What It Was like Living on St. John 100 Years Ago – Folk Life Festival

What It Was like Living on St. John 100 Years Ago – Folk Life Festival

In an age of unlimited streaming movies, music and video games, how do we convince the next generation that folk ways have value and beauty? When any product we dream of is mass produced, available and affordable, why keep oral storytelling, boat building, basketry, herb lore, woodwork and sewing alive?

These questions can be answered at the Folk Life Festival hosted by the VI National Park at the St. John Annaberg Ruins on February 23rd and 24th, 2017. Whether you relocated to the islands like me, were born here, or are just visiting, this is your opportunity to hear, see, taste, and interact with the living history of these islands.

What It Was like 100 Year Ago

Folk Life Festival Virgin Islands National ParkAt this year’s festival, travel back 100 years to the date of the transfer of the Virgin Islands from the Danish to the United States. In 1917 the population (census data list the population at 959) of St. John was less than a quarter of the size it is today. There was no electricity, no motorized vehicles and very few shipments to the islands. Instead, the people of St. John lived by ingenuity and farming, wild harvesting, fishing and handicraft skills. Nearly all domestic items where made by hand, including clothing. Barter and trade was far more common than the exchange of money for goods and entertainment was provided by musicians, storytellers and dancers from the community.

These times were hard but perhaps more connected. The extended family, which really encompassed whole communities, provided support through distribution of labor and child rearing. Some may dismiss it as frivolous or a romanticizing of a time of extreme hardship, but the growing movements that value self-sufficiency and getting back to the land are important because only through practice of these skills, will these arts be carried forward to the future.

The Virgin Island’s historical treasures can be preserved by attending the Folk Life Festival. At the Annaberg Sugar Mill Ruins you can learn about Caribbean life a century ago and pass this knowledge to others. I guarantee you will be inspired by these dedicated performers, presenters and artists.

Storytellers & Historians

Glen “Kwabena” Davis, Gilbert Sprauve and Senator Myron Jackson will share the history of our islands through the art of spoken word and narrative. Sadly, many of the best storytellers and oral historians of St. John, like the legendary Guy Benjamin, have passed away recently. This folk art is very difficult for younger performers to recreate because the practical reason for it has been lost. Storytelling was an entertaining way to record and share anecdotes, advice and instructions. Traditional storytellers boast and riff off of each other using rhythm and humor to create memorable tales.


Quadrille Folk Life Festival Virgin IslandsHow did a Napoleonic court dance end up in the Caribbean? The Quadrille came with the planters in the early 19th century during the time of slavery. Slaves, forbidden to practice their own African arts and culture, appropriated the dance and made it their own. Caribbeans adopted a more relaxed posture and added their own African rhythm, style and expressions, with friendly boastful interactions between dancers and with the emphasis on enjoyment.

Images of Moko Jumbies can be traced back thousands of years in African art. Due to his towering height, this mythical figure was able to foresee danger and evil.

In lore, the Moko Jumbie arrived in the Caribbean by walking across the Atlantic Ocean from the West Coast of Africa, laden with many centuries of experience, and, in spite of all inhuman attacks and encounters, yet still walks tall, tall, tall. — John Cupid, Caribbean Beat

Interestingly, the Moko Jumbies all but disappeared from Caribbean events and parades for decades. The Moko Jumbies were brought back to life in the 90s and have enjoyed an enthusiastic revival. A big win for folk arts. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Tourism of the U.S. Virgin Islands adopted the Moko Jumbie as a symbol for the islands.


Quelbe, also known as Scratch Band Music, is an indigenous, grass-roots form of folk music from the U.S. Virgin Islands that has spread to other parts of the Caribbean. Historically performed on handmade instruments, the Quelbe has evolved with the addition of modern instruments. Although its musical structure is derived from European Quadrille, this is a truly local art form. A form of oral history, Quelbe lyrics were used to relay the significant happenings of daily island life.

