A Portrait of Columbia Through the Lens of Richard Samuel Roberts

Wherever your eyes drift while viewing the work of photographer Richard Samuel Roberts, they’ll always return to the faces. There’s a story to tell in each one, stories of dignity, determination, and strength of spirit.

  Roberts, a self-taught African-American photographer, is celebrated for the remarkable portraits he took of black Columbians between 1920 and 1936. In the introduction to “A True Likeness: The Black South of Richard Samuel Roberts,” Thomas Johnson notes that Robert’s photographs “of course portray black Carolinians in their role as ‘burden bearers.’ But here also is W.E.B. Du Bois’s ‘talented tenth’ in South Carolina -- the achievers, progressives, entrepreneurs who engaged in individual and communal programs of uplift and self-help, who were concerned not just with mere survival, but ‘making it’ and claiming their piece of the American pie.”

  Thanks to the work of a new membership affiliate at the Columbia Museum of Art, the

Friends of African American Art and Culture, 24 of Roberts’ images can now be seen in a new exhibit in Gallery 15, upstairs at the museum. The images were chosen by FAAAC board members, folks such as Waltene Whitmire, Javana Lovett, Preach Jacobs, Michaela Pilar Brown, and Kyle Coleman. Each board member was asked to write down their thoughts about the photograph, and these insights are displayed alongside the image.

  This is a must-see exhibit for everyone, but especially for Columbians who are not familiar with Roberts and his work. He deserves to be heralded as one of our city’s most historically significant artists, a man whose curiosity and dedication preserved a part of our culture that might otherwise have been lost.

  Roberts and his family moved to Columbia from Fernandina, Florida, in 1920. His wife, Wilhelmina Pearl Selena Williams, was a native of Columbia. Roberts took a job as custodian at the post office and worked weekdays from 4 a.m. to noon. He purchased a five-room house at 1717 Wayne Street for $3,000, and in 1922 he rented space for a photography studio upstairs at 1119 Washington St., a block off Main Street.

  “The fact that Roberts could purchase such a house is ample evidence that he and his family were members of a rising, relatively affluent, middle-class black community,” Johnson wrote.

  Over the years, Roberts took thousands of photographs of members of this community, so the 24 on display currently the Museum of Art only scratch the surface of this historical treasure trove. (A book could be written about the discovery and restoration of the 3,000 glass-plate negatives that were found in a crawl space at the family’s Wayne Street home a half-century after Roberts took the photographs.)

  The exhibition will be on view through April 29, 2012. But don’t wait to go see it, and don’t go just once. Check out the book “A True Likeness” for more of Roberts’ work, and I encourage everyone who has an appreciation for the artistic and cultural contributions of African-American artists to join the FAAAC. Affiliate president Brandolyn Thomas Pinkston says the group’s goal is to provide “a multitude of programs, lectures, and exhibits.”

  The Roberts exhibit is a fascinating and powerful start.

-- Mike Miller

 

Michael Miller is an associate editor of Jasper Magazine -- read more of his work in the last two issues of Jasper at www.jaspercolumbia.com.

On the Wings of a Snow White Dove ...

It was a Saturday night back in September at Bill’s Music Shop & Pickin’ Parlor, and the place had the feel of a great big family picnic. There were laughter and hugs. Small children scampered here and there. A long table was filled with covered-dish staples, and folks were unpacking guitars, banjos, and fiddles.

A hush fell over the crowd when someone said the guest of honor was on his way. Cameras were readied, kids were shushed, and when the doors to the Pickin’ Parlor swung open, in stepped Bill Wells, the man who has championed bluegrass music in South Carolina for the past 26 years."

That's how I began my column a few weeks ago for the new issue of Jasper, which will be released next week. I'd heard that Bill was suffering from stage-four melanoma and was in a bad way. I'd known Bill for more than 20 years, and a friendlier, more humble person you'd never meet. In a small way, I wanted to pay tribute to the man who raised awareness of bluegrass in the Midlands and gave pickers and grinners a place to call home on Meeting Street in West Columbia for more than two decades.

Bill died yesterday, and his passing has left a hole in the heart of the Columbia music community. Bill was steadfast in his devotion to the music he loved, and for him, pure acoustic bluegrass music was the highest art there is. I'm sure he's circling around a single microphone up in heaven right now with Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt, having a good ol' gospel sing. Rest in peace, old friend.

Bill Sings Life's Evening Sun here.

Someday We'll Meet Again Sweetheart

Listen to Bill sing more here.

 

 

-- Mike Miller is associate editor at Jasper --The Word on Columbia Arts

www.jaspercolumbia.com

(To read Mike's column on Bill, please pick up a copy of Jasper Vol. 1 No. 2 available throughout Columbia and the Midlands on Tuesday, November 15th, 2011.)

