add just a little symbolism to Easter and during the time of Easter. (2003) 6

His discussion of the origin and meaning of the circle and the banner echoes Joyce Jackson's 1997 narrative stage introduction:

A circular ritual in the church, . . . [Easter Rock] is a carry over from the African Diaspora, and you can see that they are using a round banner which symbolized a cross. Well, that is not so foreign either, although you don't see round crosses normally in Baptist Churches, but if you look at the literature and you look at traditional African religions and those in the Caribbean, you find that the circle is very important, not only in the way that they move around the church and around the table but also in the worship and in the life cycle. If you look at life, it's like a circle and this circle was very instrumental in the way that they worshipped and looked at life, or the worldview. When you are born it's like you are at the 12 o'clock position and as you go through life you move around that circle, or the circle of life. And so the circle is very important in African traditions and so again it's sort of a carry over in this rocking tradition.

Wilson's eloquent remarks in this 2003 presentation are similar to his earlier 2001 presentation (below) which also discusses the symbolism of the Rock; a comparison of these illustrates the formulaic nature of his presentations:

The Easter Rock is a tradition that we perform in Winnsboro, Louisiana at the original True Life Baptist Church located on Highway 4 in Winnsboro. It is done the Saturday before Easter. It is a circular dance that we do in the black church; it's a rhythmic rock from side-to-side as the caller is singing a song talking about "Oh David." The song "Oh David" is a victory song, it tells the story of David and Goliath, when David went out on the battle field and slew the mighty giant Goliath. He was victorious in that battle and that is why we use the song "Oh David" because Jesus we know he was victorious over the grave for he died and he rose again. Here this afternoon, well this evening, what you will see will be a table that is dressed in white and on the table you will notice that there will be 12 cakes placed on the table which represents the 12 disciples. And you will notice that there will be 12 lanterns which represent the 12 tribes of Israel, you will also notice that there will be some punch placed on the table, some red punch, which symbolized the blood of Jesus. Before the punch was introduced into the scene they had real wine that they would drink after the Easter Rock but now we use regular punch of the color red to symbolize the blood of Jesus. Also on the table you will see the basket which represents the grave, the eggs which represents the breaking of the grave when Jesus rose on the third day morning. You will also notice we are dressed in white which symbolizes purity. You will notice that there will be a banner carried by the first person that is leading the rock. That person is carrying the banner as Jesus carried the cross. The banner is in a circular diagonal form and the reason for is there is no ending to a circle and it represents Jesus' life because there is no ending to Jesus for we know that he lives now and forever more. (2001)"....

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