A dozen things you might not know about South Carolina Blues


Clair DeLune, author of South Carolina Blues, shares her list of a dozen (plus!) things you might not know about South Carolina blues.
1. The predecessor to the banjo was a stringed gourd, and the predecessor to the guitar was a diddley bow, which was a metal strand nailed to a board and plucked while pressing down on the fretless board. Early performers who made the most of what they had included Pink Anderson, from the Upcountry of South Carolina, who was one of the major influences for the British blues band invasion, serving as inspiration for half the name of the (then) blues band, Pink Floyd. Floyd Council, a sometimes partner to Anderson, also performed on the South Carolina Medicine Show circuit, helping hawk patent medicines, colloquially referred to as “snake oil.” Hear Pink Anderson sing about how he likes his collards cooked in “Greasy Greens.”

2. South Carolina was the source of four major international dance crazes: the Charleston, the Big Apple, the Twist (Chubby Checker was from the Andrews area of South Carolina) and the beach music dance sensation that has become the official state dance of South Carolina, the Shag. The Cakewalk, an 19th century dance that was popular for many decades, contributed to the evolution of subsequent dances based on African rhythms, including the Charleston, the jitterbug, and the Big Apple, which eventually influenced the growth not only of blues, but also jazz and ragtime music. Hear James P. Johnson, one of the Jenkins Orphanage Band members, play his original composition, “The Charleston.” 

3. The Big Apple dance made its debut in the early 1930s at the former House of Peace Synagogue, a two-story wooden nightclub owned by Frank “Fat Sam” Boyd. The dance was invented by African American youths, who created a variation of the Gullah ring shout, at what was then the Big Apple Club on Park Street in Columbia. See the Big Apple Dance performed by the Savoy Dancers, leading to the NYC craze and adoption of the nickname for that city (look for elements of the Charleston) prompted by the second dance craze that emanated from a South Carolina city.

4. One of the first integrated singing groups emerged on the Ashley Plantation around the turn of the 20th century. Mabel Ashley, the plantation owner’s wife, organized what was then called a “Negro chorus” that performed each weekend. While we are fortunate to have previously unpublished photos of this group in “South Carolina Blues,” by Clair DeLune on Arcadia Publishing, there was no video at that time. The University of South Carolina School of Music Gospel Choir offers the Festival of Spirituals, with a video about the source of spiritual music.

5. Bertha Hill was one of South Carolina’s finest contributions to the era of the classic blues women of the 1920s. One of 16 children, Hill ran away from home at age 11 to work in vaudeville for Ma Rainey’s Rabbit Foot Minstrels. Known as “Chippie” because of her youth, Hill sang with Louis Armstrong. Tragically, in 1950, she was killed by a hit-and-run driver in New York City. Charleston’s Chippie certainly had “Trouble in Mind,” from 1926.

6. The song, “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues,” was recorded by legendary Louisiana bluesman Lead Belly as well as many other blues and folk singers. While reportedly written by a disgruntled mill worker in Winnsboro, S.C., it is based musically on Lead Belly’s “Alcoholic Blues.” Pete Seeger’s live performance of Winnsboro Mill Blues explains the genesis of the song.

7. The lyrics, “When I die don’t you bury me at all; Hang me up on the factory wall; Place a bobbin in my hand; So I can keep on a-workin’ in the promised land” were not present in Lead Belly’s version on his “Final Sessions” album, but his rendition remains a version with great spirit and verve. Hear Lead Belly sing the original source of the song.

8.As “the Elvis of his day,” Josh White was one of the most popular singers of the 1930s, becoming the first African American artist with a signature guitar line and the first black male to integrate a singing act with a white female partner. A writer and singer of protest songs, he advised a president about social justice issues, but was eventually blacklisted for “un-American activities,” which adversely affected his career. Listen to: “Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dying Bed.”

9. Country guitarist Chris Bouchillon, from Oconee, invented a popular trend in music called “the talking blues,” which often featured comedic and often double-entendre-filled patter, at times featuring a comedy routine between him and his wife. Talking blues became all the rage in the early recording days of the 1920s, but soon faded into obscurity. Listen to his “Hard Luck Blues.”

10. Eartha Mae Kitt, a native of the town of North, near Orangeburg, who was once called “the most exciting woman in the world” by Orson Welles, enjoyed several Top 10 hits, including the everlasting sexy Christmas classic, “Santa Baby.” She leapt from recording fame to the stage and screen, being the first of several actresses to purr her way through the kitschy role of Catwoman on the original Batman television series of the mid-60s. Seen here singing live on television in the late 80s, she proves she never lost her appeal, on “I Want to be Evil.”

11. A National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellow for 2015, Drink Small – now an octogenarian – left his family sharecropping farm to play the Apollo in New York City as a guitarist and bass singer for the Spiritual Aires. Sister Rosetta Tharp later hired him to tour with her band, and in the early 1960s, he finally made the leap, as he describes it, “from Hallelu-jah to Boogaloo-ya,” with his first non-gospel recording, “I Love You Alberta.” His most recent leap was playing a tribute to the first black president of the United States at Lisner Auditorium in Washington, D.C. in October of 2015, achieving his dream of going “from the farm house, (almost) to the White House.” Here he performs with another S.C. legend, Kip Anderson, backed by North Carolina’s King Bees. “I Love You Alberta” was pressed in 1964 and is now quite rare. It was recorded during the same sessions that Kip Anderson recorded his first 45 RPM records, featuring Small on guitar. Listen to that rare session.

12. Born to a teenaged mother and a young father in a wooden shack in Barnwell, James Brown was raised in Elko, S.C., then spent his formative years in his aunt’s brothel and his later years in a detention center in the Aiken/N. Augusta area (see below). In between, he played with Drink Small and Mac Arnold in his very early years of making music. The author of South Carolina Blues shares a clip of a life-changing TV appearance that she saw live, with Brown passionately singing “Please, Please, Please” in the early ’60s to a nearly hysterical audience of young, teenaged fans; and here showing his fancy footwork on “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” 

13. Nappy Brown, who lived in Pomaria (near Newberry) for over 30 years, is one of the performers who helped break color barriers with music. Elvis Presley made it a point to see Brown perform live every chance he got. Nappy influenced Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Little Richard, Buddy Guy, and Ray Charles. Here he dazzles a live audience in Finland in 1999 with the song he wrote, and which Ray Charles later covered, “Night Time is the Right Time.” Image: Nappy Brown in performance. Courtesy of the Nappy Brown collection.