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Fifty-Nineth Annual Meeting Address

South Carolina as a folk culture

Charles W. Joyner

A middle-aged woman and a young boy sat together in a swing on the lawn of Hibben House, on the shores of Charleston Harbor in Mt. Pleasant. It was 1944, and she was tutoring him in the Presbyterian Shorter Catechism. The youngster learned his catechism; but the woman taught him much more, inflaming his youthful imagination with the local history of Mt. Pleasant and Christ Church Parish, especially of the Gullah-speaking slaves who had labored on the rice plantations along the Cooper River. She told him of the beautiful hand-coiled rice "fanner baskets" they made there, like the ones their ancestors had made in Africa. She taught him that if he wished to understand the South Carolina lowcountry, the small place that constituted her native soil, he must first learn a great deal about three continents—Europe, Africa, and North America. The woman was Petrona Royall McIver. I was the young boy. I have since come to refer to what I learned from "Miss Petey" as "asking large questions in small places." The phrase is mine, but the concept is hers.

One of our largest questions is the nature of the Southern heritage, and two of the classic "answers" are those of the distinguished historians C. Vann Woodward and David Potter. Woodward, in his famous essay "The Irony of Southern History," grounds the South's claims to a distinctive heritage in its historical experience. But that heritage will remain a mystery unless we comprehend the culture within which that history was experienced. Potter, in his famous essay "The Southern Enigma," finds the South's essential distinctiveness embodied in what he calls "the culture of the folk," a culture that has withstood all the homogenizing onslaughts of commercial popular culture. He considers the relation between land and people "more direct and more primal" in the South than elsewhere in the nation. And he believes that "the relation of people to one another imparted a distinctive texture as well as a distinctive tempo" to Southern folk culture. While Potter never explores the implications of his insight, his insight is sound.

What is folk culture, and why should we regard it as important? Folk culture may be regarded as what human beings remember not because it is reinforced by the church, the state, the school, or the press, but for no other reason than that it is unforgettable. Our popular culture, while widely known in the short run, is essentially disposable. A popular song rarely lasts more than six weeks on the charts. After that it is a moldie oldie. Popular culture is created for the moment, folk culture—like great art—for the ages. But unlike the creations of a conscious artist, unlike the creations of a William Gilmore Simms or a Julia Peterkin, a Washington Allston or a William Henry Johnson, whose creations embody their individual visions and values, folk culture embodies in its traditional chain of transmission the visions and values of the folk themselves.

It would be difficult to overemphasize the importance of tradition in folk culture. Imagine that you make up a story, or a song—both the words and the music—but nobody knows it is your story or your song. It is presumed to belong to everyone. Anyone who wishes can change it in any way, for any reason. If they cannot understand part of it, find some part of it offensive, think they can improve on some part, or simply forget a part, they are free to change your song to their hearts' content for the next decade, the next generation, the next century. It is unlikely that all of your story or song will survive the process of weeding out everything unintelligible, inartistic, offensive, or simply forgettable. But what does survive will be what you have in common with everyone who became a link in the traditional chain of transmission. Some of the folktales and folksongs still alive in Carolina tradition are centuries old. People neither remember nor forget without reason. What remains, after forgetting everything that is not truly memorable, is something primal, something very close to the basic poetic impulse of the human species. The old songs and the old tales, the old prayers and the old personal expressiveness are more than just quaint cultural artifacts. They provide the present generation with a sense of continuity with generations gone before, a precious lifeline to courageous ancestors, a source of strength that still enables us to cope with the hail and upheaval of life.

An old Southern proverb says "You can't tell the depth of a well by the length of the pumphandle." Applied to the study of folk culture, it suggests that, like the shadows cast on the wall of Plato's cave, the most visible things about South Carolina are only tangible reflections of less visible beliefs and attitudes. The most characteristic expressions of our folk culture—the rich humor of our tales, the haunting cadences of our ballads and songs, the beauty of our hand-made baskets and pottery—are significant in themselves. But they also reflect the visions and values by which our people have lived, thus providing an insight into the very essence of South Carolina.

