Roots, Charleston South Carolina and the story of the real Porgy, Samuel Smalls, from ‘Porgy and Bess ‘.

Roots, Charleston South Carolina and ‘Porgy and Bess ‘  for my children and in memory of Dorothy Norman, my nanny, oh, I loved her. Her wisdom makes me sane.

The American South has many strands. This is in part my story. I am a white woman. I was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1942. This was about seventy  years after the American Civil War , and we were already involved in another terrible war. My Father had gone to war before my birth and would not return until my third birthday. I was to grow up in a South suspended somewhere between the Civil War, whose youngest soldiers still survived, William Faulkner, ‘Gone with the Wind’ and ‘Porgy and Bess’. In Faulkner’s, ‘As I Lay Dying’, there is a disorientation in time and place, replaced by an infinity of sensations. I too remember the sensations of the South: the debilitating heat; the scent of wysteria on the breeze; sweating soaking wet, the silence, the unremitting sun and ferocious thunder storms when I hid under the bed, and from somewhere, a sense of grief, for what?

Julius Howell was just such a soldier, born in 1846. He was one of sixteen children of a Baptist minister, and he joined General Lee’s forces at the age of 16. You can read his biography under the film. He speaks with a pure Virginia accent, which is not heard so often anymore. You will realize from these films that there are many Southern accents.

It was a place where I sat for hours one day watching a tortoise struggle to climb over a log. Why, I wondered, didn’t he just crawl ’round it? Maybe he wanted to sun on the top. I think these were before the days when Faulkner was characterised as Southern Gothic. I just thought from my experiences that it was all real. I think Faulkner is more real than people remember, although his writing is filled with Biblical symbolism. In fact, the Bible was as much a part of the white South as the Black , and everyday life and ordinary speech were filled with Biblical metaphors. The most uneducated men and women could quote chapter and verse.

There are the cadences of former slaves, still alive when I was a child. It will pay off to try to understand what  he is saying, but if you cannot comprehend, listen to the patterns of sound. There is something resigned and gentle about it. The other side of that gentleness, of course, is anger turned in on oneself and anger turned against one’s own people.

The first to speak is Isom Mosely :

Fountain Hughes is 101 years old at the time of this recording.

On November 16, 1864, General Sherman gave orders to burn all public buildings, machine shops, depots, and arsenals in Atlanta (depicted in ‘Gone with the Wind’). While setting out for Savannah that same day Sherman stated, “Behind us lay Atlanta smoldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in the air and hanging like a ball over the ruined city.” Charleston, South Carolina, survived the Civil War (although it was later struck by a devastating earthquake measuring 7.5 on the Richter Scale) and has left us a restored quaint and elegant architecture. It also has left us its remnants of slavery. During Christmas in 1957, I visited Charleston. The camelias were in bloom. Eight hundred miles  south of Richmond was all hanging Spanish moss . The first shots of the Civil War rang out from Charleston. During my days there, African-Americans came in on boats from Islands off the Charleston coast to sell vegetables from their market gardens. They sat on the street corners with their baskets, their heads bound turban-like in cloth, their dark skirts, white blouses tucked-in, trailing the ground. These Black women spoke their own language, Gullah. On the other hand, there was the Charleston ‘cosmopolitan’ Black community on promenade, Sundays after church, in their brightly coloured dresses; yellow, pink, red, carrying matching parasols to ward off the sun. This film clip has the sole purpose of showing some of the costumes I witnessed:

Daughters of the Dust

‘Porgy and Bess’:

Porgy and Bess is an opera, first performed in 1935, with music by George Gershwin, libretto by DuBose Heyward, and lyrics by Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward. It was based on DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy and subsequent play of the same title, which he co-wrote with his wife Dorothy Heyward. All three works deal with African-American life in the fictitious Catfish Row (based on the area of Cabbage Row) in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early 1920s.

