This year’s Piccolo Spoleto Festival not only will spotlight local and regional musicians, but also local and regional history with its “Traditional Music of the Old South” series.
The seven performances in the series each pay homage to a different aspect of the rich musical culture that originated in the Charleston region.
The Charleston Symphony Orchestra Gospel Choir will present “The Wind and the Mockingbird: How the Written Word Changed Society.”
The piece, a combination of narration and music, is inspired by the social change brought about by Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“These books were significant touchstones in society, both white and black,” said Lee Pringle, the founder and president of the group. “They established a lot of societal mores that forward the strive of African-Americans in this country.”
Pringle wrote the script, which is inspired by the message in the books, and Karen Chandler, an arts management professor at the College of Charleston, will read the narration.
Pringle also spoke of the tradition in “No Trouble at the River: The Perilous Story of the Underground Railroad,” a 75-minute performance by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Spiritual Ensemble, directed by David A. Richardson.
The spirituals that the group will perform come from West African slaves who landed in the Charleston area. Those individuals took the cadences and rhythms from their homes and combined them with the King James Bible, creating something that is “uniquely American,” Pringle said.
“That kind of music gave us gospel, blues, jazz. ... We’re lucky in the U.S. in that we originated what is literally the grandfather of all that is thought to be African-American music,” Pringle said.
This type of music inspired great musicians like Elvis Presley and Pat Boone, and continues to inspire artists today, he said.
The Choraliers Music Club also will be continuing a legacy with its one-hour performance inspired by Gullah-Geechee culture and featuring excerpts from “Porgy and Bess.”
The show had its first run on Broadway in 1935, but “Porgy and Bess” was not performed in Charleston, where it was born, until 1970, some 35 years later, said Al Miller of the Choraliers, “and this group took part in that.”
Two of the 10 Choraliers members who will sing at the festival have been with the group since its founding in 1959 and participated in the historic homecoming performance of “Porgy and Bess.”
The Mount Zion Spiritual Singers will present Camp Meeting, a 90-minute performance of traditional Gullah music. The group tries to stay as historically accurate as possible, shying away from musical arrangement, which was not part of the pieces in their original form.
“This is gospel, minus the music,” said Alphonso Brown, the group’s organizer and the organist/choirmaster at Mount Zion AME church.
But the lack of musical arrangement isn’t scaring off potential audience members.
“In it’s raw form, it’s more exciting and with more tradition,” Brown said. And that excitement draws crowds so large that Brown recalls the fire marshal coming to the group’s first Spoleto performance and forcing them to cap attendance at 600.
Despite a performance rooted deeply in African-American culture, Brown estimates that as little as five percent of the attendees are black. He thinks shame may be a factor, as the music does hark to a time that’s still difficult to talk about, but he hopes that will change.
“It’s music, though a form of music that hasn’t been embraced (by the black community). If it hasn’t been embraced by whites, we don’t accept it. But they have,” he said. “And we have to preserve it, because it’s still a viable form of music.”
Melanie Deziel is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.