Black Musicians in Colonial Charleston

A master drummer must have seven eyes. —African proverb

The Old Plantation. Anonymous folk painting, South Carolina, c.1777-1794. (The Abbey Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Colonial Williamsburg, VA)

Fresh 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.

Colonial Era Houses, Charleston SC

Eliott Street

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!

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I was called to be an artist. And as an old old midwife said to me "If the Lord wants you to do something, you won't have no good luck' til you do." So, here I am, sharing what I love, longing to illuminate the work of art, which is everywhere.

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Posted in art, Arts & Culture, Charleston South Carolina, creativity, Gullah, music, religion, South Carolina History, Writing
5 comments on “Black Musicians in Colonial Charleston
  1. I found your blog via the Charleston County Public Library Facebook site. This topic — banjos and African American music history — has been an interest of mine for quite some time. I was born in Columbia but raised in Appalachia, and moved to Charleston last fall. I am also an open-backed “clawhammer” banjo enthusiast. :) I’m looking forward to attending this lecture!

    • Well thanks so much for telling me the blog shows up at the library facebook site. I look forward to meeting you! Nic Butler was terrific last week, and really knows this stuff. I was fascinated, and am looking forward to his second lecture. Awesome, and thank you for subscribing! Cheers, Charlotte

  2. […] Black Musicians in Colonial Charleston « Charleston through an … […]

  3. Jim says:

    I am a clawhammer banjo player.
    It is very disappointing to me that the great banjo traditions of African Americans have not been a part of the increasing popularity of traditional American music. I fear the main reason is the abuse of the music, dialects, stories etc in minstrel shows in making fun of African Americans.
    This style of playing American music is very unique.
    It wonderful to revive this genre. .

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What’s this?

Welcome to my blog about the Lowcountry of South Carolina, a place proud with beauty, history and art. Sometimes we feel a call, to be, to go, to do. I was called to be an artist, and as an old midwife from Alabama said, “If the good Lord wants you to do something, you won’t have no good luck until you do it.”

So here I am writing about what I know, about the 'under glimmer' as the poet Basho, says, the way I have learned to see, to notice. I am inspired by, and talking about the history and art and culture of this place that has called me to herself. By the ancestors.

My background includes a degree in fine arts from a small private college in Florida, and before that, four years of all girls' boarding school in Asheville. I worked as a professional photographer, helped my children grow up, and now and I love seasoned things, good food, better conversation, beauty, my beloved and beautiful Italian Greyhound, Beau. Moved by the sacred places and stories of this beautiful historic land called the Lowcountry, I am here in spirit and I hope to infect you with my love of this place.

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