Charleston’s First Orchestra: The St. Cecilia Society

Votaries of Apollo, by Nic Butler (USC Press, 2007)

Votaries of Apollo, by Nic Butler (USC Press, 2007)

November 2016 marked the 250th anniversary of the first concerts of the most significant musical organization in the early history of the United States—Charleston’s St. Cecilia Society.  In this episode, we’ll take quick tour of the society’s history, from its origins in 1766, through the Revolution and the War of 1812, to its final concerts in 1820. Along they way we’ll enjoy a few examples of the sort of music that filled this remarkable 54-year-long concert series.  If you’d like to learn more about this topic, come to the library and check out my book, Votaries of Apollo, published by USC Press in 2007.


Charleston’s First Orchestra: The St. Cecilia Society

Charleston Alphabet Soup

Rather than following one large topic from beginning to end, this episode offers a bowl of Charleston alphabet soup—an A-to-Z feast of 25 short biographies profiling (mostly) obscure Charlestonians, each of whom would make a great subject for your next historical novel, screenplay, or school report.  Bon appetit!

Charleston Alphabet Soup


  • A is for Antigua (the man)
  • B is for Broadhurst, Dorothea
  • C is for Cartwright, Hugh
  • D is for Daniels, Margaret
  • E is for Eldridge, Jane
  • F is for Fayolle, Peter
  • G is for Guillotin, Francois
  • H is for Haly, John
  • I is for Ioor, Claas
  • J is for nobody
  • K is for Kizzel, John
  • L is for Lombois, Jacques
  • M is for Moise, Penina
  • N is for Natchez
  • O is for O’Keefe, William
  • P is for Pennefather, John
  • Q is for Quash
  • R is for Reichart, Karl
  • S is for Shinner, Charles
  • T is for Trajetta, Philip
  • U is for Utting, Ashby
  • V is for Valk, Jacob
  • W is for Williman, Jacob
  • X is for Xavier, St. Francis
  • Y is for Yonge, Francis
  • Z is for Zierden, Martha

Lowcountry Hurricane History, Part 2

Here’s the conclusion of our overview of notable hurricanes in the history of Lowcountry South Carolina, from the dramatic storm of 1804 to the mild passing of Matthew of 2016.  Learning about these old tropical twisters will help you get in the grove for the next hurricane season, which is always just around the corner. . . .

Lowcountry Hurricane History, Part 2

Lowcountry Hurricane History, Part 1

Hurricanes are an inescapable part of living in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, and our community has weathered quite a few storms over the past three centuries.  Join me for a look back at the most memorable and significant hurricanes to hit the shores of Charleston, from the Spanish-thwarting storm of 1686 to the battery-breaking cyclone of 1804.

Lowcountry Hurricane History, Part 1

February 2017 Programs

time_machine_feb_2017This February, please join me in celebrating some amazing true stories from Charleston’s past.  In honor of Black History Month, I’ll turn the spotlight on several individuals who stood strong in the face of adversity and helped bring about positive changes.  I’m also partnering with the Daniel Island Library this month (even though they’re technically in Berkeley County), as part of their new local history series.  At the end of the month, we’ll resume our series on “Opera in Charleston” and look at late-nineteenth century production at the Academy of Music on King Street, and O’Neill’s Opera House on Meeting Street.  If you can’t join us in person, then stay tuned for upcoming radio and podcast versions of these programs in the coming months.

In my first program, we’ll trace the amazing journeys of Boston King and John Kizell, two African men who escaped slavery in eighteenth-century South Carolina and pioneered the trail for other ex-slaves to return to Africa. If you haven’t heard of these men, then come on over to Daniel Island for the inside scoop.

From Charleston Slavery to African Freedom: Two Amazing True Stories

Monday, February 6th at 1:30 p.m., Daniel Island Library, 2301 Daniel Island Dr., 29492

Next, I’ll be talking about some forgotten Civil Rights activity that took place in our community in the aftermath of the Civil War, when a few brave folks took deliberate steps to test new federal legislation that promised equal rights for all.  All are welcome, and we plan to have a crowd of 8th graders from Haut Gap Middle School present.

First Steps Towards Civil Rights Equality in Charleston, 1866-1870

Tuesday, February 14th at 10:15 a.m., Johns Island Regional Library, 3531 Maybank Hwy., 29455

And finally, I’ll return to my series on local opera history with a program looking at operatic performances in Charleston in the decades after the Civil War.  By then, opera was well established in the United States, but the rise of Vaudeville gave opera a healthy run for the money.

Opera in Charleston, Part 4: The Academy of Music

Tuesday, February 28th at 6 p.m., Main Library Auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401.


