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Columbia history found in musical margins by author Ben Franklin V

Five among Columbians’ early musicians born here– and some of the inimitable sounds by which they are remembered – were introduced last week to guests at the Thomas Cooper Society’s Holiday Coffee by author Benjamin Franklin V during his featured address at the Ernest F. Hollings Rare Books and Special Collections Library.

While associating 19th and early-20th century music roots with Charleston and even the Upcountry may track easily, Franklin found in his extensive research that highly-influential musicians were born here in Columbia during that formative time period. By focusing specifically upon five, the author brought to light remnants of local history that may have been obscured prior to the recent University of South Carolina Press (USC Press) release of his An Encyclopedia of South Carolina Jazz and Blues Musicians.

Franklin’s extensive knowledge of jazz and blues was showcased from 1977-1992 as host of South Carolina Educational Radio’s Jazz in Retrospect. The prolific author’s earlier findings were published in USC Press’ Jazz and Blues Musicians of South Carolina.

At the holiday coffee, Franklin first introduced Thomas H. Pinckney (1863-1935) who shared with many contemporary Columbians the University of South Carolina commonality. Because Pinckney’s father was employed on the historic campus, the future musician spent his formative years there, and was schooled at the institution during Reconstruction. A surviving photographic portrait of the young man shows him in his band uniform. The brass band he led was viable from the 1890s through the 1920s.

Franklin reminded guests that artists, in numerous genres, have recorded “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” composed by Columbia native Billy Higgins (1888-1941) with Benton Overstreet. The vintage version played during the presentation by the Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English was by the Boswell Sisters; Ethel Waters’ 1921 recording is perhaps the most iconic.

The vaudeville skit performed by Columbian Zebedee Manigault (late 1880s – 1911) so personified the actor and singer that eventually the actor took the name of the character he developed, thus “becoming” Hezekiah Jenkins. From his skit, the most memorable song was “I’ve Got What It Takes,” which Bessie Smith recorded in 1929.

His name alone would make Hamtree Harrington (early 1890s – ca. 1954) memorable, but his talent made the instrumentalist part of Broadway’s first all-Black.

Columbia as well as the Jenkins Orphanage Band of Charleston was Emerson Harper, an instrumentalist who performed with LeRoy Smith around 1918 in the Detroit area. Langston Hughes dedicated his autobiography to Harper, signifying the bond between the two talents. A Harper composition, “I’m Marching Down Freedom Road,” was the final piece of music discussed and played during Franklin’s presentation; the rendition chosen was recorded by Josh White.

From his exhaustive research, Franklin revealed that influences for much of this early music had been gleaned from itinerant musicians passing through the Capital City, also a transportation hub. Vaudeville rolled out opportunities that propelled some Columbian musicians into the spotlight, regionally, even nationally. Some jargon associated with jazz, blues, and later rock and roll first was expressed in this antecedent music: Shake that thing, Shake a leg.

Franklin said piecing together elusive bits of these Columbians’ histories helped make sense of their contributions.

During a USC Press book signing that followed, recordings of compositions by South Carolinians provided background music. Rob Smith, building manager for the Hollings Rare Books and Special Collections, facilitated the media for both the recorded music and the vintage images employed in Franklin’s presentation.

 

Contributed by Rachel Haynie of Palmetto Artifacts

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