Introduction to Delta Pieces: Northeast Louisiana Folklife

Map: Cultural Micro-Regions of the Delta, Northeast Louisiana

Working in the Delta

Telling Stories in the Delta

Making Music in the Delta

Delta Archival Materials

Easter Rock: A Description

By Susan Roach


For a more in-depth discussion of Easter Rock, see "Everyone Rockin' Together": Continuity and Creativity in the Louisiana Delta Easter Rock

Easter Rock is an Easter eve vigil ceremony that belongs to the category of traditional events called "rocks" associated with the old plantation churches (usually Baptist) in the Mississippi Delta floodplain of northeast Louisiana. Mrs. Ellen Addison, of Winnsboro, cited a biblical source for the rock: "Elijah rocked to the coming of the Lord." The origins are not totally clear, but a 1942 article in the Journal of American Folklore notes participants who remember the tradition as pre-dating the Civil War; therefore, the ritual probably has its origins in the customs of enslaved Africans. The Easter Rock is still performed in Louisiana Delta by the Winnsboro Easter Rock Ensemble, led by Hattie Addison, who learned about the Rock from her mother.

Learning the Rock

Ellen Addison, Hattie Addison's mother, describes how she learned the Easter Rock as a child: "They put all the children in the middle and the old folks got behind. It [would] be about five in the front, and the rest of them would be behind. . . Just get out there and move your foot from one side to another, but you ain't supposed to cross your legs, you ain't supposed to cross your legs. They say you're dancing when you cross your legs." Hattie Addison recalls attending rocks since she was about seven and participating at age eight: "To me, back then when I was, when I first went, people were shouting and . . . they would sing . . . the O David song. . . It was real spiritual to me." She describes how she first learned to set up the table:

When I first started, we would start on the outside we was, you know, all gathered up on the outside. And some would have lanterns. Some would have cakes. And we learned to Rock with the cakes. For a long time, I didn't know how to Rock with the cake, but I learned to Rock with the cake. We start, we come in marching and we sing O When the Saints go Marching In. And then when we finish singing or whatever they put in, then we start Rocking and place a cake on the table, a lantern on the table, cake on the table, lantern on the table.

Hattie Addison describes the step: "It's mostly like a two, ah just jump, you know, a little hop, from one side to the other. Just mostly, that's the way I learned, you know, it's just a little hop from one side to the other, But you got to get the step, you know, you got to stay in the move with it." Hattie stresses the importance of the children learning the appropriate way to rock: "Like, these children don't know, and they just, like I said, they had mostly dance, you know, they love to dance, and I just let them know that they aren't dancing, that they going to have to get it the way we was brought up to do it, or they don't Rock."

History and Meaning

While scholarship is scanty, evidently Easter Rock occurred as far north as Lake Providence and south to Ferriday, according to H .F. Gregory, anthropologist, who in 1962 recounted a typical rock witnessed growing up in Ferriday. Janet Sturman, an ethnomusicologist, cited the similarities to ring-shout ceremonies practiced by plantation slave congregations and documented in the Georgia Sea Islands. The article cites an 1864 diary of Charlotte Forten describing such a ceremony: "The children and sometimes adults form a ring and move around in a kind of shuffling dance, singing all the time. Four or five stand apart and sing very energetically clapping their hands, stamping their feet, and rocking their bodies two and fro. These are the musicians to whose performance the shouters keep perfect time." In 1956, Harry Oster recorded an Easter Rock. In 1994, Annie Staten and Susan Roach documented Easter Rock in Winnsboro, and Staten followed up with interviews as part of the Delta Folklife Project.

