Historian, folklorist, filmmaker, musicologist. Charles Joyner’s relationship to South Carolina began in the 1730s when his first ancestors came to the Horry County area. His own experiences growing up in the Grand Strand have informed his writings and scholarly work. As a teenager, Joyner worked summer jobs in Myrtle Beach and took note of the unique musical forms (beach music) and dance styles (the shag) of the area. Recalling a time when he was fourteen, Joyner said: “I stood by the jukebox at the Myrtle Beach Pavilion, patting my foot to the hypnotic beat, observing a provocative ballet of poise and sublimated passion called ‘the shag,’ with the darkening Atlantic in the background.” In his numerous publications, presentations, and films, Joyner has documented this fascination with local culture, southern identity, and regional history. “Miss Petey,” a Gullah woman and one of his first tutors of southern culture, taught Joyner to place the South, and particularly the lowcountry, within the histories of three continents: North America, Europe, and Africa. This broadening of the South into a global context has been at the heart of Joyner’s research: what he calls “asking large questions in small places.”
Joyner attended Myrtle Beach High School and earned his baccalaureate in history and English from Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina. After two years in the U.S. Army, Joyner continued his education at the University of South Carolina, where he earned his Ph.D. in history. Employing the skills of an historian, he wrote his first nonfiction pieces at USC about major figures in America at the beginning of the twentieth century. Rather than stay within the more rigid constraints of historical investigation, Joyner began exploring folk life in his beloved Grand Strand, employing a different set of skills and methods that involved fieldwork. Joyner supplemented his “academic income by performing concert-lectures of folk songs” that he had recorded from the Appalachians to the Carolina lowcountry, from the United States to Ireland and England—these recordings span over two decades, from 1989 to 2011. He continued building these skills and interests through his next Ph.D., at the University of Pennsylvania, where his doctoral specialization was folklore. In all of his scholarly products—publications, fieldwork, films, musical performances, and lectures—Joyner has continued to intertwine the skills of an historian with that of a folklorist.
Before joining the faculty at Coastal Carolina University, Joyner held a post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard University where he studied comparative slave societies, and later he returned as an associate of the Du Bois Center. Twice, he has been a Fulbright lecturer in New Zealand. In addition, he has lectured at numerous venues around the world including Australia, Europe, South America, and the Caribbean. Presbyterian College awarded Joyner an honorary doctor of humane letters, along with its highest alumni award, the “Gold P,” which recognized Joyner’s outstanding lifetime accomplishments. The South Carolina Humanities Council awarded Joyner the Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award, also recognizing his significant impact on the humanities in the state. He has been honored with the Ambassador of Peace Award given by the Ba’hai Center. In addition, in 2004, he was chosen for the roster of Distinguished Lecturers for the Organization of American Historians, and that same year, he was elected president of the Southern Historical Association. In 2012, he was inducted into the state’s literary hall of fame by the Board of Governors of the South Carolina Academy of Authors, an organization that recognizes the state’s distinguished writers. His latest accolade comes from CCU where he was awarded the first University Medallion, acknowledging his significant community and scholarly contributions.
Joyner has published numerous books, co-edited many more, frequently contributed chapters, and written articles for such scholarly journals as the Southern Quarterly, Callaloo, and the American Historical Review. Two of his works, Folks Songs of South Carolina (1971) and Ain’t You Got a Right to the Tree of Life? The People of John’s Island, South Carolina—their Faces, their Words, and their Songs (1994), provide documentation of a mostly forgotten folk history. Through photographs, oral histories, field recordings, and contextual essays, these works seek to illuminate an African American history in small places. His book Remember Me: Slave Life in Coastal Georgia (1989/2011) recounts in pithy detail and beautiful prose the history, music, and culture of the African Americans of St. Simons and Sapelo islands. In Shared Traditions: Southern History and Folk Culture (1999), Joyner investigates the diverse peoples and traditions that bring unity in diversity to southern cultures and South Carolina in particular.
His most important book, Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Com- munity, a seminal study of rice plantations along the Waccamaw River, was the 1985 winner of the National University Press Book Award for “the best book in the humanities published by a university press,” as well as the co-winner of the Chicago Folklore prize. Asking large questions in small places, specifically All Saints Parrish on the Waccamaw, Joyner describes slave life as if he had been a first-hand observer. He brilliantly combines the skills of the historian and folklorist as he describes the foodways of the slaves: “On the Waccamaw rice plantations slaves ate the grains, fruits, vegetables, and meats of the New World environment; but to those food- stuffs slave cooks applied an African culinary grammar—methods of cooking and spicing, remembered recipes, ancestral tastes.”
Joyner is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Southern History and Culture at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina. He was the first Burroughs Distinguished Chair in Southern History and Culture, as well as the director of the Waccamaw Center for Historical and Cultural Studies, two positions he held until his retirement in 2006. Chaz Joyner is a South Carolina treasure who has uncovered and documented our united realities and presented the historical facts with the skill of a master storyteller.
Joyner, Charles. Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984.
———. “A Region in Harmony: Southern Music and the Soundtrack of Freedom.” Presidential Address, Southern Historical Association, Nov. 2005, Atlanta, Georgia, reprinted in Journal of Southern History 72 (February 2006): 3–38.
———. Remember Me: Slave Life in Coastal Georgia. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989.
———. Shared Traditions: Southern History and Folk Culture. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999.