It Was 15 Years Ago Today ....

It didn’t matter if you were a fan of Willie, Hootie or Neil. What really mattered was that Farm Aid was coming to Columbia, and everyone was excited.

 

There was no denying, It was going to be a big deal. A large part of the pop-culture universe would shift its focus to South Carolina for a day, and that day was exactly 15 years ago, Oct. 12, 1996. It was a day I’ll always remember, because I’ve never felt so many good vibes in one place, with so many famous musicians just hanging out and enjoying each others company.

 

Farm Aid was founded in 1985 to raise public awareness about the plight of the American family farmer. Its masterminds were Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and John Conlee, and its mission was to provide assistance to families whose livelihood depended on agriculture.

 

Hootie and the Blowfish were at the top of the pop charts at the time, and the Columbia-based quartet played an energetic set at the 1985 Farm Aid in Lexington, Kentucky. Afterwards, they invited Willie to bring the show to Columbia in 1996. A quick check of the calendar to see when the Gamecocks were out of town, and voila! Farm Aid was booked for Williams-Brice Stadium on Oct. 12.

 

It was announced to the public in July of 1996 (Willie rolled into town in his tour bus and did a press conference at the stadium), and everyone immediately wanted to know who would play … in addition to Willie, Neil, and Mellencamp of course. When the line-up was announced, anticipation swelled. Country stars abounded. Tim McGraw, Ricky Van Shelton, Hal Ketchum, Gretchen Peters, and Martina McBride were coming, just to name a few. Pop-rock stars such as Jewel and Rusted Root were scheduled. I almost blew a gasket when I saw Steve Earle, Son Volt, Robert Earl Keen, and the Texas Tornados on the bill. I can now confess, 15 years later, to doing something a tad unethical for a newspaper reporter. I finagled an artist’s laminate, hung out all day backstage, and had the time of my life. Heck, I’m a music fan and this was a chance of a lifetime. Besides, I got some great stories by posing as a country-rocker, so I don’t feel too bad about it.

 

Tickets were a whopping $27, and gates opened at 10 a.m. The first act was scheduled to start around 11:30, so I took a seat on a folding table near the load-in gate just to see what I could see. I knew it was going to be a good day when I looked to my left and the first person to come walking by was Steve Earle.

 

“Hey, Steve,” I said.

 

He glanced at my laminate and took a seat next to me on the table. For about 10 minutes we talked about Farm Aid and Columbia, and I confessed I was a hometown boy. He laughed and asked me about a club he’d played with the Dukes years back that was under a big water tower.

 

“Oh, that must have been Sylvester’s,” I said.

 

So it was cool when I heard Earle mention from the stage a few hours later about how he’d played Columbia before at the old club formerly on Pickens Street.

 

And that was pretty much how my day went. I’d spot somebody and chat with them for a while. Robert Earl Keen. Jay Farrar of Son Volt. Marshall Chapman. I actually chased a couple folks down, because I just had to say hey. Freddy Fender for one, who was wearing the largest belt buckle known to man. And David Crosby for another, a surprise visitor who came to sing with Hootie (and Neil Young, too, as it turned out).

 

Speaking of Neil, he provided the strangest episode of the day. As it got close to time for his set, the stagehands constructed a private tunnel from his tour bus to the stage so he wouldn’t be distracted. It was a big disappointment for me, because Neil has always been one of my biggest heroes. But he didn’t disappoint when he took the stage that night with Crazy Horse and played one of the loudest hour-long sets I’d ever heard.

 

As I made my way to my car around midnight (the show was supposed to end at 11 p.m.), I was exhausted but exhilarated by the phenomenal music I’d heard. In fact, I was still hearing it, because Willie and Family were onstage, playing into the night.

 

It was a magical (and historical) day for Columbia, and I’m still thankful that I had the opportunity to take part in it all.

 

 

R.E.M. Found Early Support in Columbia

When the rock band R.E.M. announced they were breaking up a few weeks ago, I really didn’t pay much attention. To be honest R.E.M. dropped off my radar screen around 1994 when “Automatic for the People” was gradually losing steam and a new album called “Monster” had people scratching their heads. Not that I no longer considered R.E.M. an important American band, their new music was just missing the mark for me.

 

But the more I’ve thought about the band’s decision to “call it a day,” the more I’ve realized it was a pretty big deal. For many music fans in the early 1980s, myself included, R.E.M. served as a liaison between more familiar mainstream rock and the brashness of punk. With their atmospheric mystery and hypnotic rhythms, R.E.M. provided the musicality desired for those not attracted to punk’s minimalism, while at the same time being artsy and weird enough to give the status quo a healthy slap in the face.

