The Song of Charleston

IT is a fortunate thing that the spendthrift ‘ collectors ’ who scour the land for spoils cannot completely sack every place they visit. In all conscience there are objects enough, purchasable and portable, for them to carry home. Some things, by the grace of heaven, cannot be borne away — old houses, old gardens, old essences and flavors. These things can be transplanted only in picture and in memory. Not even in picture, only in memory, can the musical note and rhythm of a town, city, or region — the song that goes on singing itself in your heart — be appropriated by the wayfarer. For every place has its rhythm — indeed, its song. These are of two sorts — the insistent, plainly audible, and the still small voice, speaking for what lies hidden within. In the vast orchestra of city sounds — with many latter-day, local variants upon ‘great London’s central roar’ — one instrument after another may dominate the melody and rhythm. The note of smaller places may be less constant, less certain to be recognized. Yet, outward and inward, the two voices of every place bear their part in making the genius loci — and for all the weight of what you see wherever you go, it is probably what you hear that swells most palpably the homeward-bound luggage of the spirit.

Such are the thoughts that spring to one’s mind on returning from a visit to the city which, by the American measure of antiquity, must be called the ancient city of Charleston, South Carolina. There — with good luck in point of time and opportunity — one may hear a note, a definite song, so purely indigenous, so utterly characteristic, that it seems to spring as inevitably from Charleston soil as the porticoed, seaward-looking houses that could be found nowhere else. Their positive distinction of line and tone speaks for a civilization, a highly organized society, that has no American duplicate in scale and effect. Not the dwelling houses alone, but the public buildings, churches, and halls, connote a dignity and leisure that could have sprung only from an order of existence in which a powerful local oligarchy concerned itself with matters of grace and beauty.

It is not here and now a question whether the basis of privilege on which such an order erected itself was valid or the opposite. There it was, and the tangible fruits of it, surviving the repeated assaults of wars, earthquake, fire, and hurricane, stand proud and beautiful to-day, undefeated if a little wistful, in testimony of the lasting uses to which a society of planters could turn its untold resources of labor. And it is precisely in the songs of the Negro toilers of the great South Carolina low-country plantations that descendants of their owners are preserving to-day, in an admirable spirit of blended gratitude and noblesse oblige, the veritable song of Charleston.

Thus the South Carolina counterpart of the ‘Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities’ — to whose ministrations aging spinsters have been heard to wish themselves liable — is the Charleston ‘Society for the Preservation of Spirituals.’ There is no boasting, but a simple acceptance of the fact that the community lacks funds for any general restoration and preservation of its physical monuments. There is nevertheless a spiritual monument — a monument literally to the spirit — of Charleston in the past which was in actual danger of disintegration until, some eight years ago, a small company of Charlestonians, bearing for the most part the historic names by which the streets and the best houses of the city are known, undertook for their own pleasure to meet and sing together the songs which they had learned as children from the black servants on the plantations that were their homes or places of frequent visitation. These informal gatherings planted a seed of rapid growth. Friends heard the singing and enjoyed it so much that they bespoke a wider hearing for it. A local charity needed help and the loosely organized society sang for its benefit.

As the organization took form, that form rendered it unique among choruses. For one thing, no singer with a trained voice was eligible for membership: what Negro singer of spirituals has had a trained voice? For another, it was essential that the members should themselves be plantation-bred, or at least plantation-’broken’ — for plantation life in its essence, be it said, long survived the Civil War. ‘You either lived on a plantation’ — it has been written of this qualification — ‘or you did n’t, and you can’t use political influence, money, or good looks, or any other handy asset to turn that trick for you, if you did n’t begin earlier in life than this to be eligible for membership.’ An alien to the childhood influence of spirituals, with a voice trained by the best singing master in the world,—a candidate with either or both of these handicaps, — is automatically blackballed. You must go to Charleston for a genuinely exclusive club.

Did the society, thus organized, content itself with singing and resinging the spirituals for which its members could draw upon their own earliest memories? By no such process could they have accumulated their present repertory, including about a hundred and twenty songs. Their plan, on the contrary, has been to visit plantations and churches where the older Negroes are still singing their religious melodies, to learn the airs direct, by as many repetitions as need be, from these singers, and, lest the words — in the strange Gullah dialect of the South Carolina low-country — should evade remembrance, to make written notes of them on the spot. It has always been through such first-hand study — in the Santee country, on Beaufort, Edisto, and James Islands, and at other places in the region tributary to Charleston — that the songs have been gathered. If the spirituals familiar to theatregoers through Porgy have seemed to ’ring true,’ the facts that Mr. and Mrs. Du Bose Heyward have been active members of the Charleston Society for the Preservation of Spirituals and that songs rescued by that organization have thus found their way to the stage on both sides of the Atlantic may well have something to do with it.

For the first few years of its existence the Society restricted its concerts to Charleston. Then, on demand from Savannah, Columbia, South Carolina, and other cities and towns within relatively easy reach, it appeared before audiences peculiarly qualified to appreciate its distinctive Southern flavor. Only within the past year has it journeyed farther afield — to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and the neighborhood of Wilmington, Delaware. So definitely amateur an organization, made up of ladies and gentlemen whose occupations are at the farthest possible remove from those of a traveling troupe, cannot be made a subject of common exploitation. Indeed, one hesitates to expatiate upon its merits even in so utterly unsought a piece of writing as this. Yet after one has experienced, all unprepared, the memorable sensation of hearing the Society give one of its concerts in its own town of Charleston, it were almost churlish to keep that experience to one’s self. After all, the tickets are on public sale.