Echo People St. John USVIIn the Caribbean, African rhythms were fused with European elements to create new musical forms that continue to develop into unique musical expressions today. Afro-Caribbean drumming, in its many forms, was forged from the resiliency of a people preserving their heritage. From the bone deep rhythms of the djembe, conga and djun-djun to the bright notes of the steel pan, Afro-Caribbean drumming is intoxicating. To join with the music is irresistible.

Cultural ambassadors like Eddie Bruce and Ital Deloy Anthony instill a love of traditional drumming in our young people. Without the dedication of these master teachers and performers, an art form that is strong and evolving on St. John might otherwise decline or be absorbed into mainstream culture.

At the Folk Life Festival Eddie Bruce will present The History of African Drumming and Ital Delroy Anthony will perform with the Echo People.

Crafts and Herbal Medicine

It’s hard to say what craft and cooking demonstrations will be presented at the festival this year but they are sure to inspire and inform. Past years have included beekeeping, bread making, maubi, basketry, broom making and wood turning.

Bush Talk will introduce the medicinal values of the local pharmacopeia. The Caribbean Islands are home to many plants that naturally heal the body. Local people have been using herbs and fruits to treat illnesses in addition to, or in place of, modern medicines. Learn the names and uses of many local remedies and recipes for a variety of bush teas.

Join us at the Annaberg Sugar Plantation for the annual Folk Life Festival on February 23rd and 24th. Education stations at the festival will provide visitors, including students from local schools, with historical and cultural information to connect the islands’ past to the present. Admission to this event is FREE.

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Catherine Turner
Catherine TurnerCatherine Turner is a freelance writer and editor formerly based in the Virgin Islands. Her contributions have appeared in many publications including the St. John Tradewinds, Caribbean Travel and Life, Onboard Online Magazine, and the Elephant Journal. In a former incarnation, Catherine was a nightclub owner and a resort showgirl. A lifetime ago, she spent a decade chained to a desk as a computer programmer/data analyst. Catherine recently completed her first novel Carnival Carib. See more of her work at catherineturner.media

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7 thoughts on “What It Was like Living on St. John 100 Years Ago – Folk Life Festival

  1. Aslin

    Great article Catherine!

    4 years ago

    1. Catherine Turner

      Thanks Aslin 🙂 I loved your food truck article! I’ll be over to STT to sample all the wonderful food you wrote about. While I’m there, I plan to stop by your offices to meet you!

      4 years ago

  2. NancieM

    I wish I could be there for this as I am very much interested in the island’s history, but won’t be there until the end of May. Maybe there will be something like this again during that time. I am privileged to own both of Mr. Benjamin’s books and I miss him greatly. Oral, as well as written history, is very important to all cultures. Thank you for sharing this. 🙂

    4 years ago

    1. Catherine Turner

      Thank you Nancie 🙂 Mr. Benjamin is sorely missed here. He meant so very much to this community and as you point out, was a wonderful writer. I urge others to seek out his books. The Folk Life Festival is annual event but the St. John Historical Society, the St. Thomas Historical Trust, and Friend of the Park can point you in the right directions for more opportunities to learn about the history of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

      4 years ago

  3. tom martin

    I have been to St John a dozen or more times. I’m a drummer and have played with Ital before. I’ll be returning to the island the 19-30th of March and would love to catch up with Ital again- Is his Phone # still xxx-xxxx?

    4 years ago

    1. Jennifer Knowles

      Hi Tom,I hope you don’t mind but I decided not to publish Ital’s phone number in your comment. I suggest that you call him and see if that number is still working. Also if you can’t get a hold of Ital Anthony directly you could try Eddie Bruce. You are very lucky to have played with Ital, what a wonderful way to experience the island’s culture.

      4 years ago

    2. Catherine Turner

      Ital’s website has current contact info: http://italdelroyanthony.wixsite.com/italdelroyanthony

      4 years ago

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