In the flickering light of a slave-cabin fireplace in All Saints Parish, just north of Georgetown on the Waccamaw River, little Sabe Rutledge listened in wide-eyed wonder to the endlessly fascinating folktales of Buh Rabbit. "How come I know all these Buh Rabbit story, Mudder spin, you know," he would recall. "Mudder and Father tell you story to keep you eye open." He and the other slave children delighted in Buh Rabbit's struggle for mastery with his more powerful but less intelligent adversary Buh Bear. These stories taught the children that the powerless must learn the ways of the powerful and that one must learn how to avoid a trick as well as how to perpetrate one. They taught that existing power relations were not necessarily natural power relations. Portraying the weak defeating the strong by using their wits, these tales promoted the idea of freedom within the House of Bondage. The symbolic struggle fostered a sense of identification with Buh Rabbit, who seemed so much like Sabe's father, Rodrick, while Buh Bear seemed so much like Ole Mossa. The children learned that ethics appropriate in some situations might not be helpful in others. The obligations of friendship were expected within the slave community, but when dealing with the master one had much to gain and little to lose by adopting the ethics of the trickster. These narratives redefined the harsh realities of life in bondage into a realm more attractive. They made a virtue of necessity and gave a voluntary color to an involuntary plight.

About ninety miles upcountry from Georgetown, at Plane Hill near the village of Stateburg in the high hills of Santee, little Mary Miller learned from her grandmother to sing the old Scottish folk ballads "Lord Lovel" and "Barbara Allen." In "Lord Lovel" a rich young aristocrat rides off on his steed, "strange countries for to see." He returns in a year and a day, only to find that his neglected sweetheart has died. He has lost his most cherished desire while away engaging in Quixotic adventures. In "Barbara Allen" a young woman is summoned to the sickbed of her sweetheart, who had earlier slighted her by toasting another woman at a local tavern. He tries to arouse her pity ("Yes, I'm surely dying"), but his stratagem fails and she rejects his explanation of the tavern incident. In both ballads, as in so many others, the actions of the hero appear doomed. The hero and heroine are united only in the grave. These ballads take place in a strongly patriarchal world, one that both reflected and gave shape to the real world in which little Mary lived. Although the father-figure appears but briefly as a faceless symbol of power in "Barbara Allen," he makes his presence strongly felt ("Oh father, oh father, come dig my grave, come dig it long and narrow"). Sung without the intrusion of sentiment, sentimentality, or didacticism, the stark actions of the ballads approach tragic stature. To recognize the impersonality of Mary Miller's ballads is not to deny their drama. It is only to point out that singing of such misfortunes, unrelieved by comment, promoted a sense of ironic detachment—perhaps the ultimate taking for granted. Years later, as the grown-up Mary Boykin Chesnut, she sat at the deathbed of the Old South, victim of its own Quixotic adventures. Vividly recording its final agonies in her famous "diaries," she was as aloof and coldhearted as Barbara Allen. From the heedlessness of the Lord Lovels and the helplessness of the Sweet Williams (as well as the tyranny of the arbitrary patriarchs) she encountered in ballads, she developed a detached skepticism toward the male dominance and female subordination of the patriarchal society in which she was bred. From the stark but understated lost causes of the ballads, she absorbed an awareness that human life is filled with little ironies and that large disasters from time to time shape the course of historical events.

It would appear, then, that oral traditions served as sources of visions and values not merely in the slave cabins of Rodrick Rutledge and his family, but in the Big House of United States Senator Stephen Decatur Miller and his family as well. Just as Sabe Rutledge's ancestors brought African folk tradition with them and reshaped those traditions on Southern slave plantations into an African-American folk culture marked by strong African continuities, so Mary Boykin Chesnut's ancestors brought with them British and Celtic folk traditions that helped to shape her world view and ethical dynamics in significant ways.

The first nation to bring European folk culture to the New World was Spain, beginning in the sixteenth century. Planting colonies in what is now South Carolina at San Miguel de Gualdape and at Santa Elena, the Spanish left a strong Hispanic cultural imprint on these shores. Following the Spanish, French settlers implanted elements of Gallic folk culture in South Carolina. By the end of the seventeenth century, however, the Spanish and French were gone and the English had settled at Charleston, accompanied by their storehouse of British folklore.

More than any English mainland colony, South Carolina's roots were Caribbean. Many of her early settlers were English by way of the West Indies, especially by way of Barbados. Barbadians such as the Middletons of Middleton Place and the Draytons of Drayton Hall controlled the provincial government and determined the course of South Carolina's politics for almost half a century. One of the Barbadians was Robert Daniel, who arrived in 1690 and quickly established himself as a leading figure in local politics. An authentic military hero of the St. Augustine expedition, he was a highly controversial acting governor of South Carolina in 1716 and 1717.