The Easter Rock service typically begins with a Devotional, which includes scripture reading, singing a hymn (often a Dr. Watts hymn), and prayer. Following that is more special sacred music furnished by the choir or visiting singing groups. A short sermon provided by the church pastor precedes the Easter Rock. Before the service a long table covered with white sheets is set up in the aisle; in some churches the pews are turned to face the aisle. When the rock begins the church lights are dimmed, twelve women, dressed in white, march into the sanctuary, singing a processional song such as When the Saints Go Marching In. The leader carries a four-five foot tall "banner," said by some to symbolize Christ's cross or Moses' staff. The design of the banner varies from congregation to congregation, but typically has a long stick topped with a flat round disk, covered with fabric, paper, or foil, which may be decorated with crepe paper streamers and two braided cord pulls that are used to move the banner from side to side. Janet Sturman suggests it may be a re-creation of the kinds of banners found often in African processions, especially in funeral processions, or perhaps a silent symbol of the forbidden drum (1991). The women following the banner march in carrying lamps, which are placed on the table and lighted. In earlier days, all sorts of food was brought for the table, but today, it is decorated for Easter with colored eggs and streamers, and the women then bring in white cakes and red punch, Kool-Aid, and/or wine. According to Martha Daniels, the table represents the sepulcher of Christ; thus the cake and wine might be interpreted as the body and blood of Christ as they are in communion.

Audio Player
"Oh, David" performed by the Original Truelight Baptist Church congregation.

Meanings behind the varying symbolic objects used in the rock are sometimes unknown, but may be interpreted by some. According to 87-year-old Katie King, the women represent the resurrection of Christ: "They's the ones that went to that grave, the ones that found out Christ had risen, and that's what they was representing in that white." The number 12 does vary, but Hattie and Ellen Addison say the 12 lamps and 12 women represent the 12 tribes of Israel. Others say the lamps are from Christ's parable of the ten virgins (five wise and five foolish) waiting for the bridegroom. R.B. Kelly, however, sees the rock as representing the rolling away of the rock from Christ's Tomb.

After the objects are placed on the table, the "rocking" begins with the women shifting to a different song, such as Oh David and a side-to-side step on the wooden floor which echoes through the church like a drum. Sturman describes the sound of the feet of the rockers falls on the downbeat; left empty in the syncopated delivery of the melody. Handclapping cuts across those two rhythms. Yet another rhythm is created by the opposing actions of the banner carrier and banner puller and these cut across the rhythms created by feet on the floor. The Winnsboro group often sings the "Lord's Prayer" as well, and others may join in both the singing and procession around the table. After many rounds, the rockers take a break and serve refreshments from the table and may proceed on with more rocking. In earlier days, it is said that the rock would last until dawn and be followed by the Easter Sunrise Service. Today Easter Rock is usually over well before midnight.

Who is eligible to rock varies with the congregation. Some permit only women in white chosen by the original twelve. In others, anyone, even whites visiting, could join in the rock as the evening progressed. R.B. Kelly said that as it got later in the evening, the whites would join in, and that was one of the "prettiest sights" he had ever seen-"everyone rocking together."


Since our Delta Folklife Project fieldwork done in the 1990s, Easter Rock has been programmed for several years at the Louisiana Folklife Festival (1994-2005), and it was also presented at the 1996 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. How this public presentation will affect the tradition remains to be seen. The Original True Light Baptist Church in Winnsboro has continued the tradition; however, the one in Clayton appears to have stopped. According to Martha Daniels, with the building of the new church with its concrete floors, the church felt that it no longer had an appropriate place to have the rock.

Note: This description is based on documentation done by Janet Sturman in 1991 and Annie Staten and Susan Roach.


Gregory, H. F. "Africa in the Delta," Louisiana Studies 1 (1963): 16-22.

Seale, Lee and Marianna Evans Seale. "Easter Rock: A Louisiana Negro Ceremony." Journal of American Folklore 55: 218 (1942): 212-218.

Sturman, Janet H. "Merging the Forbidden and the Permissible: The Louisiana Easter Rock. Louisiana Folklife. 17 (1993): 24-32.

Susan Roach is a folklorist at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, Louisiana. She was a Regional Folklorist for ten years from 1998 until 2009.