You don’t have to be a history buff to get carried away by the Civil War songs strummed by Bart Saylor in downtown’s Circular Congregational Church. When he plays solo on the guitar, mandolin, banjo, mountain dulcimer, or harmonica, you may even imagine yourself listening to a contemporary bluegrass tune. But when he’s accompanied by singer William Schlitt, it’s hard not to feel the emotion in lyrics about soldiers pining for home and taking comfort in “goober peas.”
Saylor, an American folk music aficionado, has performed in most of the 40-plus Sound of Charleston concerts held since October 2010. Featuring a revolving lineup of top area musicians, the weekly events were conceived by retired Navy captain Bill Perry and former Charleston City councilwoman Yvonne Evans. They teamed up with Schlitt and his wife, Maida Libkin (who run music theater nonprofit The Company Company) for artistic direction on shows that “present authentic music of Charleston’s heritage,” says Perry.
A tourist attraction? Sure. But the high-caliber artists who take the stage are drawing more and more locals. Among the regular performers: jazz musicians Charlton Singleton, Lonnie Hamilton, and John Tecklenburg; gospel singers Ann Caldwell and Carl Bright; pianists Micah McLaurin, Ghadi Shayban, and Maida Libkin; and sopranos Suzanne Fleming-Atwood, Anna Booman, and D’Jaris Whipper-Lewis.
Based on availability, they perform in the 75-minute shows that begin with compositions featured in the St. Cecilia Society’s renowned concert series, then move on to Civil War songs, gospel spirituals, and music of George Gershwin. Schlitt acts as host between sets, telling the history behind the music with theatrical flair. At evening’s end, he explains that hymn-writer John Newton drew inspiration for “Amazing Grace” from sermons he witnessed at Circular Congregational. The artists gather to perform the song together, often bringing the audience to their feet—and to tears.
“Residents will know many of the musicians, but to see them in one production that runs the gamut of Charleston’s history is pretty incredible,” says Evans.
Why not treat yourself to the musical tour? You’ll go home with insight into the Holy City’s past, as well as into the artists defining her present and future.
Have a listen: This month’s Sound of Charleston concerts are slated for November 3, 11, 16, and 18 at 7 p.m. Check the online schedule for other upcoming shows. $28; $25 senior/student/military; $16 ages four-11. (843) 270-4903, soundofcharleston.com