A Brief History of Benne in the Lowcountry

Benne (or sesame) seeds are a staple ingredient of many Lowcountry dishes and desserts, but when and from where did it come to Charleston?  In this episode, we’ll explore the earliest descriptions of benne cultivation and use here, and the colonial-era traditions we continue to enjoy today.  South Carolina was once mad about benne, but it wasn’t just the taste that made it so important to our economy.

A Brief History of Benne in the Lowcountry

Astute listeners might remember that I did a program about benne seeds back in April 2015, and I plan to publish this research in the near future.  It’s just a matter of finding a few extra hours in the day. . . .

Podcast Premiere: Invasion 1706!

I’m pleased to announce the publication of my first podcast: a digital audio version of my recent “Invasion of 1706” radio program.  You can listen to the program here on the Charleston Time Machine whenever you like, and soon you’ll be able to subscribe to my podcast feed through iTunes and other podcatching services.

Invasion 1706: South Carolina vs. France and Spain


Or, click here to listen: Invasion 1706: South Carolina vs. France and Spain

In the late summer of 1706, a combined force of French warships and Spanish soldiers sailed into Charleston harbor with the intention of destroying the town and driving the English out of Carolina. Over the course of an action-packed week, the South Carolina militia faced their foes on and land and at sea, and lost only one man in their heroic effort to repel their enemies. Few people remember this dramatic episode in our history, but it was an important victory that helped secure the future of this fledgling colony.

This first podcast, which was also my first WYLA radio program in early October 2016, is 49 minutes long, which is entirely too much!  It was a pilot episode, if you will, in which I learned a host of technical skills and worked far too long on the script.  Subsequent episodes will be about half that length because the Charleston Time Machine is a one-man operation.

Now that I’ve overcome the technical hurdles to launch this first podcast, additional episodes should follow on a weekly basis (more or less).  Thanks for listening!

January 2017 Programs

time_machine_jan_2017Happy New Year!  Podcast versions of my new radio programs will launch in just a few days, so look for details in an upcoming post.  In the meantime, I’m continuing to deliver programs in person around the community.  If you can’t make it to one of these events, have no fear!  A radio and podcast version will appear here in due time.  There’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes here at the Charleston Time Machine, so all of your patience and encouragement is greatly appreciated.  It’s going to be a great year for Charleston!

I’ll kick-off the month with an encore presentation of a program titled “The Grand Skedaddle: Refugee Conditions in Civil War South Carolina.”  This event is part of a monthly series at the John’s Island Regional Library, in conjunction with 8th grade students from Haut Gap Middle School, next door to the library.  Instead of focusing on the military and political aspects of the war, like most textbooks do, we’re going to look at the plight of the local civilian population—both free and enslaved—during the years 1862 through 1865, when nearby military actions forced thousands of people to flee from the coastline.  Join us at 10:15 a.m. on Tuesday, January 10th, and the second Tuesday of each month during the school year.

Next, I’m developing a new program in response to the popularity of the Broadway sensation, Hamilton.  As you might know, this hip-hop musical focuses on the life story of Alexander Hamilton, and includes Charleston native John Laurens, Hamilton’s closest friend, as a principal character.  Laurens dies near the end of Act I in the musical, but his story is nearly as fascinating as that of Hamilton.  In my new program, titled “Hamilton and John Laurens: A Closer Look,” I’ll talk a bit about Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton and about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical adaptation, and then I’ll focus on John Laurens and his remarkable aspirations during the American Revolution.  Laurens is best remembered for his unsuccessful efforts to create a “black regiment” of soldiers in South Carolina, and for his untimely, futile death in the autumn of 1782.  But there is another remarkable, secret side of Laurens’s career that historians have missed.  Join me on Thursday, January 12th at 6 p.m. to hear more about this mystery!

Finally, I’ll end the month with a bit of humor and spirits to lighten your winter-time blues.  In “The Language of Libations in Early Charleston,” we’ll review all the specialized vocabulary you’d need to time-travel back to a colonial-era tavern and order the proper beverage to warm your bones.  We’ll look at the forgotten varieties of beer, wine, cordials, and spirits that were available here in the early days of Charleston, and we’ll celebrate the timeless wit of Ben Franklin’s 1736 “Drinker’s Dictionary.”  Sorry—no strong beverages will be on tap, but good cheer will be free to all who join us at the Charleston County Public Library  at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, January 31st.

December 2016 Programs

time_machine_dec_2016In my final post for 2016, I’m happy to report that new features are just around the bend.  I’ll continue presenting new programs in person, and the weekly radio shows will continue, but in January I’m going to roll out podcast and audio or video versions of all programs.  My schedule is getting busier every day, so please pardon my brevity in getting this news out.