[Kendra Hamilton is a poet, essayist, and scholar of the literature and culture of the South who returned to the academy after enjoying a decade-long career as an award-winning journalist. Kendra did her undergraduate work at Duke University, earned an M.F.A. from Louisiana State University and her Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. I would like to reproduce sections of her essay on Charleston]

“Yes, I grew up in Charleston, and the city is so changed from the crumbling ruin known to Dubose Heyward and the man who would come to be called Porgy that I doubt either would recognize it-or even, though for entirely different reasons, much like it. But this narrative does not begin in Charleston. It begins in New York City some 70-odd years ago, where a group of writers and intellectuals were flinging themselves like moths against the candle flame of something they were calling the “modern”-and seeking, even more assiduously, to give their experiments a name.

“Carl Van Vechten is the man at the center of one of those boiling cauldrons of experimentation. A novelist and essayist who took an early- and lonely-stand on behalf of integration in both the arts and in social life, Van Vechten has been hailed as a chief architect-and reviled as a cheap huckster-of the Harlem Renaissance […This movement was to span the 1920’s and the 1930’s]

“Fortunately for the Harlem Renaissance, African-American writers-creating from inside the culture-easily evaded the shoals upon which Van Vechten’s kind intentions had foundered. Those who explored “the primitive”–such as Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Jessie Fauset, and Zora Neale Hurston–did so with a generosity of vision undreamed of by the man who considered himself their champion. Such was not the case, however, with the white writers of the period–the Sherwood Andersons, Waldo Franks, Julia Peterkins, and Van Vechtens. Such was not even the case with a writer like Dubose Heyward, whose Porgy was read and admired at least by literary blacks. No less an advocate than Langston Hughes called Heyward one who saw, “with his white eyes, wonderful, poetic qualities in the inhabitants of Catfish Row that makes them come alive . . .”[4]

The Renaissance had long fizzled when Heyward died in 1940, and the nation was engrossed by the spectacle unfolding in Europe-the Nazi advance on Alsace-Lorraine, the fall of the Maginot line, Petain’s taking the helm in France. Still Heyward’s passing caused the news cycle to pause in its headlong rush for at least a beat. The Charleston papers ran the story next to the lead. Even the national press was lavish in its praise: “Once the Heywards were among the richest planters of South Carolina . . . It was good fortune for literature and for young Dubose Heyward that the family joined the ranks of the newly poor after the War Between the States,” said the New York Times, which also hailed him as the chronicler of the “strange, various, primitive and passionate world of the Negro”.

The Real Porgy, Samuel Smalls

[Kendra Hamilton continues:] “The narrative of the man insiders knew as Goat Cart Sam–not “Goat Sammy,” as Heyward and the Charleston papers called him–is in some ways a personal narrative. My grandmother, Anna Hamilton[9], knew him as a girl growing up on Charleston’s “neck”-the area north of downtown that joins the peninsula to the mainland. The Neck has always been short on white habitation-the city annexed it way back in 1849 because it was known to be a haunt of runaways[10]. But the measure wasn’t adequate. In Heyward’s time, the only whites on the Neck were a few farmers and those who ran and worked at the fertilizer mills whose choking fumes wreathed the city when the wind was from the north. After hours and outside of the plant environs, black Charlestonians went about their lives in neighborhoods like Silver Hill, where my father was born, Rosemont, and Accabee–in relative isolation from the city’s whites.

Such was most emphatically not the case in downtown Charleston. African-Americans lived cheek by jowl with whites all through the historic district-at long-gentrified addresses on Tradd, Water, Legare, Rutledge, and East Bay Streets. Sarah Dowling[11], now 86, grew up on Tradd Street among both black and white neighbors. She, too, is part of the personal narrative-her husband, the Rev. Johnnie Dowling, ran the Jenkins Orphanage for long years after the death of its founder, overseeing its removal from the heart of Charleston’s business district and taking the Jenkins Orphanage Band on a series of tours, to New York where they played in stage revivals of Porgy, and even to Europe. Mrs. Dowling knew my father, Lonnie Hamilton III as one of “Johnnie’s boys,” a fixture in the Jenkins Orphanage Band. And she knew both Samuel Smalls, called “Goat Cart Sam,” and Dorothy Heyward, whose visits to the Port City after her husband’s death were frequently punctuated by invitations that the Orphanage children come to her to sing spirituals and the songs from Porgy and Bess. The story Mrs. Dowling and my grandmother tell bears little resemblance to the one that Dubose Heyward was to tell:

“Oh, he was a mean man,” Mrs. Dowling said. “A drunk and whatnot . . . And that Bess business-it wasn’t no Bess. They just wrote it up as a story and put all this Sporting Life and stuff in it. Of course, there were people like that . . .”