 

But for folks in these parts, there’s a special reason for recognizing the legacy of R.E.M. Columbia served as one of the first and most supportive places for the band to play outside their hometown of Athens, Ga. Guitarist Peter Buck said as much while sitting backstage after a show in the Russell House Ballroom in 1984.

 

“A lot of people in town here go to Athens and Atlanta, so they’ve heard us and seen us,” Buck said. “And also, we’re one of the few bands from Georgia who play here fairly regularly. We’ve played here, counting the days of Von Henmon’s, probably seven times.”

 

Ah, Von Henmon’s. The legendary indie-rock club operated by Rick Henmon on Santee Street in Five Points hosted all sorts of punk and new-wave bands in the early 1980s.

 

“That was a really nice club,” Buck said. “We played there three or four times.” In fact, it was a coterie of local indie-rock fans who provided the impetus for R.E.M. to venture over to Columbia for a gig at Von Henmon’s.

 

“One weekend, a group of us went over to Athens to see XTC play a club there,” the late Eddie Blakely said in 1997. “The band who opened for XTC that night was called R.E.M. People in Athens knew about them, but we were out-of-towners and had certainly never heard of them before.

 

“They were quite remarkable in the energy and presence they had. I don’t remember the material they did, but I remember some of it was cover songs. Needless to say, they definitely left an impression on us all.”

 

Blakely, who would later become a promoter on the Columbia rock scene, returned to Columbia and sang the praises of R.E.M. to Henmon. The club owner said, OK, I’ll give them a date, and R.E.M. was booked for one of their first shows outside of Athens.

 

“They all piled in their ratty old van and drove over and played for the door,” Blakely said. “At least two or three times (when they came to Columbia), they didn’t make enough money to get a motel room, but people who came to the show were gracious enough to say, ‘Hey, if you guys don’t want to drive back tonight, you’re welcome to have an empty spot on the floor at my house.’”

 

“The first time they played only about 20 people showed up,” Henmon said. “I gave them a case of Heineken and they thought that was so cool.”

 

From the very beginning, R.E.M. --- Bill Berry, Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, and Peter Buck --- found close and loyal friends in Columbia. Over the years, they would play here nine or ten times, including a 1982 show at Strider’s on Huger Street that turned me into a raving R.E.M. fan for the next five years.

 

So as R.E.M. exits the stage, I’d like to say thanks for the great music and wonderful memories. And Columbia should take pride in the role it played in kickstarting this remarkable American rock ’n’ roll band.

 

-- Michael Miller

(Mike Miller is an associate editor of Jasper Magazine. For more of Mike, go to www.jaspercolumbia.com.)

In Praise of Small Rooms

As Bobby Houck, Hank Futch, and David Stewart of the Blue Dogs were getting settled onstage to begin their set last night in the White Mule, Houck leaned into the microphone and thanked everyone for coming out. Then he mentioned that it was the third time they’d played the cozy basement bar on Main Street and how much they enjoyed the room. “So let’s give a hand to the White Mule for hanging in there,” Houck said. “It’s not easy to do these days.” The crowd cheered, the Dogs kicked into their first song, and I basked in the intimacy of seeing some live music in the company of about 40 or 50 other people.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, especially after catching a couple shows at the new Conundrum Music Hall in West Columbia. Live music in a small room with just a few folks can be a wonderful thing. Being up-close-and-personal with the action is a big plus, and meeting the performers at the break and chatting with fellow concert-goers can make the whole thing feel like a family affair.

I’ve come to cherish these intimate musical encounters, and I’m beginning to think that these smaller rooms with smaller crowds is all Columbia needs to keep its music scene alive and well.

This way of thinking goes totally against the grain of what I’ve preached for years: That the big black eye on the Columbia arts community is the lack of a mid-sized music venue that can comfortably accommodate 500 to 1,000 people. For years I’ve whined about Greenville having The Handlebar and Charleston having The Music Farm, and Columbia having, well, nothing of comparable size and quality. Valiant efforts have been made (Senate Park, Headliners, etc.), but for whatever reason, these clubs failed.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not location, quality of the sound, or the space that eventually does these clubs in, it’s the local-music audience, or lack thereof. At a Neko Case show a few years ago at the Orange Peel in Asheville, I ran into at least a dozen folks from Columbia who had trekked north for the gig.

“Why can’t we get a show like this in Columbia?” one of them grumbled.

“Because if Neko played Columbia, there’d only be the 12 of us in the audience,” replied another.