The Huguenots, a group of French Protestants, were an ethnic group of special importance in early South Carolina. Suffering what they regarded as acute persecution during the reign of Louis XIV, thousands of Huguenots fled to America at the end of the seventeenth century. One of them was Daniel Horry. A native of the ancient province of Angoumois, Horry arrived in Charleston in April of 1692. Soon he married another Huguenot, Elizabeth Garnier, from the Isle of Ré off La Rochelle. The couple applied for English citizenship, but by the time their naturalization was granted several years later, Daniel had died.

Three different groups of Scots were important in early South Carolina—lowlanders, highlanders, and the ambiguously designated Scotch-Irish, who were known in Britain as Ulster Scots (and other less pleasant names). Lowlanders were among the earliest Charleston merchants. In the early eighteenth century tens of thousands of Scotch-Irish came to South Carolina, becoming the great pioneers of the upcountry. Following the infamous highland clearances large numbers of kilted highlanders came to the Pee Dee region of South Carolina. Among the Scotch-Irish was a young John Beaty, a native of County Cavan, Ireland, who emigrated to Carolina from Belfast around 1723. The name Beaty had been indigenous to the Scottish border since the fourteenth century. John Beaty's decision to emigrate to Carolina apparently did not meet with parental approval. His father left him one pound in his will in 1741, because "he hath been disobedient and behaved in such a manner as he is not entitled to my favor." Nevertheless, by 1736 John Beaty was a landowner in the newly-created Kingston Township. The Barbadians, the Huguenots, and the Scotch-Irish often despised one another in the crucible of the growing young colony.

Colonial South Carolina was made up of many ethnic groups, its rich composition of peoples, origins, and cultures resembling a patchwork quilt, with many distinctive elements, each contributing a special quality to the whole. The Carolina patchwork was multicultural before multicultural was fashionable.

The ancestors brought the Old World with them in their heads. But culture is not so much a "heritage" as it is a process. South Carolina's cultural roots are found not only in the interaction of Englishmen with Scotch-Irish and French Huguenots, but also with various other European ethnic groups—German Lutherans in the Dutch Fork area near Columbia, Palatine Swiss at Purrysburgh on the Savannah, Welsh Baptists in the Welsh Neck area near Society Hill, and—among South Carolina's pioneer settlers—large numbers of Jews. At the dawn of the nineteenth century, more Jews resided in South Carolina than any other state, and American Jewry's foremost congregation was synagogue K.K. Beth Elohim in Charleston. None of this was accidental. South Carolina's Fundamental Constitutions made it more hospitable to Jewish settlers than any other colony. South Carolina was not only the first political entity in the modern world where Jews could vote, but also the first where a Jew was elected to public office by his Christian neighbors.

Cultural traditions mixed in new and exciting ways. A variety of European cultures converged and modified one another. As Europeans of various ethnic backgrounds mingled with one another, a new culture, at first predominantly European in origins but different from any particular European culture, began to take shape.

But European culture was not the only Old World culture transplanted to the New World. The story of South Carolina is also the story of the interaction among various African ethnic groups. The Africans were even more ethnically diverse than the Europeans. They spoke different and often mutually unintelligible languages. They came from various ethnic groups, from various kinds of societies, and from different regions of the huge African continent. From Senegal and the Gambia, from the Rice Coast, from Congo and Angola, came shiploads of enslaved Africans, bringing with them a rich cultural heritage. There were Fula, or Fulani, Mandinka, or Mende, Fante, Ashanti, and Yoruba. There were Congos and Angolas, Ibos from the Niger Delta, Coromantees from the Gold Coast, Muslims from the Guinea highlands. On any given morning in a Carolina rice field an enslaved African could meet more Africans from more ethnic groups than he or she would likely encounter in a lifetime in Africa. Men and women of various ethnic groups mixed—culturally and physically—in ways that rarely occurred in Africa. Here Guineas married Coromantees and Golas married Ibos. A new culture, at first predominantly African in origins, but different from any particular African culture, began to take shape. By the eighteenth century there was a higher proportion of Africans in the South Carolina lowcountry than could be found in any other region of mainland North America. More than eight of every ten people in the lowcountry were African-born or descendants of Africans. The cultural implications of this demographic imbalance were momentous.

