50th Post: 2nd DIXIE. CHARLESTON – ‘His Foot Too Short’

A sign in the old slave market, Charleston, S.C.

2001 April: Tuesday

Barbara approached me during breakfast and handed me a book.

“That’s the Bible in Gullah.”

“Gullah?”

It turned out that the Gullah were the descendants of the slave populations of the sea islands off the coast of the Carolinas. Largely abandoned by their white masters during the Civil War, and then by the economic tides of the 20th century, they had developed a fascinating patois. For instance, ‘His foot too short’ meant ‘he’s late’, while an over-talkative man was described as ‘He unravellin’ de mout’. Because of their island geography they had had nothing like as much interaction with the European world as had their fellow ex-slaves on the mainland. Their main influences still stemmed from memories of Africa.

One result of this was the phenomenal Gullah (or Geechee) effect on music. The dances performed by Gullah dock workers in Charleston evolved eventually into the dance craze known as ‘The Charleston’, while their song ‘Michael Row the Boat Ashore’ became world renowned. It was the Gullah community of Charleston’s Catfish Row that provided the setting and inspiration firstly for the writer Dubose Heyward, then for the composer George Gershwin, when they created what has become known as the Great American Opera – ‘Porgy and Bess’. Quite a gift to the world – and I’d never even heard of the Gullah before.

Catfish Row, Charleston

My next guide arrived about 10am – she was Lynda, aged about fifty and, as a recent immigrant from New England, ‘a damn Yankee’. It was a gorgeous hot day as we drove over the Ashley Bridge going upriver. Lynda said:

“There are two rivers here – the Ashley and the Cooper. The locals say that down at the coast they come together to form the Atlantic Ocean!”

Middleton Place, near Charleston

Our destination was Middleton Place – 18th century landscaped gardens on a small flat-topped bluff overlooking the Ashley River. It was a glorious sight that embodied every Old South cliché in the book. Horse-drawn carriages, small boats lazily bobbing on the water, guinea fowl pecking the lawns, browsing sheep, clumps of grey Spanish moss dangling from oak trees, camellia flowers just about to bloom, the extraordinary cypress swamps – the only thing missing was Middleton Place itself. It turned out that the house had been the subject of General Sherman’s attentions during 1865 and had been destroyed by Union troops. Whatever remained had been finished off by an earthquake in 1886. Still, the gardens were lovely.

Remains of Middleton Place

Given this lasting evidence of the ferocity of Sherman’s ‘March to the Sea’, I was puzzled as to why the two cities that possibly most embodied Old Dixieland, Charleston and Savannah, had escaped the destruction meted out elsewhere. Linda gave me the explanation. It seemed that prior to the Civil War, Sherman had been rejected by a Low Country woman and never forgave the humiliation. When his army approached Savannah, four of its prettiest girls came out to the Union camp and offered Sherman a night he would never forget if he spared the city. Sherman agreed to the deal.

Such was the loathing that Charleston inspired in Union minds that not even its women could have distracted Sherman from vengeance. However, the Charlestonians, realising this, decided to move out of the city lock, stock, and cotton bale and take refuge in upstate Columbia, one hundred miles away. Sherman heard of this, changed direction, and burnt Columbia to the ground instead. By a pure fluke, Charleston was saved.

Middleton Place – Spanish moss on the trees

As we left, the car was held up by a guard at an exit gate and Linda began to drum her fingers on the steering wheel with impatience. Suddenly she stopped and said:

“Oh, I’ve got to learn to relax and not be so Yankee.”

Returning to the city by 2pm, Linda took me to see an institution that linked the past and the present. It was a military academy called the Citadel – also known as ‘the West Point of the South’. In 1861, the cadets here had not only taken part in the war, they had almost started it. Three months prior to the actual outbreak of hostilities at Fort Sumter, the Citadel cadets had opened fire on a US vessel entering the harbour. This incident had been hushed up but had definitely hardened attitudes towards potential conflict.

The Citadel, Charleston

The current generation of recruits seemed unlikely rebels. As we strolled around the large barracks quadrangle, a bell rang to signify a change of classes. Dozens of young cadets streamed out of the white castellated buildings, all moving with an odd half walk/half march gait. There was none of the goofy camaraderie of ordinary college students – these boys moved with silent purpose.

The Citadel grounds

One sight was truly unexpected – a British Royal Navy ensign hanging from a flagpole in the grounds of the Citadel. According to a bronze plaque below, it is the only Royal Navy flag allowed to fly in the USA. The story behind this went back to WWII. Apparently, in 1942, it became imperative that a Free French general leave North Africa and travel to the States. He flatly refused to sail on a British ship and insisted on embarking on an American one. There being no American vessels available, the Royal Navy lent their submarine HMS Seraph to the US Navy. So, for three weeks, the Seraph joined the American Navy – and hence can and does fly the flag on US soil.