“No, they wasn’t no Bess,” my grandmother agreed, “but he had plenty of girlfriend. He used to beat ’em, beat ’em with his little goat whip.

“Us children been scared of him, that Sam,” she continued. “They said he was a ‘bad’ man, and you know any time they call someone a bad man, you kinda look at ’em out your eye sideways.”

As my grandmother recalled it, Sam lived not downtown on Cabbage Row but in the “Green Tenement” near the Neck along Mount Pleasant Street. The place he spent most of his time, however, was the Long Alley, a road on the Neck with a post office and a much racier attraction.

“What did they call it? The Bull Pen! That’s right. The Bull Pen. That was the gambling place . . . Oh, Lawd, you’d see (Sam) just going along, just a-singing, a body in a cart with two wheels . . . I don’t know if he had no feet. He mighta had a knee. But he would spring out that wagon and spring in that door, and the goat would stay there all day. You could always tell when he was there-when that goat was out there in the Long Alley.”

Cabbage Row or Catfish Row

By the 1920’s, much of Church and East Bays Streets had degenerated into slums, and these buildings were crowded tenements with the residents selling produce on the street.  Samuel Smalls, a crippled (and foul-smelling)  fish vendor who drove a goat-drawn cart and had a propensity for settling arguments with a gun or a knife, was known to frequent “Cabbage Row”.  Just down the street lived DuBose Heyward, a scion of planter aristocracy (reduced to selling insurance) and an aspiring novelist.  The “Catfish Row” of his novel, ‘Porgy’, was drawn from this neighborhood.  When Heyward later collaborated on ‘ Porgy and Bess’, he rented for George Gershwin a house on Folly Beach from which the two ventured by boat to the isolated Sea Island religious services for inspiration: [taken from Alan Hartley, ‘The Charleston Walking Tour’]

A religious experience from the Gullah church, Sea Islands:

Gullah, which identifies a culture more specifically, but includes, too, a way of speaking, a song language, which one can occasionally still hear amongst islanders. Gullah is a blend of words with its own syntax and rhythm and includes much that serves again as metaphor. The culture is rooted in religious expression pulling creatively from many traditions, mixing the European and African influences together with the strong influence of local geography. Because slaves were not allowed to read by law (for fear of uprisings) rhetorical skills were developed and highly prized, and were a mark of the highly educated. The church became a mix of orally transmitted religious beliefs, prayer, music, song, dance, and storytelling, made into one cohesive whole. The slave culture, amazingly, managed to create fresh methods and means to make sense of their place in a new world. [Charlotte Hudson Wrenn]

Clapping rhythms:

The Opera, ‘Porgy and Bess’:


It ain’t necessarily so:

with Aretha Franklin:

Willard White sings ‘Bess you is my woman now’:

Finally, some songs from the old South sung by Paul Robeson:


‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child’

And now sung by a beautiful woman, Odetta:

‘Going Home’

Like the song says, I suppose this blog for me is going home, where all this is my mother.

[The London Coliseum will present ‘Porgy and Bess’, July 11-21, 2012, sung by The Cape Town Opera.]

By the 1920’s, much of Church and East Bays Streets had degenerated into slums, and these buildings were crowded tenements with the residents selling produce on the street.  Sammy Smalls, a crippled black fish vendor who drove a goat-drawn cart and had a propensity for settling arguments with a gun or a knife, was known to frequent “Cabbage Row”.  Just down the street lived DuBose Heyward, a scion of planter aristocracy (reduced to selling insurance) and an aspiring novelist.  The “Catfish Row” of his novel, Porgy, was patterned after this neighborhood, and his title character was a romanticized version of the foul-smelling fishmonger with the long criminal record.  Heyward later collaborated on the opera Porgy and Bess, renting for George Gershwin a house on Folly Beach from which the two ventured by boat to the isolated sea island religious services for inspiration.

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