WASHINGTON, DC — A Columbia musician was selected as one of nine people to receive the nation’s highest award in the folk and traditional arts.
The National Endowment for the Arts announced that longtime blues artist Drink Small — a Bishopville native and resident of Columbia — is a recipient of the 2015 National Heritage Fellowship, which is the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.
Each year the National Endowment for the Arts celebrates master folk and traditional artists that embody the strength of a constantly evolving artistic landscape and diversity of culture. The 2015 fellowship recipients represent a wide range of art genres and locations, and the fellowships include an award of $25,000. Each of the nine 2015 NEA National Heritage Fellows will be honored at awards ceremony and free concert in Washington, DC, on October 1-2.
Known as the “Blues Doctor,” Drink Small is an African-American singer, songwriter, and blues artist who — with his guitar, Geraldine — has entertained generations of blues fans for decades.
As a musician and teacher, Small has preserved the heritage of his community in South Carolina and has traveled around the country and abroad to share his unique blues styling and his deep bass voice.
Small, 82, was born in Bishopville, and taught himself to play guitar at around eight years old.
“I was raised up around grown people,” Small said. “My uncle who lived with us had an old pump organ and a guitar. He went into the army (for World War II) and left the guitar there. It had one string on it, and I learned to play on one string.”
Small said other people in his neighborhood played guitar, and he learned to play by accompanying people on the organ.
“When my uncle came out of the service in 1945, I was playing pretty good,” Small said. “He gave me a guitar. Then I had another uncle in Columbia who played, and he lent me his guitar.”
As a teenager, Small organized a gospel group called the Six Stars. He also sang in his high school glee club, a high school quartet, and at church. He also began performing with professional gospel group The Golden Five.
Small said his musical influences varied because of the variety of genres to which he listened through a battery-powered radio which picked up stations from Charlotte, Florence and surrounding areas. He mentioned listening to guitar stylings of Chet Atkins, John Lee Hooker and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup.
“When television came along, I’d look at Soul Train, and I used to listen to Lawrence Welk,” Small said. “I listened to everything.”
After high school, Small attended what was then called the Denmark Area Trade School, which later became Denmark Technical College.
“I was still playing with The Golden Five on the weekends when I came home from school in Denmark,” Small said. “Down there, I would play the house parties for the kids. I was doing two things at one time, you see.”
Small eventually began to play blues full time, and people had already heard of him because of his gospel performances.
“My name was out there before I got out,” he said.
When Small did begin traveling, he became known around the world. He played the World’s Fair three times, the New Orleans Jazz Festival four times and the Chicago Blues Festival. He has graced the stages of some of the most famous venues in the world, such as the Apollo Theater and the Howard Theatre.
Small mentioned that he enjoyed knowing American political consultant and musician Lee Atwater. Atwater — who grew up in South Carolina — was an adviser to U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and Chairman of the Republican National Committee. Small remembered spending time with the Atwater family at the New Orleans Jazz Festival.
“He was a cool dude, now,” Small said. “He played the guitar and sounded pretty good. He was one of the first people to bring blues to the White House.”
Last November, a book entitled “Drink Small: The Life & Music of South Carolina’s Blues Doctor” by Gail Wilson-Giarratano was released, detailing Small’s rise from the fields of Bishopville to becoming a music legend.
This September, another book entitled “South Carolina Blues” by Clair DeLune — professor of roots music history at the University of South Carolina and host of Blues Moon Radio on WUSC-FM — will be released by Arcadia Publishing. Delune said the book prominently features Small.
DeLune said she moved to Columbia from Washington, DC, 40 years ago, and she was into blues music at an early age. She said one of her first memories of seeing blues played live in Columbia was when she saw Drink Small perform at the former New South Music Hall.
“For the past 25 years, I’ve gotten to know Drink much better through his annual birthday appearances on Blues Moon Radio,” DeLune said. “For the past ten years, we’ve been very close and I’ve been honored to help him with the PR and business side of his music career, as well as be a part of a team of fans who have worked to get him the recognition he so richly deserves. During that period, he’s become like a second Dad to me and we talk almost every day, which I treasure. I’m honored to be his friend, and grateful to know he has so many devoted friends and fans.”