HMS Seraph RN flag and plaque at the Citadel

As we cruised back into town, we passed along Calhoun St in North Charleston. Linda said that, just as ‘Broad’ separated middle-town from rich-town, so Calhoun St separated the middles from the poor. She added that the crime rate in this area was very high – murder, rape, and robbery were almost twice the national average. We passed a large sign attached to a lamp post: ‘No Drugs Here!’ It was difficult to tell whether this was a boast, a plea, or a complaint.

Linda told me a recent story about how the local police had raided an infamous South Carolina brothel. The sheriff received many telephone requests from prominent citizens asking that their names be erased from the list of clients. He also received a request from one elderly gentleman that his name be added.

The Riviera Cinema – scene of Oscar Wilde’s speech in 1882

The final stop on the tour was the most significant. It was a rather dowdy cinema called the Riviera on a busy street. Back in 1882, it had been a public hall called the Academy and it was where Oscar Wilde had addressed his audience on July 7. It had been a very hot day and the ‘quality folk’ had left town. Nonetheless, the local press reported that the audience had been ‘probably the most attentive, respectful and thoroughly appreciative that Mr Wilde has addressed in America’ and that it had left the hall ‘with murmurs of approving comment’. In less than three hours, I had to live up to that.

The Gibbes Museum, Charleston – the venue

A quick siesta and more seafood later, Barbara dropped me off outside my venue, the Gibbes Museum and Art Gallery. It was an impressive building with a frontage of Doric columns and a domed roof – embarrassingly, a lot grander than Oscar had been allotted. I looked around the entrance hall for the welcoming committee – there was no one there. A black security guard regarded me suspiciously from the reception desk.

“Whut you doing, sah?”

I explained that I had a show to do in forty minutes and I was anxious to start on the preparations. He puzzled over his appointments book and shook his head.

“There ain’t nuthin’ like thet hyah tonight.”

“Yes, there is.”

“Nope, there ain’t.”

“Yes, there is.”

“Nope, there ain’t.”

I could hear distant voices above and started to walk towards the stairs. The guard leapt to his feet, came out from behind the desk, and stood in front of the stairs with his arms raised.

“Yo ain’t comin’ in hyah, no ways!”

Cursing under my breath, I strode outside to the steps and stood muttering. This was getting ridiculous. Ten minutes passed before three cars drew up to disgorge the ESU President and his guests. I returned to the entrance hall mob-handed. Outnumbered and outranked, the security guard, lower lip jutting, stood like a concussed ox as I swept past him.

Venue auditorium at the Gibbes Museum, Charleston

Before I could reach the dressing room I was stopped by an old lady:

“Honey, I can’t hear too well. Can I test yo’ voice a spell?”

I smiled encouragingly and gave her a rotund boom of ‘Wilde’. She shook her head. I ceased feeling smug and tried again with a line of the Shakespearian ‘St Crispin’s Day’ speech, normally a traffic stopper. Another head shake. Picking up a radio mike, I gave her the full works. The flowerpots vibrated, the gallery cat fled, and people’s heads popped up from downstairs to enquire what was wrong. The old lady gazed at me:

“No, son, I still cain’t hear you.”

I gave up – there are limits to helping the handicapped.

Before the start of the actual show, I waited at the back while the branch secretary gave a preliminary speech. It was not an entirely friendly introduction; he attacked Wilde for plagiarism and frivolity, and irritatingly used up one of my best lines. However, he also mentioned that, amid my chequered CV, many years previously I had been gardener to the Beatle George Harrison.

“So if you want to shake the hand of someone who’s shaken hands with the Beatles, now’s your chance!”

Despite the inauspicious start, the show went well. About one hundred in the audience and at least two who were determined to laugh at everything. God bless the laughers! I headed off stage to good applause and changed. As I stood outside for the post-show cigarette, three women approached and, giggling, asked to shake my hand.

“Well, now I can say I’ve got some DNA from a Beatle!”

The crowd faded and I waited for the lift home from Barbara. Suddenly the security guard shuffled towards me, his demeanour entirely humbled.

“Please, suh, can ah shake yo’ hand as well? Ah sho liked Eleanah Rigby.”

Another Charleston Mansion

Later Barbara, Zeff, and I sat outside the mansion in the hot night and arranged my departure the next day.

She told me about Colonel Chubb – another Brit and possibly the most unlucky of all the speakers that the American ESU had ever had. He had been an eighty-year-old military man who had been booked to speak in Charleston, South Carolina. By mistake, he was sent to Charleston, West Virginia. He caught a connecting plane to Atlanta, where his luggage went permanently missing. Finally arriving at the correct Charleston airport, he had left the cabin, tripped down the plane steps, and broken his leg.

Confederate money from the Civil War

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