A master drummer must have seven eyes. —African proverbFresh Charleston history is always being unearthed in this most sacred and beautiful of American cities.
What a pleasure it was for me to meet this week, local historian Dr. Nic Butler of The Charleston Archive, which is part of the Charleston County Library. He is sharing new research on the African American contribution to Charleston’s music tradition, specifically the history of black Americans as musicians, who played instruments in early colonial history. Renowned is the abiding contribution to Lowcountry culture by the spirituals, work songs and rowing songs of the slaves and of the African American community, but no one until now has really researched the musicians who played for the dances and in the militias.
There are 5,250 runaway slaves mentioned in public notices published in Charleston from 1732-1780. In these, according to Dr. Butler, slaves are often described by the musical talents they possess at playing fiddle, french horn, drum, fife, banjar/banjoe, or tambourine. The banjo, like the one in this painting, which is the earliest illustration we have of African Americans playing music, perhaps for a wedding celebration, was originally an West African instrument made from a hollowed guord. Its strings were of natural catcut, which is animal intestine, usually from goats or sheep. The sound the banjar made was a mellow richly toned one, more like a guitar, and different from what we think of as contemporary banjo sound today.The stories he is finding are fascinating, and even include a report about an escaped slave owned by a member of my own family. The man described by his musical talent had escaped from the Captain John Colcock, in 1736.
A most fascinating tale is a long and detailed report in the paper of a pick-pocketing incident that occurred during a large gathering of slaves listening to a Banjo player on the east end of Elliot Street near East Bay. On the 12th of December, 1766, a wealthy white gentlemen lost 200 pounds sterling (I think he said! -all I remember is saying “Wow!”) a deed, and more, to whom they believe was a female suspect of some talent with those gathered to hear the street musician.
Dr. Butlers’s research is made more interesting because of the law against slaves having drums or any instrument capable of helping aid insurrection at the time. The 1740 Slave Law stipulated that no one could beat a drum in the city, nor could a slave own instruments. The exceptions he is finding is that African Americans served in militias, and as city drummers, so that when the sheriff announced a new law, it would be read out loud on the street corner and announced by a drummer, hired by the city. He tells a fascinating tale of Moses Brown, who served as city drummer, and was followed by his son, Peter Brown, for many decades.
The lecture will continue at the downtown Charleston Public Library on February 17, at 6pm. Come on down! See you there!