And there was yet another acculturation process going on in early South Carolina. Not only were varying European cultures converging and modifying one another, not only were varying African cultures converging and modifying one another, but Europeans of various ethnic backgrounds converged with Africans of various ethnic backgrounds and with Native Americans of various ethnic backgrounds—Chicoras, Creeks, Choctaws and Cherokees; Sampits, Santees, Savannah and Sewees; Yemassees, Waterees, Waccamaws, and Westos; and the great composite Catawba nation, composed partly of remnants of smaller tribal peoples. In the crucible of Carolina, the folk traditions of all Carolinians, native and newcomer alike, were stimulated and modified by one another. It was one of the world's great epics of culture change.

I have often thought how much of our history and culture is clarified if we read both W.J. Cash and James McBride Dabbs (and how much is missed if we read only one). Both were South Carolinians, born within four years of each other—Dabbs in 1896, Cash in 1900. Cash, a native of Gaffney, was the quintessential upcountryman. His South was short on cotton plantations, black earth, and black slaves. Dabbs, a native of Mayesville, was the quintessential lowcountryman. His South was short on cotton mills, red clay, and wage slaves. Neither Cash nor Dabbs knew the whole South, nor even all of South Carolina. But taken together, their insights rub against each other with astonishing combustibility. "If it can be said there are many Souths," Cash points out, "the fact remains that there is also one South." Dabbs develops Cash's concept of one South into the concept of what he calls "a single Southern culture. It is a Southern culture, born of all our people—the immortal spirituals, the blues, the plaintive mountain ballads, the hoedowns—binding us together," he explains. One who would understand the folk culture of South Carolina must examine the complex ways that its various strands have been interwoven over the past three centuries, exemplifying the ways that the lives of various groups of South Carolinians have been interwoven. The rich patterns of our culture were woven by all kinds of Carolinians.

The primary way in which people communicate with one another, entertain one another, link themselves into a community, give shape to a common culture, and transmit that culture to their posterity is through language. At its simplest, folk speech is defined as traditional deviations from standard speech. If we define "standard speech" as the language taught in our schools (rather than the language actually spoken by South Carolinians) we shall have to conclude that "folk speech" is a very broad category, including a host of variations in grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary. The artistry and creativity of our folk speech is one of the elements that continue to make Southern literature so exciting. South Carolina's most distinctive linguistic achievement was the slaves' creation of a common creole language called Gullah out of the convergence of their various African languages with one another and with the language of their masters. The reciprocal influence of Gullah and the regional standard still marks differences between lowcountry and upcountry accents, perhaps most notably exemplified in the accents of our two United States Senators. But folk speech embodies even finer distinctions than merely between the state's most recognizable sections. Many Carolinians can discern linguistic differences in localities no more than nine miles apart, and one researcher has even explored linguistic differences among various neighborhoods in Charleston.

South Carolina folk culture is rich in the verbal arts of proverbs, legends, and folktales; and in its rich heritage of folksongs and ballads from Europe, especially from England and Scotland, including the great ballads, such as those Mary Boykin Chesnut learned from her grandmother. Our state is also rich in the grand and stately African-American spirituals, which bring together the structure and rhythm of African music with melodic and textual elements of British folksong. A parallel tradition of white spirituals arose in the nineteenth century, harmonized and compiled into such shape-note songbooks as "Singing Billy" Walker's Southern Harmony and Benjamin F. White's Sacred Harp, each edited by a South Carolinian. The nation's first book-length field collection of any folk music, black or white, was Slave Songs of the United States, published in Boston in 1867. Approximately half of its songs were collected on St. Helena Island off Beaufort. Among the best known folk songs first collected in South Carolina are the classic spirituals "My Lord, What a Morning" and "Down by the Riverside"; the popular hits of the 1960s folk revival "Delia" and "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore"; and the great anthems of the civil rights movement, "Eyes on the Prize" and "We Shall Overcome."

The state is especially esteemed for its unique forms of material culture. Perhaps the prized sweetgrass baskets of Mt. Pleasant are the most famous artifacts of Carolina culture. But the striking wrought-iron gates of Charleston's blacksmith Philip Simmons, carrying on a family tradition that stretches back eight generations, have brought him honor as one of the nation's greatest folk artists and a place in South Carolina's Hall of Fame. The state is also recognized for three distinctive traditions of folk pottery. First, there is the low-fired unglazed earthenware known as Colono-ware, once made on the slave plantations by talented black potters who incorporated elements of both African and Native American traditions. Second, there is Catawba Indian pottery from York County, strikingly innovative in its designs, but still made in the traditional hand-built and pit-fired manner, little changed in technology from the precontact era. Third, there is the renowned Edgefield stoneware, produced by potters both black and white (including the most renowned of the slave folk artists, a potter and poet known to collectors only as Dave). Edgefield potters created a distinctive alkaline-glazing process in which slaked wood ashes or lime are used to help melt the clay and sand and produce green to brown hues with a characteristic runny finish. It has become the dominant Southern pottery tradition, often produced by the same families for generations.

