STEAL AWAY TO JESUS

Sung by Mary Ann Pettway of Gee’s Bend, Alabama in 2018. Mary Ann is the director of the Gee’s Bend Quilt Collective. Gee’s Bend is a small rural community in the bend of the Alabama river south of Selma. The women of Gee’s Bend have been making quilts for generations, both to serve the needs of the family and as an outlet for artistic expression. Their unique style has won these quilters international recognition with major museum exhibits. New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman noted that the Gee’s Bend quilts are “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.” The women often gather in the afternoons at the Collective building to work on quilts together and to sing. When offering quilt workshops and retreats or attending museum exhibitions the women always start the event with a song. Mary Ann joined the collective after she retired, and has been enjoying this second phase of life as a quilter and as a workshop leader. I visited the collective in the spring of 2018 with my sister-in-law and niece, and I asked Mary Ann if she might sing a song for my project. She sat down at her desk, closed her eyes and sang Steal Away to Jesus.

This Song Quilt is a transcription of how Mary Ann sang Steal Away to Jesus when I visited her at the Gees Bend Quilt Collective in 2018. Since red white and black quilts are Mary Ann’s favorites, I chose red as the "root" color of this song, and let it move to deep pinks and purples. You’ll notice that this song is set upon a black canvas. Mary Ann sang freely, stretching phrases long or short as she felt the music. This created an uneven length in each line but a deeply rich texture. Notice also the many trills and ornaments where she embellished the melody. To pay homage to the Gee’s Bend style, I hand quilted this piece and made a scrap pieced back from fabric remnants from my studio.

There is a wealth of information about the Gee’s Bend community, the Freedom Quilting Bee, the Gees Bend Quilt Collective, and the civil rights struggle of the community. I encourage you to visit these links to learn more about this history.

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Mary Ann Pettway, Director of the Gee’s Bend Quilt Collective. Sitting in front of a quilt made by Bettie Bendolph-Seltzer.

Lucy Mooney making a quilt with her granddaughters. Gee’s Bend 1937. (Library of Congress)

My niece wanted to be wrapped up in every quilt in the shop. Me too.

My niece wanted to be wrapped up in every quilt in the shop. Me too.

Scrap back with detail of hand quilting.

 

The Gee’s Bend Quilt Collective building.

A work in progress by Mary Ann Pettway. Her quilts are jubilant improvisations.