Small is featured weekly on Blues Moon Radio — the longest-running blues program in the region — which streams globally at www.wusc.sc.edu at 6 p.m. each Tuesday.
Fans of Drink Small will have the opportunity to see him perform live at USC’s FOLKFabulous festival at McKissick Museum — sponsored by the South Carolina Arts Commission — on Saturday, Aug. 22, at the historic Horseshoe on campus.
Small will perform alongside harmonica player Freddie Vanderford — a Buffalo native and winner of the 2010 Jean Laney Harris South Carolina Folk Heritage Award. Vanderford said he met Small in the early 1970s, and got to know him personally in the 1990s when his former band The Shades played in Columbia often, many times with Small. Vanderford said Small was unpredictable on stage.
“We might be up there playing regular blues — shuffles, stuff like that — and then he might turn around and call out ‘Ode to Billy Joe,’” Vanderford said, imitating Small’s heavy Lowcountry accent. “It surprised us, but we followed him.”
Vanderford said what impressed him most about Drink Small was his stage presence and ability to incorporate comedy, making everything rhyme.
“He makes me smile,” Vanderford said. “I like the stories he tells and the way he can ad lib with the audience. He’s really quick and can make anything rhyme. He’s just a great entertainer.”
Small explained that the art form to which Vanderford was referring is known as “Drinkism.”
Small said “Drinkism” is why he is in a category by himself. He elaborated.
“Basically, it’s how Drink thinks. Nobody thinks like Drink, so you don’t have Drinkism,” he said. “It sounds kind of strange, but I’m a strange kind of fellow.”
Small said there is a formula to “Drinkism.”
“The formula for the Drinkism is to take some of Drink’s knowledge and some of his wisdom, put in a little rhythm, and you’ve got Drinkism!”
Small also demonstrated what separated him from other blues men as he sang in a low, bass voice that boomed through the telephone.
“I get down in the valley like a Toronto bullfrog,” he said. “I got a big mouth like a big-mouth bass. I talk so much junk I could make a dog laugh.”
How long has he been able to rhyme and entertain those around him?
“All my life; if I live again, I’m going to do it twice,” he said. “If I take it to the third, you’ll still hear the same words. If I take it to the fourth, you’re going to hear some more.”
Small said he thinks in poetry every night and every morning.
“You can call me any time and get a rhyme,” he said. “You cannot beat me talking. You can go from South Carolina to Great Britain, you can’t find nobody who can beat Drink Small (BS)-ing. That should put a tag on the bag.”
Small said he never changes.
“I live the life I live nine days a week,” he said. “You know it’s seven, but I give them extra for their money.”
For more about Drink Small, visit his official Facebook fan page “Drink Small, the Blues Doctor.”
A national celebration
“The art forms represented in this year’s class of National Heritage Fellows are wide-ranging,” said NEA Chairman Jane Chu. “Not surprisingly, the artists have a common bond in their efforts to both share their art forms within their communities and across the nation, while also ensuring their art forms are passed along to the next generation through teaching and mentoring. I look forward to celebrating these talented artists, their commitment, and their artistry in Washington, DC, next fall.”
The other 2015 NEA National Heritage Fellowship recipients besides Drink Small are as follows:
• Rahim AlHaj (Albuquerque, N.M.) — oud player & composer
• Michael Alpert (New York, N.Y.) — Yiddish musician and tradition bearer
• Mary Lee Bendolph, Lucy Mingo, and Loretta Pettway (Boykin, Ala.) — quilters of Gee’s Bend
• Dolly Jacobs (Sarasota, Fla.) — circus aerialist
• Yary Livan (Lowell, Mass.) — Cambodian ceramicist
• Daniel Sheehy (Falls Church, Va.) — ethnomusicologist/folklorist
• Gertrude Yukie Tsutsumi (Honolulu, Hawaii) — Japanese classical dancer
• Sidonka Wadina (Lyons, Wis.) — Slovak straw artist/egg decorator
The 2015 National Heritage Fellows will be honored in Washington, DC, at an awards ceremony at the Library of Congress on Thursday, Oct. 1, and a free concert at 8 p.m. Friday, October 2, at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. Both events are free and open to the public. Concert tickets are first come, first served and will be available later this summer. The concert will also be webcast live at arts.gov. More information about these events will be available this fall.