Since “cold” temperatures begin rolling into the Lowcountry in December, I’ve looking forward to resting in front of a warm fireplace, with the relaxing sounds of a pine log crackling away.  That image got me thinking about how our ancestors once relied on wood for heating, as well as cooking, washing, and a host of other tasks.  Once upon a time, a huge amount of labor and money went into the business of felling, sawing, splitting, and carting of wood (and coal).  It was part of the daily routine for everyone here, regardless of one’s social standing or income.  In the age of electricity and natural gas, we don’t give such business a second thought, but it once occupied  a huge amount of local resources.  With that in mind, I’d like to raise awareness of the firewood (and coal) industry in our community, so I’m constructing a program called “Friendly Fire: Fuel for Cooking and Heating in Early Charleston.”  If you’re not otherwise engaged on Tuesday, December 20th at 6 p.m., please join me at the Charleston County Public Library for a free history lesson.  I promise it’ll be warm inside.

The holiday season is upon us, so I’m excited to bring you two Christmas-themed radio shows this month.  On December 16th 2016 I’ll tell the swashbuckling tale of Spanish treasure brought into Charleston harbor on December 16th 1744 by the HMS Rose, a story that might work well as a movie someday. . . .  And on December 24th, I’ll introduce you to an 1852 novella by Charleston author William Gilmore Simms, titled A Golden Christmas: A Tale of Lowcountry Life.  Follow this link to find more information about the Charleston Time Machine.

As always, please keep an eye on my Calendar of Events for the upcoming schedule, and remember that you can always “follow” this blog (see upper right) and receive all the news via email.


November 2016 Programs

time_machine_nov_2016Apologies to all for recent schedule changes caused by the ripple effects of Hurricane Matthew last month.  I’m also cancelling this month’s encore performance of “Opera in Charleston, Part 2,” which I had scheduled for November 10th at 6 p.m.  The library will be closing early that day (in advance of the Veteran’s Day holiday), so the opera program cannot take place.  That’s my fault. Hopefully these schedule snafus will disappear soon and we can get back to enjoying an uninterrupted flow of events.  Thanks for your patience!

Back by popular demand, this month I’m repeating “The Forgotten Pleasure Gardens of Early Charleston” at the Hurd / St. Andrew’s Region Library off Sam Rittenburg Blvd., on Monday the 14th at 6 p.m.  If you’re interested in the early social life of our community, and have an interest in horticulture, this program is for you.  We’ll look at the summer “pleasure gardens” where folks strolled under the moonlight while enjoying their favorite beverages and listening to their favorite music, and we’ll look at how time and “progress” have rolled over these once-bucolic sites.

fort-moultrie-fort-sumter-national-monument-quarterOn Thursday the 17th I’ll be at the Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island to help celebrate the release of the newest U.S. quarter featuring an image of Fort Moultrie and Sergeant William Jasper. The unveiling ceremony starts at 10:30 a.m., and at 12 noon I’ll give a lecture titled “Sergeant William Jasper: An Enigmatic Hero” inside the fort’s visitor’s center at 1214 Middle Street.  Both of these events are free and open to the public.

This month marks the 250th anniversary of the first concerts of the first musical organization in America—Charleston’s St. Cecilia Society.  You may have heard of this ancient society before because they’re still around, to a degree, although it’s best known today as the most exclusive and secretive social club in town.  But few remember that back in 1766, the St. Cecilia Society began as a subscription concert organization, and it continued to present an annual series of fashionable concerts through the spring of 1820.  During that half-century of operation, the St. Cecilia Society of Charleston was the premier musical organization in America, and it drew musicians away from the northern cities of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.  Why did the St. Cecilia Society stop giving concerts in 1820, and why did Charleston cease to be the musical capital of the United States?  To learn the answer to these questions, you can either read a book I wrote about this topic, called Votaries of Apollo, or you can join me for a free lecture titled “The 250th Anniversary of Charleston’s First Orchestra,” here at the Main Library on Tuesday, November 29th at 6 p.m.

Don’t forget that the Charleston Time Machine is on the radio as well!  Join me for a weekly slice of local history on Saturday mornings at 11 a.m. on WYLA, 97.5 FM (rebroadcast at 11 a.m. on Sundays, too).  If you’re outside the range of our library’s new radio station, you can find the live feed by going to and searching for “WYLA live stream.”

Check out the Calendar of Events for information about upcoming radio topics.  I hope to have all the recent shows available as podcasts by next month—stay tuned for details!