The town was packed with tourists, for the Middleton Place and the Magnolia Gardens — acclaimed by the temperate John Galsworthy ‘the most beautiful spot in the world’ — were nearing their climax of beauty. The evening in an overcrowded hotel looked a little formidable. But not far away was the local Academy of Music — such a theatre, though somewhat enlarged, as that in which Napoleon III first saw the Mariette of Guitry’s play; such, again, in period though not in scale, and stable rather than afloat, as the scenes of Show Boat recall in travesty.

But the chorus on which the curtain rises is no such questionable company as that which the professional theatre so often assembles. Instead one sees some forty ladies and gentlemen who might, without any violent demand upon the imagination, have come together in the fifties of the last century out of the stately houses encompassed in a circle drawn from the theatre to include the Battery and the shores of the Ashley and Cooper rivers. The women’s simple dresses of blue and pink are of that earlier time; the men identify themselves completely with it merely by substituting stocks and the semblance of a ruffled shirt front for the more rigid adjuncts of contemporary evening clothes. The president of the Society tells the audience something of its purpose — to preserve a treasured heritage, to employ any tangible gains from so doing for the benefit of old and needy Negroes, and ultimately to publish a book of the distinctive Gullah melodies and words, with pictures and historical text provided entirely by Charleston painters, etchers, and writers, the proceeds from this enterprise to be devoted to helping members of the race from which the preserved spirituals are derived. Each song is then introduced, with a word, in accent subtly local, about its origin. And then the chorus sings.

There are sophisticates who have grown a little weary of the singing of spirituals — and no wonder. The colored singers of them on concert stages are too often beguiled into self-consciousness and a certain overdressing of the simple melodies. The white concert singers of the same songs are often, and inevitably, subject to another self-consciousness — that of the imitator, and their voices are of course lacking in something of which the origin is distantly African. With the Charleston chorus there is nothing of imitation. It is rather a matter of rendering a white interpretation of a folk tradition common, though from different angles of practice and enjoyment, to black and white. The simple stage setting of the Southern outdoors, with enough of pendulent Spanish moss in the foreground to localize the scene beyond mistake, the seated group representing with equal certainty the gallantly surviving Charleston of old, the absence of all the stage consciousness usually revealed in bowing soloist or conductor, — for conductor there is none, and soloist is soon merged in chorus, — attune the spectator, surrounded by an audience quite homogeneous with the chorus itself, to the full effect of the singing. How is this effect, of so remarkable an intensity, produced?

A single singer, man or woman, unprompted by a leader or by any setting of the key, launches the melody, in which the others soon join, rising one by one and sitting again in their places without sign of premeditation or direction, swaying their bodies and clapping their hands in those motions strangely defined as ‘shouting,’ speeding the tempo, increasing the volume of the song, till that which began as a gentle, deliberate solo ends in an ecstasy of rhythm, rapid movement, and choral mass in which singers and hearers seem joined in that unity of stage and house which is the ultimate test of the power of song and action.

All this, one is well aware, is what an enthusiastic, not yet disillusionized, listener to spirituals might say of them at their best anywhere. Perhaps; but here, one is disposed to insist, there is something different. Here, I for one believe, is that special note which makes the singing of the Preservation Society so indisputably the song of Charleston. You have been told in the afternoon that it took a hundred slaves ten years to bestow upon the gardens of Middleton Place their noble and gracious form; and even the mythical half-year of seven maids with seven mops shrinks in comparison to a minute of time. The measure of things in Charleston seems rather a matter of centuries than of years — centuries of association, in which the interdependence of two races has played no negligible part. Whatever the origin and significance of the religious songs of the low-country Negroes, it is immensely significant that truly representative members of the dominant race are now singing those songs in a spirit of sympathy, reverence, and devotion which are themselves survivals from a less cynical age. How otherwise can true folk song, an indigenous form of art capable of its highest values only by the practice of rigorously art-concealing methods, be adequately preserved? Can the same process be applied in other places, to other species of song, to other forms of folk expression in art than music? The song of Charleston leads one to hope that such things may be, that native American art may flower in many gardens yet untilled.

Meanwhile let Charleston, like Bethlehem, become a place of musical pilgrimage. A festival of spirituals at the time when the gardens are in their glory would not appreciably increase the strain upon the already overtaxed provision for local bed and board. The lovers of flowers and of music are often identical. Old gardens, old houses, old music, all fruits of the same vanishing civilization, are better blended than isolated. And let not the chorus be tempted to stray too often from its own native habitat. Bethlehem with its Bach, Dayton and Northfield with their roaming choirs — however beautifully the singers from these places may sing, Bach is an alien in Pennsylvania; the composers of sacred music, from Palestrina to Sullivan, have nothing in particular to do with Ohio and Minnesota. But Charleston and the lowcountry spirituals are close of kin: place and music inalienably fit and supplement each other. It would be against nature for such a chorus to be permitted unbrokenly to immure itself at home — and the world beyond Charleston would be the loser if it did. But at home is where one may best hear it, in the Second-Empire-like Academy of Music, with the whole song of Charleston, to which the cadences of the spirituals contribute a moving and determining part, throbbing itself quietly along in one’s heart.