Gullah Gamaliel, a recent article of mine about the relationship between Luke Peeples and his Gullah friend, Maum Celie, appeared in the March edition of The Breeze, Magazine of the Lowcountry (Bluffton, SC). The art was created by my wife, R. S. Perry.
by John Samuel Graves, III
Art by R. S. Perry
William Faulkner once said, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” Our personal and communal histories, and memories of things past, are what define us. The Bluffton composer and poet, Luke Peeples, knew that. Luke left quite a few artistic records – songs, poems and piano pieces. One of his most significant compositions was based on his interaction with Maum Celie, his favorite Gullah friend. She taught him that dreams, visions, and ordinary life experiences are views into the spirit world. She called her explanations “terpretations.” Luke called her his “Gullah Gamaliel,” referencing St. Paul’s teacher in the Bible.
Maum Celie (Celia Cheney Ferguson Carroll) was born on Christmas Day in 1867 and raised on Palmetto Bluff. She was a hard working, spirit-filled Gullah woman who lived for one hundred and two years, most of them in Bluffton. She died on March 21, 1970 and was buried in Rephraim Cemetery on Palmetto Bluff. Her tombstone reads “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross.”
My cousin Luke (we called him “Uncle Luke”) told me that when Maum Celie was a very small child, she could recall seeing a fire across the waters from Palmetto Bluff. She thought it was Savannah burning in the distance. She also related this story to my mother, Florence Rubert Graves, who herself had been partially raised on Palmetto Bluff. Those who heard the story, before they knew exactly when Maum Celie was born, thought it might be a fire during the American Civil War. However, there are some obvious problems with this story.
For one thing, Maum Celie was not yet born when Major General William T. Sherman entered Savannah in 1864. In later years I examined the “burning of Savannah story” and found that General Sherman did not actually burn Savannah during the Civil War. Sherman had arrived on the outskirts of Savannah on Dec. 10, 1864. After realizing that Sherman presented overwhelming odds an agreement of surrender was achieved between Sherman’s Brigadier Gen. John W. Geary and Dr. Richard Arnold, the mayor of Savannah. On Dec. 20, General William Hardee, the commanding rebel officer of Savannah, retreated with some 10,000 rebel troops as the Union army took possession of Savannah.
It was only after Sherman had left Savannah that a large fire did erupt on Jan 27-28, 1865. Over 100 buildings burned and several people died, but it is not certain what, or who, caused the fire. Some Union troops helped fight it. Since Maum Celie’s parents lived on Palmetto Bluff at that time, perhaps they saw that Savannah fire – or maybe they saw the burning of Bluffton by Union forces in 1863. Either fire could have been seen from Palmetto Bluff. Perhaps Maum Celie’s parents saw these fires and told the story over and over again to their children. Perhaps that was the story that Maum Celie recalled and told years later.
During her life in Bluffton Maum Celie became well known for her healing powers and sage guidance in all things temporal and spiritual. Many people came to her for help. She offered advice as well as various herbal and medicinal concoctions of her own making. Luke had a close relationship with her for many years, and they would often walk the streets of Bluffton together, talking and laughing, and telling each other stories.
Later, my father, John Samuel Graves, Jr., Luke and I also walked the same streets of old town Bluffton on cool summer evenings. We often walked down to the Bluffton Oyster Factory, which my father owned and operated for over thirty years. We would also walk down to the dock at the end of Calhoun Street, passing the Church of the Cross where I and my two brothers had been baptized. Luke’s first piano teacher, Mrs. DeSausser Pinckney, had been the organist there when I was a child. Luke, my father and Naomi McCracken were first cousins. Naomi and my mother were lifelong friends and used to sing in the Church of the Cross choir. Naomi sketched Maum Celie’s cottage.
After the tumultuous world events of two world wars, my mother and many white people became disillusioned with organized religion and other social and political institutions. However, while religious faith faltered for many during those times, the spirit-filled Gullah people sustained their own faith – and that of many whites around them – with their close knit faith communities and the encouragement and testimony of their glorious spirituals. These songs had complex harmonies and rhythms, and were sung a cappella, often in three and four part harmony. Luke spent much of his life listening to these spirituals and recording the words and melodies in notebooks that he often carried with him. He later transcribed and harmonized many of them.
Maum Celie and her faith were inseparable. She “witnessed” continually. Maum Celie also believed that she could understand and communicate with animals. Her neighbor had a donkey named Atlas. Maum Celie believed that Atlas knew when she needed something and would notify Luke and his mother by braying. One cold mid-December afternoon in the mid-1950s Luke heard the braying and interpreted it, per Maum Celie’s instructions, as “Sen’ some soup fuh Celie soon!” Luke’s mother prepared the food and he carried it over to Maum Celie’s cabin. She lived close by.
Upon arriving at Maum Celie’s small wood shanty Luke noticed that there was no smoke coming from her chimney. Furthermore, she was not sitting on her front porch as usual smoking her clay pipe. Luke became uneasy and suddenly thought Maum Celie might be dead. She was already in her nineties. The only creatures on the front porch, to quote Uncle Luke, were “a gaunt, unlively brindled cat and his equally gaunt, unlively accomplice, a kinky-feathered Dominick cock.” Fearing the worst, Luke was ready to give the food he had brought to these two animals and seek help for Maum Celie. All seven of Bluffton’s church bells would have to be rung to notify of her passing if she had died. But suddenly he heard from the back of the shanty, “Who dat flouncin’ so on my front do’ stoop? Mus’ be a po’poise jump f’om Caulie Kwik wid a mullet in ‘e mout.”
Luke was delighted to find Maum Ceilie alive, well and her usual witty self. While she was eating the food Luke had brought they discussed some of her trials and tribulations. At this stage of her life she had lost two husbands, two sons, two daughters, a grandchild and a great grandchild. Nevertheless, as Luke was leaving she uttered the following words which became Luke’s Lowcountry Psalm, Trus’in In Duh Lawd. Luke considered the words a gift of a lifetime saying, “I caught a glimpse of God in her old brown face” as she spoke:
Gone is my husban’ to Gaud’ udduh planet, Gone is my chillen, dem, to be wid ’m deh; Gone is my healt’, but by grace I kin stan’ it, trus’in, truss’in in duh Lawd. Gone is my fence pos’ an’ gone is my gate, Gone is my fowl dem an’ gyahdn an’ pig; Gone ev’yt’ing mos’ I had ‘cep’ my fait’, An’ trus’in’, trus’in in duh Lawd. In duh Lawd I’s trus’in, Trus’in’, Trus’in’, Trus’in in duh Lawd.
If there was ever a clearer and more profound statement of faith “in spite of everything” I have not heard nor seen it. Luke used such words as these artistically to record the internal and external events of his and the lives of others.
Art songs – like Luke’s compositions – are artistic artifacts. Just like archaeological finds they provide understanding and enlightenment about previous lives and times – and about ourselves. Without Luke’s Trus’in In Duh Lawd, and the descriptions of Maum Celie in Luke’s poem Twice Filled, The Willow Basket, the importance and significance of Maum Celie’s life would probably have been lost.
Luke’s music, The Collected Works of Luke Peeples, is available in two volumes. The biographical book A Gullah Psalm, The Life and Works of Luke Peeples, by Estella Saussy Nussbaum & Jeanne Saussy Wright, is available from LP COLLECTIONS, LLC., 12 East Jones Street, Savannah, GA 31401. More details about all three of these books are available on my website, astarfell.com. Art work in this article and on Luke’s Collected Works is by R. S. Perry. Her works can be seen on her website, cronesinger.com.