My recent studies of Gullah culture in the South Carolina lowcountry have been given an added sense of urgency by an apprehension that a precious and hard-earned heritage in the coastal region is endangered by rapid resort development. The plantation where little Sabe Rutledge first learned the fascinating tales of Buh Rabbit is now an oceanfront resort named Surfside Beach, part of South Carolina's famous Grand Strand. Indeed all of All Saints Parish is undergoing rapid development at present, offering exclusive "resort plantation" addresses and designer golf courses to those who can afford them.

Sabe Rutledge's daughter, Mary Burroughs, moved inland across the Waccamaw River to the site of another former plantation. As I drove down Martin Luther King road to her house one day not so long ago, I noted that sewer lines were being installed, and there were rumors of a new highway. "Papa fixin' to tell dem lies, now," she remembered. "Make dem boys laugh. Tell all kind of stories." She smiled to recall his tales of Buh Rabbit. "Dat's all he would do. Make us laugh." She also remembered his stories of hags, haunts, and plat-eyes. "Papa used to scay [scare] me out of g oin' to bed. God to sleep put de cover over yuh head." As she recounted childhood memories of listening to her father tell tales, her own grandchildren were listening to soul music on the radio in the same room. Her daughter Mary Ann was working nearby at the Bucksport Marina restaurant, serving visitors who come down the Waccamaw on yachts. Outside, wooden surveyors' stakes, with their small orange flags fluttering in the warm Carolina breeze, pointed toward a future that may be as inhospitable to Gullah folk culture as other resort developments have been.

Some scholars contend that roots are dying, and perhaps Gullah culture is doomed. The lowcountry is an area of endangered traditions as well as endangered natural resources. There is a link between historic preservation, environmental preservation, and cultural preservation. But it would be premature to publish an obituary yet. Folk traditions always seem to be endangered, but they always seem also to transform themselves in the face of social change. Gullah culture was created and polished by generations of black Carolinians under appalling conditions of slavery and segregation. Gullah traditions may be endangered, but they are far from fragile. Mary Burroughs no longer told the old stories she learned from her father. But her daughter does.

The Barbadians, the Huguenots, and the Scotch-Irish were often less than cordial to one another in early South Carolina. But just as Africans of various ethnic groups mixed here in ways that rarely occurred in Africa, so too did Europeans of various ethnic groups mix here in ways that rarely occurred in Europe. As the generations passed, Barbadians, Huguenots, and Scotch-Irish were able to put aside at least some of their ethnic prejudices. The great-granddaughter of the Huguenots Daniel and Elizabeth Horry married the grandson of Scotch-Irish immigrant John Beaty. Their daughter married the great-grandson of the Barbadian Robert Daniel. And their granddaughter married a descendant of Scottish highlanders connected to Clan Cameron. The names of this last couple were Mary Eady Wilson and Nathan Paul. They lived in Horry County, and they were my great-grandparents. The fusion of folk cultures in South Carolina is more than an abstraction to me.

And Carolina culture is more than static Old World legacies brought to the New World by Europeans or by Africans. It is the dynamic product of rich and complex interactions by Europeans and Africans with one another and with Native Carolinians. In 1941, in a flash of insight he did not pursue, W.J. Cash wrote in his book The Mind of the South that "Negro entered into white man as profoundly as white man entered into Negro—subtly influencing every gesture, every word, every emotion and idea, every attitude." In 1958, as our state wrestled with its conscience over the then-prevailing system of race relations, James McBride Dabbs wrote in his book The Southern Heritage that it was too late to bother about what African culture might do to European culture under desegregation. "It's been doing it," he said, "and happily, for a long time." Black Carolinians, he pointed out, had helped to create South Carolina's folk culture. "Witness the Negro folk-tale, the spirituals, the blues, jazz." Our culture bound us together. "Through the processes of history and the grace of God," Dabbs noted, "we have been made one people." We cannot divide our folk culture into separate and parallel streams. Rather, every South Carolinian has both a European heritage and an African one. Out of the cultural triangle of Europe, Africa, and South Carolina has emerged a profound and creative exchange that has given our state a distinctive folk culture of great strength and of great beauty, a folk culture that unites all our people, perhaps in deeper ways than we even yet understand

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