An overstatement, surely, but not by much. Although there’s a solid core of knowledgeable and dedicated music fans in Columbia, on the whole, the audience is neither large nor curious.

And that’s what got me thinking that these smaller rooms are a perfect fit for now. White Mule, Conundrum, New Brookland Tavern, Utopia, Whig, Five Points Pub, and others are doing their best to bring good music to town and provide a stage for aspiring local artists. So we as music fans should attend as many shows as we can and PAY ATTENTION to what’s being played.

Who knows? We might develop a valid live-music culture here, and our lackadaisical audience might turn into one that’s larger and more loyal. Only then will the talent bookers who route tours for people like Neko Case start casting approving eyes towards Columbia, and only then might we need that 1,000-seat room.

- Mike Miller

 

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Meet Jasper associate editor, Mike Miller

(photo by Mark Green)

Mike Miller has been a surfer, janitor, tennis bum, shoe salesman, bellhop, and newspaper journalist. He writes short stories, poems, and songs, and he's penned a book about the local rock band Hootie & The Blowfish. He is the author of a collection of short stories titled, Lonesome Pines – Living and Dying in a Little Town, and almost eerily resembles Mickey Watson of the famed musical group The Cedar Creek Boys.

But that’s not surprising.

Mike knows his way around rock ‘n’ roll and the literature from which it sometimes emanates. He once bumped into John Prine in a bar in Galway, Ireland; ran into Tom Waits at the airport in San Diego; and asked Pat Conroy for writing tips one morning after breakfast at the old Martin's Restaurant on Devine Street.

Despite these close encounters, Mike says, “very little real talent has rubbed off.” Yet he continues to trudge along, stringing words together in various forms of prose, banging away at the same old guitar chords, and trying to make just a little sense of the wacky world around him.

Jasper is pleased to have Mike ply his trade for our little arts magazine. In addition to writing feature stories, copy editing, and tending to whatever tidbits of arts news that catch his eye, Mike will be crafting his own column in each issue of the magazine. We're all pretty excited about it.

Jasper likes Mike.

For more of Jasper Magazine -- The WORD on Columbia Arts, please visit us at

www.jaspercolumbia.com

 

David Yaghjian's Everyman Conjures a Connection

 

While gazing last night at repeated depictions of the central character in David Yaghjian’s wonderful new exhibit, “Everyman Turns Six,” I kept thinking that somehow I knew this bald, pot-bellied, middle-aged man who preferred being naked or wearing only his underwear. Everyman is a loose cannon, that’s for sure. He’s the scary neighbor who is sometimes funny, sometimes dangerous. The one you hear talking to himself while he’s unfolding cheap lawn furniture. Tom Waits’ “Buzz Fledderjohn.” Mike Cooley’s “Bob.” No, wait a second. I’ve got it: He’s Charles Bukowski.

 

Bukowski was the heavy-drinking, womanizing waster who scribbled poems between (and during) sessions in the seediest bars of Los Angeles. He lived in flophouses and flea-bit hotels. His best friends were winos and prostitutes. He was the Everyman of poets. Like Yaghjian’s creation, Bukowski could have easily fired up a leaf blower in the front yard while wearing nothing but his tighty-whiteys. I can hear him now, screaming a verse over the leaf blower to a passing girl on the sidewalk, “Your swagger breaks the Eiffel tower, turns the heads of old newsboys long ago gone sexually to pot; your caged malarky, your idiot’s dance, mugging it, delightful --- don’t ever wash stained underwear or chase your acts of love through neighborhood alleys!” (From “Plea to a Passing Maid,” 1969)

 

 

For years, academics have panned Bukowski’s work, but regular folks who like an occasional verse or two, have found his poems honest and refreshing, as well as disgusting and titillating. I’m no art critic, and my association of Bukowski with Everyman is certainly not derived from some deep understanding of Yaghjian’s thought-provoking paintings. The connection was simply triggered by physical similarity and a shared artistic weirdness I sensed from the paintings.

 

That’s one of the things great art can do: Dust out the back corners of your mind and help you make creative connections you might not have otherwise. “Everyman Turns Six” runs through Sept. 6 at 80808 Gallery in the Vista.

 

Here’s another (R-rated) Bukowski poem to be going on with, one called “Drunk, ol’ Bukowski, Drunk.”

 

I hold to the edge of the table with my belly dangling over my belt

and I glare at the lampshade the smoke clearing over North Hollywood

the boys put their muskets down lift high their fish-green beer

as I fall forward off the couch kiss rug hairs like cunt hairs

close as I’ve been in a

long time.

 

--Mike Miller

For more of Jasper Magazine, please visit our website at www.jaspercolumbia.com