Water rushes down the mill race and cascades over the giant wheel causing it to groan and lurch into a ponderous circular motion. This is the way each third Saturday of the month begins at Hagood Mill in Pickens County, South Carolina just south of scenic Highway 11. Each third Saturday, that is, except the third Saturday of September when the first sounds of the morning are the musical sounds of fiddles and banjos in preparation for Pickens County Heritage Day and Old-Time Fiddlin' Convention.
Hagood Mill is a fully restored 19th-century gristmill erected in 1826 by Benjamin Hagood, which has served the farmers of the county continuously except for periods of disrepair during the mid-20th century. It was repaired and restored last year and became the logical site for the county's heritage music festival that had moved from site to site for three years.
Pickens County lies at the foot of the Blue Ridge mountains and opens the mountains out onto the South Carolina Piedmont, an area rich in its own unique musical heritage. This region represents an area where the African-American music of the slaves from the plantations of coastal Charleston interfaced with that of the poor Scotch-Irish white tenant farmers of the area who were very independent in nature and largely disliked the affluent, elitist coastal plantation owners who summered in nearby Pendelton.
Pickens County Heritage Day and Old-Time Fiddlin' Convention is the only authentic turn-of-the-century-style fiddling competition in South Carolina. It features cash prizes for fiddling, old-time banjo, guitar, open category, and string-band competition. It also serves to showcase other musical traditions of the areaCthe remnants of black blues, shaped-note gospel, bluegrass, cotton mill work songs, and cotton mill brass bands in addition to the old-time fiddle and banjo music.
The music festival began in 1995 and through 1997 featured such performers as the Freight Hoppers, Charlie Acuff and the Lantana Drifters, Phil Jamison, and Phil Tanner and the "New Skillet Lickers." Since 1997 we have broadened the musical fare of the festival. Pickens County has a rich African-American heritage including an old section called "Little Liberia" where slaves in the county were granted their freedom along with certain land holdings. The county fairly resounds with black gospel music on Sundays, but this prolific music genre is largely limited to the many black churches in the area. At the 1997 festival we included a black a cappella gospel group, the Jackson Brothers, who have been singing in the county for 50 years. The experience was electrifying. They were an immediate hit.
This year's Heritage Day featured two upstate South Carolina winners of the prestigious Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award: Mr. J.D. Benson, a black 83-year-old harmonica player and gospel singer, and Nick Hallman, founder of the Nickpickers, a string band specializing in music from the mountains and Piedmont region of South Carolina.
Following the musical festivities and competition at the festival the day was topped off with a "ghost stories at the mill" session around a huge bonfire. Native American storyteller Nancy Basket told a Cherokee story, and African American storyteller Mrs. Eloise Earle told a scary Brer Rabbit story. Dean Watson closed the evening with a hair-raising story about the "witch cat" at the mill.
Next year's Heritage Day and Convention will be held again at historic Hagood Mill on the third Saturday in September, 1999. It will be expanded to showcase demonstrations of upstate mountain folklife and crafts.
Festival Director and Co-Director, Piedmont Harmony Project; 800-768-9876 ext. 65510; www.harmonyproject.com.