Ann Caldwell is the transition between summer and fall: a sweet tea with a lemon punch or an apple cider with a bourbon twist. Her hugs are just as infectious as her laughter, yet her charisma and Wonder Woman attitude makes for an amazing woman.
As a gifted vocalist and storyteller, her role is significant in passing on Gullah traditions correctly; which are apart of the Lowcountry as the landscape, cuisine, and language.
Caldwell was born in Denmark, South Carolina but has resided in Charleston the majority of her life. “If there was ever a back road, this would be it," she recalls. “Everybody had two things: chickens and outhouses. When thunderstorms came around, mama made us sit still, and everything electrical was turned off. The older folk would say, “God is talking you better listen."
“I was raised in a culture when cooking was done on Saturday because everything closed on Sunday. So if you needed anything you had to get it by 8 o’clock on Saturday. King Street was desolate on Sunday; you could throw a rock and not hit anybody." Hard to imagine that now.
How do you feel about Charleston now?
“Folks here are friendly. We have conversations. I saw two women standing in a grocery store never moving from their spot, the whole time I was shopping. Never mind everything in the buggy that started cold now being warm. But this is what we do. I like Charleston; it’s my speed. A lot is already happening here. They are getting ready to open the International African American Museum. If you think traffic is crazy now, but I’d like to be near to be apart of that. African-American history and music are coming back. Charleston isn’t perfect, I don’t know a place that is, but I like it. Except for the cemetery, we know how much goes on there!"
Can you explain Gullah history for the unfamiliar?
“It stems from direct descendants of African slaves. They lived in small communities and rarely went out. Therefore the language, which is Gullah, an English based Creole language, was maintained. The culinary part of it is supported by what we had to use as food. Sometimes it was the stuff that plantation owners were about the throw away; pigtails, pig feet, chitlins, and livers, etc. Lately, there is a culinary resurgence because of chefs who came up in families where they know how to cook a certain way. Everything was “cooked to death" because that’s the only way they knew how to eat it."
“Most of these people are from The Islands (Wadamadlaw, James, Johns, and Edisto). Also, the Civil War played a role because slavery was becoming abolished in the South."
In addition to Gullah heritage, Caldwell also grew up in the Jim Crow area; a time when southern states enforced racial segregation.
“I use my stories to talk about my family coming to Charleston, to keep in context with life here in the Lowcountry. Yes, there was absolutely segregation. The doctor I went to had two offices: one for whites and one for blacks. Whenever I tell a story to a mixed audience, I can see the African-American part of the audience going “she’s right." It’s also about the history of the people who live here."
As a timid child, music became her outlet, back when “music was apart of the furniture." She would lay in front of the half table-sized record player and indulge in Motown, Classical, Jazz, and whatever else she could get her hands on.
“[Music] has taken me to places that I would have never gotten into, had I not been a singer. What I could not say, I could sing. I studied with June Bonner, who was formerly with the Metropolitan Opera. With Bonner, it wasn’t about singing because most of us were already performing. Her method was more about how to be a singer.
I lived through things that I had to sing my way through. I can perform in the heat of battle and forget about it. Of course, sometimes, the struggle comes back to mind again.
Unlike most storytellers, she accompanies acapella to educate the public on the significant impact of spirituals. Music is the bridge that brings many of us together, and she hopes to continue connecting people.
“Some people call it book-learning, but they were spirituals that our ancestors did. Some folks call it ‘slave music’ but they aren’t listening carefully. The beauty is that you can take from it what you so desire. It’s no different than a Jewish person telling their own story. I know what I’ve lived through so I can talk about that. Hopefully, it causes the conversation that I’m looking for; a time where we can sit down and talk even if it almost comes to fistfights. We need to get past that so I know you and you know me and why we are the way we are."
“During the Emmanuel Nine, many have asked: how can you as a race of people be so forgiving? The answer is we’ve had so much practice. I think Nelson Mandela said it best: to not forgive is like swallowing poison and waiting for the other guy to die. I want us to get to a place where we can call ourselves the human race. Yes, I am American of African descent, so please see black but, more importantly, see a human being."
Catch Ann Caldwell’s next performance here.
Photography by Yulian Martinez