NEW YORK — Lawrence McKiver — a founder and the longtime lead singer of the McIntosh County Shouters, a Georgia group representing the last community in America to perform the traditional ring shout, a centuries-old black form of ecstatic worship that marries singing, percussion, and movement — died March 25 on St. Simons Island, Ga.
His death, at 97 in a nursing home there, was confirmed by a cousin, Carletha Sullivan.
The ring shout, rooted in the ritual dances of West Africa and forged by the Atlantic slave trade, is believed to be the oldest surviving African-American performance tradition of any kind. Centered in the Gullah-Geechee region of the coastal South, it differs from traditional black religious music in repertory, style, and execution.
‘‘The shouters, historically, had a separate body of songs that were used expressly and exclusively for the ring shout,’’ said Art Rosenbaum, the author of ‘‘Shout Because You’re Free’’ (1998), a book about the tradition. ‘‘They are not the spirituals or gospel songs or hymns or jubilees that you’d hear in the church.’’
Mr. McKiver, the Shouters’ last original member, appeared with the group until he was in his mid-80s and was widely acknowledged as the ring shout’s chief custodian.
A resident of Bolden, a tiny community about 50 miles south of Savannah, he had long helped perpetuate dozens of its traditional shout songs — including ‘‘Kneebone Bend,’’ “Move, Daniel,’’ “I Want to Die Like Weepin’ Mary,’’ and ‘‘Hold the Baby’’ — whose subject matter can range from the devout to the secular and from the joyous to the apocalyptic.
With the founding of the McIntosh County Shouters in 1980, Mr. McKiver introduced the ring shout to wide audiences across the country.
Despite its name, the ring shout entails little shouting. That word refers not to the singing but to the movement: small, deliberate steps in a counterclockwise ring. (“Shout’’ has been said to be a Gullah survival of the Afro-Arabic word ‘‘saut,’’ the name of a ritual dance around the Kaaba, a sacred site in Mecca.)
Mr. McKiver was the Shouters’ songster, as the lead singer is known. A shout typically begins with the songster singing the opening lines; other singers, known as basers, reply in call-and-response fashion. The group’s ‘‘stick man’’ beats a syncopated rhythm on the floor with a tree branch or broomstick as other members clap.
The circular steps for which shouting is known are by no means dancing. To avoid the faint appearance of dance (considered sinful in some Christian traditions), shouters may neither cross their feet nor lift them high. The result — a low, measured step that is sometimes described as a shuffle — is shouting’s visual hallmark.
On the plantations of the antebellum South, where it took on elements of Christianity, the ring shout flourished covertly for generations of slaves.
‘‘They were just doing something to keep their mind off the past tense,’’ Mr. McKiver said, speaking in the local dialect, in Rosenbaum’s book. ‘‘It was their happiness. They didn’t sing it for nothing at all sad.’’
After the Civil War, the tradition endured in pockets where freed slaves had settled. By the mid-20th century, however, as Gullah-Geechee communities were increasingly swept aside by gentrification, the ring shout was presumed dead.
But in 1980 two folklorists, Fred C. Fussell and George Mitchell, were astonished to find it still being performed — a robust modern link in a chain stretching back generations — in Bolden, a coastal area in McIntosh County, Ga.
It can be heard on recordings, including ‘‘Slave Shout Songs From the Coast of Georgia,’’ released on the Folkways label in 1984, and in ‘‘Unchained Memories,’’ a 2003 HBO documentary built around slave narratives.