Wednesday, 1 July 2020

South Carolina’s Musical Heritage: No More Second Fiddle

When people think about old-time country and bluegrass music, they usually think about Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky, Georgia and Virginia.

But the newly formed S.C. Bluegrass and Traditional Music Association said it is not right to leave South Carolina off the list. The group, formed in April, has set out to preserve and promote the Palmetto State’s own rich, biracial musical heritage, which includes gospel and folk music as well as bluegrass and old-time country. A University of South Carolina scholar said the group can’t be accused of rewriting history. “The misperception is that people don’t recognize how important a role South Carolina has had in the history of country music. In fact, it was a real meeting ground for a number of strains of music,” said Doug DeNatale, the folk arts coordinator at the University of South Carolina’s McKissick Museum. “People sort of overlook South Carolina largely because - and this could be a little controversial to say this - South Carolina, in contrast to North Carolina and Georgia, has looked back to an earlier past, when Charleston really was a major seaport. South Carolina as a whole puts more value on its identity in an earlier period as a high cultural place. 

So it’s really only recently that South Carolina has been re-examining its more recent past and saying, `Wait a minute; there’s a lot there to be valued as well.′ ” The black people of South Carolina also have a rich tradition of acoustic music, much of it mimicked by the white traveling minstrel shows of the turn of the century. And much of the black music was connected with churches. There is, for example, the spiritual music of the sea islands’ Gullah culture that melded Christian beliefs with African-influenced musical traditions. One such tradition is characterized by singing accompanied only by hand clapping and foot stomping. Janie Hunter of John’s Island, who founded the Moving Star Singers in that tradition, unwittingly captured the aims of the S.C. Bluegrass and Traditional Music Association in a book by Guy and Candie Carawan: a people’s link to the past is essential to self-understanding. “Young people don’t know many of the things that happened. 

It takes somebody who came out of this experience to teach them and tell them the meaning of it, and what it can do for them,” she said in the book, “Ain’t You Got a Right to the Tree of Life?.” Hunter wasn’t talking just about music, but she could have been. Although few big stars in early country music were actually born in South Carolina, after the Civil War, string bands thrived in the Piedmont mill villages that dot the old Southern Railway line now marked by Interstate 85, including Spartanburg and Greenville. “That was sort of the hotbed of the development of country music,” DeNatale said, beginning in the 1860s and continuing through the 1920s. “You had people coming off the farms and coming into textile mill villages. You had a milieu where musicians could really shine.” With the advent of country shows on the radio - especially WBT in Charlotte - regional stars were launched. WIS in Columbia was important in the central part of the state. While on the air morning and noon, they would announce their live tours for the coming weeks in the cities and towns all over the region, including South Carolina. The admission: 15 cents for children, 25 cents for adults. 

In the 1920s, one of the earliest recordings of country music was made in Rock Hill, DeNatale said. Many of the musicians first recorded were mill workers. In the late ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, bluegrass evolved as a strain of music separate from country. Bluegrass features fiddle and banjo as lead instruments, with guitar, mandolin and bass keeping time. Bluegrass also is played with higher, tighter harmonies than old-time country. But the glory days of bluegrass on commercial radio are long gone, as are all the forms of South Carolina’s traditional music. “Bluegrass is dying in this part of the country,” said fiddler Pappy Sherrill, who, along with the late banjo pioneer Snuffy Jenkins, played in places ranging from tiny churches to New York’s Carnegie Hall in South Carolina’s most famous band, the Hired Hands. Sherrill, who lives near Columbia and still plays professionally, said what passes for country music today doesn’t deserve the name anymore. “Country is more like rock now. They have it all cut and dried. It’s far from country music, what they’re doing.” Sherrill said many young musicians will do anything to capitalize on Nashville’s “big bucks,” including making videos with “silly acting” and desecrating the music with electric instruments and “all these drums and horns and tooters.” The South Carolina Bluegrass and Traditional Music Association is fighting to preserve, promote and even revive the art form through concerts that feature only acoustic instruments - fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar and bass. 

The association sponsored its first bluegrass festival Oct. 19 at Oconee State Park, and more are being planned, said Bill Wells, president of the association. Association organizers say the traditional music will only survive if the older generation teaches its children to love it. Wells, a Midlands guitarist who owns Bill’s Music Shop and Pickin’ Parlor, is adamant that the family atmosphere of bluegrass, gospel and old-time country music must never be compromised. That’s why at his Friday and Saturday night jam sessions, this is the only rule: “No drugs, no drinking and no electric instruments.” Tips box info: For more information on joining the S.C. Bluegrass and Traditional Music Association, call Bill Wells at 796-6477 or Joan Davis at the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism at 734-1654. Bill’s Music Shop and Pickin’ Parlor is at 710 Meeting St., West Columbia. Public radio station WEPR-FM 90.1, Greenville-Spartanburg, carries an hour of bluegrass music every Saturday night at 9.

S.C. FOLK ARTS PROGRAM PHOTO The Hired Hands was the best-known bluegrass band from South Carolina. The founding members were Snuffy Jenkins, seated left, and Pappy Sherrill, center. Jenkins reportedly bought his banjo in a Spartanburg pawnshop in 1943.

For fans, If you want to join the association, call Bill Wells at 796-6477 or Joan Davis at the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism at 734-1654. a Public radio station WEPR-FM 90.1, Greenville-Spartanburg, carries an hour of bluegrass music every Saturday night at 9. BLUEGR.ASS.

•culled from www.goupstate.com

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